‘Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark’: Collector Sues Jeff Koons and Gagosian for Failure to Deliver Promised Sculptures

When it comes to Koons sculptures, the waiting is the hardest part.

Jeff Koons at the recent edition of Art Basel Hong Kong. Photo by Eileen Kinsella

In a bombshell lawsuit filed in New York today, a top collector has accused art star Jeff Koons and his dealer Gagosian Gallery of improper business practices. The asset management executive Steven Tananbaum claims that Koons and the gallery failed to deliver three monumental sculptures—even after he paid millions of dollars for them.

Tananbaum, who is also a trustee of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, claims in the dramatic, 53-page complaint that “the road to Jeff Koons’s success is littered with corruption and [his] international acclaim has a hidden, dark, and unctuous background.”

Koons’s work notoriously takes years (and lots of money) to fabricate. As a result, many of his sculptures are sold years before they are actually completed. But Tananbaum argues that this system—which has generated “hundreds of millions, possibly billions” worth of dollars in sales—is unethical.

In a line from the suit that cites Hamlet, the collector’s lawyer Aaron Richard Golub writes: “When the curtain is pulled back, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ cannot help but spring to mind from defendants’ naked, unadorned avarice and conspiratorial actions in connection with the sale of factory-manufactured industrial products called Jeff Koons sculptures.”

Lengthy Contracts

Tananbaum claims that three sculptures he bought were not delivered: Balloon Venus (Magenta), an oversize shiny riff on Venus of Willendorf, Diana, and Eros. In the lawsuit, Tananbaum criticizes the lengthy agreements drafted by Koons’s studio that lay out hefty deposits and regular payment schedules. The complex system puts collectors in “untenable and precarious positions,” he claims.

The process becomes even messier when the production of works is delayed and purchase agreements and payment schedules must be revised accordingly. The court papers go into considerable detail about the constant back-and-forth among Koons studio assistants, Gagosian representatives, and Tananbaum’s art advisor Sandy Heller. The collector claims that the studio sometimes sought to “blind” him with “faux science” to explain the delays.

The lawsuit reveals just how much of a long game the purchase of a Koons sculpture can be. Tananbaum first bought Balloon Venus in September 2013—four and a half years ago. At the time, it was expected to be complete in December 2015. To date, Tananbaum has paid Gagosian $6.4 million for the work: a deposit and the first three installments. After repeated delays, the sculpture is due to be complete in August 2019, according to the complaint—three and a half years after it was originally promised.

In fact, the acquisition of a Koons is such a drawn-out process that, under the terms of the agreement, Tananbaum has 30 days to review or cancel his purchase after the first edition of a given sculpture is complete. (Koons often creates multiple “unique” editions of his works in different colors; Tananbaum, for example, bought the third edition of Diana.)

Ultimately, however, the collector decided he did not want to wait to view the first Diana, which is now scheduled to be finished in October. He decided to cancel the purchase, for which he has already made payments totaling $4.5 million, after repeatedly requesting but not receiving “a single image” of the work in progress or a concrete date for its completion.

Prioritizing Other Clients

The complaint also alleges that Koons’s studio has “prioritized the design, manufacture, and delivery of other sculptures and works of art to other collectors and clients” over the works promised to Tananbaum.

Neither Koons’s studio nor Gagosian responded to a request for comment by press time.

Koons has been sued for the failure to deliver work before—a lawsuit brought by Old Master dealer Fabrizio Moretti in 2016 was settled out of court.

For some observers, the affair offers insight into the high-stakes workings of Koons’s studio but also reflects an age-old adage in art collecting: Buyer beware.

Art law expert Thomas C. Danziger, who is not involved in this case, told artnet News via email: “Commissioning a monumentally scaled work from renowned artist Jeff Koons can place a collector between a large rock-lobster and a hard place: suffer delays in the delivery date or consider backing out of the purchase.”

Danziger says that, generally, the wait for a Koons sculpture “though clearly frustrating for a collector, is well worth it, especially given Koons’s meticulous attention to the details of the production process, but I can understand the collector’s frustration here. That said, in my view bringing a lawsuit against an artist like Koons should only be used as a very last resort.”

Additional reporting by Caroline Goldstein

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