The 10 Biggest International Art Scandals of 2014

From Paul McCarthy's butt plug to a €500 million Ponzi scheme, it was a wild year.

View Slideshow
Nazi loot hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt.
Nazi loot hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt.
Photo: Melmedia.
Detail from Henri Matisse's Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in Armchair (1921), part of the Cornelius Gurlitt hoard. Lost Art Koordinierungsstelle.
Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901). One of the paintings found in Cornelius Gurlitt's possession. Photo: Christof Stache, courtesy Agence France-Presse/Public Prosecutor's Office Augsburg.
Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901). One of the paintings found in Cornelius Gurlitt's possession. Photo by Christof Stache, courtesy of the Public Prosecutor's Office Augsburg.
Doreta Peppas with a van Gogh painting recovered by her father during a Greek resistance raid of a Nazi train.
Doreta Peppas with a van Gogh painting recovered by her father during a Greek resistance raid of a Nazi train.
Paul McCarthy's Tree was not popular in Paris.
Photo: Twitter/@HauserWirth
Paul McCarthy's Tree (2014) being packed away on Saturday
Via: @FigaroVox on Twitter
The chocolate version of McCarthy's Santa with TreePhoto: Svetlana Bachevanova via Paris Photo
The chocolate version of McCarthy's Santa with Tree
Photo: Svetlana Bachevanova via Paris Photo
Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Vaults in South London. Photo by Sofie Knijff, courtesy of the Vaults.
Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Vaults in South London. Photo by Sofie Knijff, courtesy of the Vaults/Third World Bunfight.
Helge and Dorothee Achenbach.
Photo: Westdeutsche Zeitung
Deborah de Robertis performing Mirror of Origin (2014).
Photo: Video still via DailyMotion.
Gerard Lhéritier Photo
Via: Journées des lettres et manuscrits
The "k" carved by the Russian tourist in Rome's ColosseumPhoto via: ANSA
The "k" carved by the Russian tourist in Rome's Colosseum
Photo via: ANSA
The Riace Bronzes Photo: Itsa Llgreek via All Things Greek
The Riace Bronzes
Photo: Itsa Llgreek via All Things Greek
A nineteenth-century copy of the ancient Greek statue the Drunken Satyr has been the victim of a vicious selfie attack. Photo by Nicola Vaglia.
A nineteenth-century copy of the ancient Greek statue the Drunken Satyr has been the victim of a vicious selfie attack. Photo by Nicola Vaglia.

What stories had the art world most abuzz in 2014? We trolled through our archives to pick out the ten most controversial, scandalous, and downright ridiculous topics artnet News covered this year. Consider your holiday boredom solved.

The Gurlitt Saga
Okay, to be fair, Cornelius Gurlitt’s 1300-artwork-strong trove of Nazi loot is something of a scandal hangover from 2013. But, nonetheless, the collector, who died this past May at 81, dominated art headlines in 2014. Restitution cases were brought forward against several prominent works in the collection, including a Matisse once owned by art dealer Paul Rosenberg and Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach (1901). Another large stash of potentially looted art was found in Austria. And a Rodin and Degas were later discovered back in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment that started it all. Just last month, a modicum of closure to the story was achieved when the Kunstmuseum Bern accepted Gurlitt’s bequest of the entire collection, though, with numerous caveats and critics.

Nazi Loot
Gurlitt’s case had some significant knock-on effects. Perhaps more than ever in recent memory, the Nazi regime’s cultural crimes were at the forefront of discussion in 2014, leading to renewed efforts between Israel and Germany to return looted artworks. Thanks to the tireless work of lawyers like Christopher Marinello and Pierre Ciric numerous works of art came up for dispute or were returned to heirs of their Jewish former-owners: Norton Simon’s Nazi-Looted Adam and Eve, a Signac landscape, Edgar Degas’s Danseuses (1896), Francesco Guardi’s Palace Stairs, Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré, dans l’après-midi. Effet de pluie (1897), and John Constable’s Dedham from Langham (circa 1813) are but a few of them. Several institutions such as the American Association of Museums and Berlin’s Sammlung Berggruen found themselves in an uncomfortable spot as inquiries into museum oversight with regard to looted art ramped up. And, of course, we couldn’t forget the story of the Greek woman who has been financially ruined in her $150,000 quest to authenticate a set of paintings, purportedly by Van Gogh, which her father brought back from WWII.

ISIS Destruction and Looting of Antiquities
Sadly, the topic of cultural cleansing didn’t remain in past-tense discussion in 2014. The rise of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) has seen untold damage done to the Middle East’s cultural heritage sites. The group destroyed Jonah’s tomb, as well as the Armenian Genocide Memorial, the Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine in Tal Afar, and Mosul’s al-Qubba Husseiniya mosque, among others. But the destruction is, in some cases, not even their endgame. Numerous reports claim that they are funding much of their efforts by selling looted antiquities.

Paul McCarthy’s Paris Butt Plug
FIAC got some early press when an unidentified assailant ridiculed and punched American artist Paul McCarthy, who was installing his butt plug-shaped inflatable sculpture Tree (2014) in the Place Vendôme for the fair’s Hors les Murs program. Vandals then cut the cords holding the sculpture down, which forced it to be deflated and ultimately removed from the square. But, McCarthy isn’t one not to get the last laugh. He exacted some sweet revenge in his show at the Paris Mint just several nights later. And, following the controversy, butt plug sales are said to have soared in France.

Exhibit B Racism Controversy
Thousands signed a petition asking for the cancellation of Exhibit B (2014), which was initially shown at the Barbican in London. They accused the installation by South African playwright, artist, and curator Brett Bailey, which was touring from the Edinburgh festival, of being racist because it features, among other things, a black man in a cage and a woman with shackles around her neck. They won the fight and the piece was canceled. But, for our columnist JJ Charlesworth, “the controversy reveals, more than anything, how divisive and backward-looking the politics of identity have become today.” The piece continues to make headlines, with violent protests erupting in Paris over plans for another rendition at the end of November.

€23 Million Helge Achenbach Art Advisory Fraud
Taking a scroll of the German press in the second half of 2014, if it wasn’t a story about Gurlitt, there was definitely a story about Helge Achenbach. One of Germany’s most well respected art advisers, Achenbach was accused in June of having defrauded late German billionaire and Aldi supermarket heir Berthold Albrecht of an estimated €23 million. Achenbach’s wife spoke with artnet News, and protested her husband’s innocence. But in a strange turn of events just last week as the trial got under way, the art adviser admitted to some of his alleged misdeeds.

Bert Kreuk Sues Danh Vo for $1.2 Million
Collector Bert Kreuk sued artist and Hugo Boss Prize-winner Danh Vō in the Netherlands’ Rechtbank Rotterdam court for $1.2 million, an action which emerged in September. Kreuk claims that Vō failed to deliver an installation for “Transforming the Known,” an exhibition of his collection at The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum of The Hague) that closed in September of last year, an assertion that representatives for Vō have vehemently denied.

Artist Reenacts Origin of the World at the Musée d’Orsay
The Parisians got their fair share of the profane this year. As our Benjamin Sutton reported, on May 29 the Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis visited Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, sat down in front of Gustave Courbet’s infamous 1866 painting L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World), and recreated the iconic image in the flesh. In a video of the piece, titled Mirror of Origin, the artist can be seen dressed in a gold sequin dress, exposing her vagina while the museum’s security guards crowd around her and usher cheering visitors out of the gallery.

€500 Million Ponzi Scheme at Paris Museum
Paris’s Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits and its sister organization the Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits are at the center of a massive fraud investigation. France’s anti-fraud brigade raided the museum and the various branches of Aristophil, a company owned by the museum’s founder, Gérard Lhéritier, on November 18. The company is suspected by the tax authorities and Tracfin—a public body fighting money laundering and terrorism financing—of “deceptive marketing practices,” and “gang fraud.” The financial consequences for Lhéritier remain unclear but could be disastrous.

The cash-strapped nation of Italy had a particularly hard go of it in 2014. Especially with regard to protecting some of its most prized historic sites. Though Matteo Renzi’s government approved a €2 million emergency round of funding to help protect the ancient city of Pompeii, which has been crumbling for several years, pundits were quick to conclude that the money was too tied up in bureaucratic processes to be of much use. In the mean time, thieves stole a fresco of the goddess Artemis from the site. And, a pair of American tourists were nabbed as they tried to leave the country with an ancient artifact from Pompeii. Up in Rome, a 42-year-old tourist from Russia was given a hefty fine after making the questionable choice to carve his initials into the Coliseum. The government considered shipping the extremely fragile, 2500-year-old Riace Bronzes from their home in Calabria, over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north to Milan in hopes of juicing ticket sales for EXPO 2015. Needless to say, they later reconsidered. And of course, last but so far from least, a student, eager to become Instagram-famous broke off and shattered the leg of a statue at Milan’s Academy of Fine Arts of Brera while taking a selfie.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.
Subscribe or log in to read the rest of this content.

You are currently logged into this Artnet News Pro account on another device. Please log off from any other devices, and then reload this page continue. To find out if you are eligible for an Artnet News Pro group subscription, please contact [email protected]. Standard subscriptions can be purchased on the subscription page.

Log In