The Back Room: A Tsunami of Lawsuits

A tidal wave of lawsuits crashes on the art world, international galleries set up shop in the U.S. to skip the art fair circus, and more.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura) (ca. 1830–32). Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Illustration by Artnet News.

Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: a tidal wave of lawsuits crashes on the banks of art world, international galleries set up shop in the U.S. to skip the art fair circus, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,616 words).


Top of the Market
Money Matters

John Baldessari, Money (with Space Between), (1991) courtesy Gemini G.E.L.© John Baldessari.

John Baldessari, Money (with Space Between) (1991) courtesy Gemini G.E.L.© John Baldessari.

Another week, another art world lawsuit. Or so it seems with allegations flying and high-profile verdicts coming down at last after years of litigation. Last week, as loyal Back Room readers may recall, we delved into the tumultuous waters surrounding the $86 million scheme orchestrated by convicted fraudster Inigo Philbrick, whose business partner Robert Newland was sentenced to 20 months in prison on September 20.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg—or what art advisor Todd Levin dubbed an unprecedented “tsunami of lawsuits.” Exhibit A: Eileen Kinsella’s breaking news about the battle between collectors Candace Barasch and Richard Grossman and their longtime adviser Lisa Schiff. Exhibit B: Artist Jeffrey Gibson’s suit against Kavi Gupta Gallery. Or Exhibit C: the Orlando Museum of Art going after its former director Aaron De Groft. (There are even more in this week’s Art Detective, exclusively for Pro subscribers.)

Why is the art world suddenly so interested in airing its dirty laundry? There’s a lot of money at stake, for one. And money became a lot more expensive since last year. Individuals, companies, and even the government are digging up unpaid invoices and rushing to collect.

Will this spate of suits spur the founding of a new legal field? As numerous attorneys have pointed out to us over the years, there technically is not really a body of “art law” against which to draw precedent. Sure, there are copyright and fair-use cases, but many of the increasingly high-stakes recent rulings have been forced to draw from case law or policy related to contract disputes, wire fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, or misappropriation of funds, to name a few.

Take for instance, the recent decision by a Florida judge over an artist who was sued after allegedly selling $50 million worth of NFTs by a production company that said the artist then reneged on profit sharing. Rather than what we braced for—some complicated discussion over blockchain, digital art, and cryptocurrency—the judge’s tartly rendered opinion in the case came down to one factor: the lack of a start date on the initial signed contract.


The Bottom Line 

  • The art world used to be a quaint industry, where deals were done with a handshake and conflicts were resolved quietly. Collectors could get blacklisted for getting the lawyers involved—or worse, lose access to the coveted paintings. Artists who sued for nonpayment risked their careers.
  • The proliferation of lawsuits doesn’t necessarily signify the proliferation of disputes, but rather a changing attitude: Once taboo, airing your grievances has become more socially acceptable.
  • “It’s not that there are more disputes or problems that didn’t exist before,” said attorney Judd Grossman, who represents Newland and Philbrick’s victims in one civil litigation. “It’s that people are more willing to do it publicly.”

Read More


Paint Drippings

Wet Paint is out of office, and will return next week.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

Art Fairs

  • Paris Internationale has announced the 65 exhibitors showing at its ninth edition, set to take place from October 18–22 in the city’s 9th arrondissement. Participants include veterans Chapter NY (New York), KOW (Berlin), and ROH (Jakarta) alongside newcomers Empty Gallery (Hong Kong)Gaga (Mexico City), and Piktogram (Warsaw)(Press release) 
  • London’s Lapada is returning to Berkeley Square on October 1 after a three-year hiatus. The not-for-profit organization partnered with Stable Events to relaunch the fair, which will also share the costs of the exhibitors’ tent with PAD Art + Design, which opens later in the month in the same venue.  (Financial Times)

Auctions

  • The 15 most expensive works sold around the world at auction in August 2023 include Indian artist Sayed Haider Raz’s 1989 work Gestation, which sold for $6.2 million, and Francis Newton Souza’s Hunger (ca. 1960s), which fetched $4.2 million. (Artnet News)
  • Christie’s 10th Shanghai Auction Anniversary Sale brought in CNY124 million ($17 million), while the auction house’s Hong Kong 20th/21st Century Art Sale brought in HK$87 million ($11.2 million). (Artnet News)
  • Sotheby’s has secured the estate of the late California philanthropist Chara Schreyer to feature at the forthcoming Contemporary Sales in October. The collection could fetch up to $70 million, with Frank Stella’s Honduras Lottery Co. (1962) leading the auction with an estimate of $10 million to $15 million. (ARTnews)

Galleries

  • In representation news, Perrotin now works with conceptual French-Swiss artist Julian CharrièreModern Art has welcomed British artist Michael SimpsonRachel Uffner Gallery added artists Sacha Ingber and Talia Levitt to the roster (Ingber will continue to be represented by Vitrine Gallery in the U.K. and Europe); Almine Rech now represents Chinese artist Ji Xin in France, Belgium, and the U.K.; Off Paradise took on sculptor Mitchell Charbonneau; painter Lyn Liu joined KasminGrimm Gallery picked up Netherlands-based artist Robert ZandvlietXavier Hufkens now represents Qiu XiaofeiMennour took on British artist Idris Khan; and Lisson Gallery welcomed sculptor Kelly Akashi. (Press releases)
  • Kyiv-based Voloshyn Gallery is opening an outpost in Miami, the first gallery location outside of Ukraine and the Warsaw-based gallery Wschód is opening a space in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan—both galleries citing the cost of participating in international art fairs as a reason to instead, open a full time location in the United States. (Artnet NewsArtnet News)
  • Tribeca-based gallery Queer Thoughts, founded in 2015 by artists Sam Lipp and Miguel Bendaña officially closed its doors, months after Wet Paint first reported the sad news. (Wet PaintARTnews)

Institutions & Biennials

  • Turin’s Castello di Rivoli has appointed Francesco Manacorda as its next leader, succeeding Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who will retire at the end of this year. Manacorda left his position at the prestigious V-A-C Foundation in Moscow abruptly after Russia invaded Ukraine last year. (Artnet News)
  • The eight remaining colleges that form the for-profit Art Institutes will shutter by the end of September, affecting around 1,700 students. (Artnet News)
  • Unionized workers at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles and those at the Art Institute of Chicago have ratified their first contracts. (The Hollywood ReporterARTnews)

Tech and Legal News

  • Digital artist Danny Casale aka Coolman Coffeedan won a multimillion dollar court case against the Florida-based company DigiArt, because a start date was omitted from the artist’s original contract. (Artnet News)
  • There’s a new AI generator in town, and it has access to the entirety of the licensed images in Getty Images library. The photo giant is partnering with software company Nvidia on Generative AI by Getty Images, which is trained on the comprehensive licensed image gallery, protecting users against copyright claims. (The Verge)
  • Speaking of… The U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) has deemed Jason Allen’s artwork Théâtre d’Opéra Spatial (2022) ineligible for copyright protection one year after the work won the top prize at the Colorado State Fair. (Artnet News)

“You have such limited momentum to do it all—to talk with clients and curators, to sell, and secure a potentially important institutional relationship—not to mention appreciate it all and also have fun. If you take that money and open a second location with a pre-prepareed plan, solid ideas, you can get yourself 365 days of possibility of making it all happen. Why not try?”

Piotr Drewko, the owner of Warsaw-based gallery Wschód, on exactly why opening an outpost in New York may be a better deal that going to art fairs.


Work of the Week
Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition (1919-20). Courtesy of Artnet Price Database.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition (1919-20). Courtesy of Artnet Price Database.

Date: 1919-1920

Seller: MOMA via Phillips

Estimate: $15 million to $20 million

Sold for: $17,052,500

Sale date: May 11, 2000

It only recently came to light due to a massive document leak of Cyprus-based MeritServus HC Limited, a corporate services provider, that this jewel of Russian avant-garde painting is one of several pricey trophy artworks currently in the hands of sanctioned Russian billionaire art collector, and former owner of Chelsea Football Club, Roman Abramovich.  

The painting was auctioned by Phillips New York in 2000 for just over $17 million. The city’s Museum of Modern Art put it up for sale after rounds of legal sparring with Malevich’s heirs, who were seeking the return of his canvas.

According to a report in the Guardian, one of several organizations granted access to the leaked documents, more recent movements of the Malevich were revealed in invoices for transportation to and from London warehouses, including specialty handler Martinspeed, which was acquired by Crozier Fine Arts in 2021.

The Guardian estimates that by 2013 the painting was in Abramovich’s collection, which he amassed with his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova, who founded Russia’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008.

The buyer at Phillips in 2000 is unknown and the price paid by Abramovich before or in 2013 is also not known. But it’s a safe bet the painting would fetch many multiples of the 2000 auction price were it to come to the market today, more than 20 years later. According to the Artnet Price Database, the top two prices for the artist’s work are $85.8 million and $60 million—for the same work, a 1916 canvas also titled Suprematist Composition, which was sold twice at auction, exactly one decade apart, first at Sotheby’s New York in 2008, and then again at Christie’s New York, in 2018, the latter sale of which brought the top $85.8 million that remains the current record for the artist.

According to the PDB the Malevich that Abramovich holds is still the sixth most expensive painting by the artist sold at auction, while ten Malevich works have sold for over $1 million each at auction.

—Eileen Kinsella  


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.


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