Saturday, September 21, 2013

"But for the Register, despite its official-sounding name and pivotal role as a monitor, profits have not come easily, and the company’s future looks increasingly cloudy" (UPDATED 2X)

The New York Times takes a look at the Art Loss Register.

UPDATE:  Tom Flynn comes out of retirement to offer some (pointed) comments. Dorothy King describes her own experience with ALR here (and be sure to scroll down for the comment in response from Larry Rothfield).

UPDATE 2;  Noah Charney:  "The article was interesting and made clear why so many people within the world of art investigation, policing, and security find the ALR to be problematic."

Monday, September 16, 2013

BREAKING: Rosales Pleads Guilty (UPDATED)

Gallerist has the story.

UPDATE:  Lots more coverage.  New York Times here.  Wall Street Journal here.  Art Newspaper here.  And, on Twitter, Georgina Adam ("Oh boy, this is really going to shake everything up") and Lee Rosenbaum ("Who will Rosales implicate? She's agreed to 'cooperate fully' with enforcers for a possibly lighter sentence").  Lee also has more at her blog.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ann Freedman Goes on Offense (UPDATED)

She's filed a defamation suit against dealer Marco Grassi.  He was quoted in the recent New York Magazine article about her as saying:  ""A gallery person has an absolute responsibility to do due diligence, and I don't think she did it. The story of the paintings is so totally kooky. I mean, really. It was a great story and she just said, 'this is great.'"

UPDATE:  The Art Market Monitor posts the complaint.

"The Louvre Is Allegedly a Hotbed of Crime"

Including roving bands of aggressive pickpockets.

Roberta Smith weighs in on Detroit (UPDATED)

She calls a possible sale "deeply alarming" and "cluelessly self-destructive."  The arguments will be familiar to anyone who's been following the discussion, but apparently some people really wanted to hear them made by someone at the Times.

A few reactions:

1.  She says selling "some of the art" would be "a betrayal of public trust and donors’ bequests."  As we saw yesterday, the donor bequests issue is complicated here.

2.  She also says it would be "a violation of the museum’s nonprofit status."  I don't know where she gets that; I don't think it's a violation of "nonprofit status" to sell some assets.

3.   She says the possible sale raises the question "who owns the art housed in public nonprofit institutions" and that "those who answer that it is held 'in public trust' are not just mouthing idealistic catchwords."  She doesn't say what else they are doing, but I have my usual question:  who owns the Hopper painting that the Pennsylvania Academy has decided to sell?  Is that work not held "in public trust" and if not, why not?

4.  She quotes Graham Beal's statement that "selling any art would be tantamount to closing the museum" and then says:  "This was not hyperbole. As nonprofits, museums can sell art only to buy other, supposedly better art. If Detroit’s art were sold to repay the city’s debts, it would violate the city’s own 1919 agreement with the institute. It would also automatically rescind the year-old tax vote by the three counties."  I'm not sure any of those leads to the conclusion that selling "any art" (don't they have a Hopper lying around somewhere?) is tantamount to closing the museum, but let's take a closer look one by one.

In the first sentence, the conclusion -- "museums can sell art only to buy other, supposedly better art" -- doesn't follow from the lead-in ("as nonprofits").  It is not a feature of all "nonprofits" that they can sell art only to buy other art.  I guess you could say "As a member of the AAMD, the museum can only ..." but then you'd be appealing to the ethics rules of a private organization; you're not saying something about the essential nature of "nonprofits."  And in any event, it isn't clear how the violation of that rule -- in this extreme circumstance -- would be tantamount to closing the museum.  The museum would still be there, with one, or two (or however many) fewer works.

I'm not familiar with the terms of the 1919 agreement between the city and "the institute," but, again, I don't see why a breach of that agreement (for example by selling one Van Gogh) would be tantamount to closing the museum.  It may be wrong, it may be a breach of contract, it may be repulsive.  But why is it tantamount to closing the museum?

And last, this may be splitting hairs a little, but to say a sale would "automatically" rescind the recent millage sounds, to me, like, by its terms, it does not apply in the event of a sale.  But in fact, what I believe has happened is that the surrounding counties have threatened to cut it off if any sales happen (though correct me if I'm wrong about that).  That's like me announcing that, if PAFA sells the Hopper, I will blow up the museum, and then saying "we can't sell the Hopper; it would be tantamount to destroying the museum."  The millage is not being "automatically" cut off as a result of the potential sales; instead a decision has been made by certain political actors to cut off funding if they don't like the outcome of the bankruptcy process.  And, in any event, even the loss of the millage wouldn't necessarily be tantamount to closing the museum.  During the campaign for its passage, the museum said, if the millage didn't happen, "there would be a severe reduction of museum services and programs," including, perhaps, "opening selected galleries only on weekends, elimination of school tours, public programs and community outreach."  They did not suggest it would be tantamount to closing.

UPDATE:  Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento has some thoughts.

And speaking of Mark Stryker's exhaustive history of the DIA

(Last one for tonight, I promise.)  I wanted to break out in a separate post his (excellent) summary of where things stand at the moment:

"The complexity of the situation defies reductive analysis. ... Neither the federal judge in the case nor creditors can force the sale of any asset. However, creditors are pushing for sales to increase the amount of money they'll get beyond the 10 to 20 cents on the dollar Orr is currently offering. In the end, Orr could decide he needs to sell art to get a deal. And if the judge believes the city hasn't done enough to monetize its assets, he can deny Orr's reorganization plan and pressure him to find more cash, which could force a sale.

"The DIA's legal protections also remain unclear. Michigan's attorney general has issued a formal opinion that says a forced sale of DIA art would be illegal because the museum holds the works in the public trust. However, many experts say such reasoning may not hold up in federal bankruptcy court. The DIA has lawyered up, and behind the scenes is preparing for a potential legal fight that could take months or years to resolve. ...

"Some who favor selling argue that it's morally unconscionable to protect the art while city workers may have their pension cuts and city services, including fundamental police and fire protection, remain hamstrung by lack of resources. But those who oppose a sale argue that money would mostly go to Wall Street, that ... destroying one of the city's greatest cultural institutions would leave Detroit weaker, not stronger, post-bankruptcy."

One question:  do you get the sense that the Deaccession Police -- the Day for Detroit crowd -- agree that "the complexity of the situation defies reductive analysis"?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Speaking of clever ...

James Cuno has an op-ed in The Art Newspaper under the headline "The Immorality of using Detroit's art to bail out bankrupt city," but he doesn't really get around to the immorality argument until the last two paragraphs.

When he finally does, he makes an argument not unlike the one I discussed in the post below.  There, the Detroit Institute is trying to create donor intent going forward.  Cuno tries to read in implied donor intent with respect to the past:

"[The city] accepted gifts of works of art from donors who believed that they were going to serve a lasting, public purpose, and it bought others with funds provided by donors who thought similarly. Some no doubt believed that the works of art with which they were identified would forever remain in the museum’s collection. Others presumed that if they were sold, the resulting funds would be limited, as museum professional guidelines stipulate, to the purchase of other works of art. Others may have imagined that the funds could be used to support conservation and education. In any case, they all must have thought that their gifts were going to be used to enhance public access to works of art."

I see a number of problems with this argument, including the following.

First, it assumes every violation of donor intent is "immoral."  But even if you buy his story about what the donors "must have" thought, not every departure from donor intent is necessarily immoral; that has to be argued for, not assumed.  (For example.)

Second, to the extent donors believed their gifts "were going to serve a lasting, public purpose," well, helping to pay retiree pensions, or to save Detroit from total collapse, are lasting public purposes as well.

Third, I could be wrong about this, but, based on the exhaustive history of the DIA just published by the Detroit Free Press's Mark Styker, I think it's factually incorrect.  According to Stryker, the museum "became a city department" in 1919 and began to "dr[a]w operating funds from the same pool of money that supported parks, police and other services."  "Flush with city cash, the DIA embarked on a buying spree between 1922 and 1930 that landed some its greatest treasures" -- Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Bruegel, Matisse, Bellini, Van Eyck, etc.  If this is right, then, with respect to these works at least, THERE ARE NO 'DONORS' TO SPEAK OF IN THE RELEVANT SENSE.  Cuno's (clever) "implied donor intent" theory never even gets off the ground.

Manufactured Intent

This is interesting.

The Detroit Institute is going to insert into its deed of gift form "a line stating that from any sale of the work, the proceeds can only be used to buy more art."

So what they're doing is creating the "donor intent" that they will then turn around and rely on to limit sales.  It's clever, but that's a funny conception of donor intent.  Isn't it more an expression of donee intent?

And I have another question.  One of the main arguments we hear against deaccessioning is that it discourages future donations.  We've seen it a million times.  Why wouldn't somebody say, Why should I give this to you? What guarantee do I have that you're not going to sell this tomorrow?

But now we see Detroit going ahead and forcing donors not only to confront the fact that their work might be sold -- that there is in fact no guarantee that it won't be sold tomorrow -- but to actually sign off on it.

It's almost as if museums don't really believe that donors are put off by the possibility of future sales.

"'Central Victim,' hmmmm.”

Via Art F City, some thoughts from Josh Baer on Ann Freedman's NY Mag interview:

"Now that it appears that the defense that the works were not fakes seems to be have evaporated – will Freedman and Knoedler offer $$$ (tens of millions) back as refunds to the 'lesser' victims??? What about the red flags of raising prices 6-700%?? What about their assertions to buyers about some experts who never saw works (although many did) and cataloging that would never happen?"

"Two more guilty pleas in case involving Helly Nahmad"

The Art Newspaper's Laura Gilbert has the details.  Some background here.

"Christo is one step closer to realizing his dream of coating parts of the Arkansas River with shimmering cloth panels"

The Wall Street Journal: Colo. Judge Refuses to Block Christo’s ‘Over the River’ Project.

By the way: the Royal Geographic Society is repulsive

It's selling paintings to plug a pension deficit.

Serious question:  what kind of belief is the belief that deaccessioning (other than to buy more art) is wrong?  If you follow the debates at all, it certainly feels like a moral judgment:  it's repulsive, Stalinesque, beyond the pale.  So why don't we see the same sort of outrage from the usual suspects when, say, a U.K. museum sells work to plug a pension deficit?  If it's morally repulsive, it's morally repulsive, no matter where it happens.  Right?

So complicated, the Deaccession Police Handbook.

Where were we?

A point I wanted to make before the holiday (and other impediments to blogging):  I don't know if it comes through on the blog, but I'm not the world's biggest fan of the AAMD approach to deaccessioning.  Yes, it's true.  But, putting two recent posts together gives, I think, a reasonable outline of an alternative approach:

1.  Judge each case on its merits.

2.  Trust the intelligence and professionalism of museum professionals and the seriousness of responsible boards of trustees.

There.  Is that so hard?

Monday, September 02, 2013


Lee Rosenbaum continues to be outraged by the AAMD's lack of outrage at the Pennsylvania Academy's Hopper sale.  She's figured out that the "AAMD will censure deaccessions only when sale proceeds are not used exclusively for acquisitions. Any other deviations from responsible stewardship, no matter how egregious, get a pass."

But what she doesn't see is that the AAMD has no criteria by which to judge a sale a "deviation from responsible stewardship" other than by reference to how the proceeds will be used.  That is, as far as the AAMD is concerned, if the proceeds are "used exclusively for acquisitions," then -- by definition -- it's an example of responsible stewardship.  If the proceeds are used for anything else, then -- again by definition -- it's always a deviation from responsible stewardship (and always an "egregious" one at that).

If you like those "ethics," you can have them.  I'll pass.