The Back Room: Things Fall Apart

This week: the twilight(?) of the art-fair industrial complex, inside MOCA’s executive drama, how to raise an artist from the dead, and more.

Installation view of Tau Lewis's Opus (The Ovule) (2020), presented by Night Gallery, at the 2021 Armory Show. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh. 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: the twilight(?) of the art-fair industrial complex, inside MOCA’s executive drama, how to raise an artist from the dead, and much more—all in an 8-minute read (2,387 words).


Top of the Market

A Big Reckoning for Big Art Fairs?

A visitor looks at an artwork by Anne Collier entitled Woman Crying (Comic) #7 at Art Basel on June 12, 2019. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images.)

A visitor looks at an artwork by Anne Collier entitled Woman Crying (Comic) #7 at Art Basel on June 12, 2019. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images.)

Is the ground getting shaky beneath maximalist international art fairs? The realities of the past few weeks invite that question.

You’re not alone if you noticed last week’s Armory Show was missing three of the four mega-galleries: GagosianHauser and Wirth, and Pace Gallery. Despite healthy sales and executive director Nicole Berry’s assertion that the Armory Show is “New York’s art fair,” by my count at least 20 other high-end New York dealers also skipped the event this year.

There are extenuating circumstances, of course, headlined by the topsy-turvy 2021 calendar.

  • Some big galleries wanted to premier long-gestating shows as quickly as possible.
  • Others might have felt forced to choose between the Armory and Art Basel, whose respective openings were only 11 days apart for what should be the only time ever.

But the tremors go beyond any one big expo: 

  • Art Basel resorted to unprecedented measures, headlined by a $1.6 million one-time solidarity fund, to keep multiple exhibitors from bailing on its Swiss flagship this month.
  • We learned last week that Frieze Masters and Frieze London could be subject to a “firebreak lockdown” if coronavirus case loads continue soaring.
  • The rumor mill was already churning about at least one major opt out from Art Basel Miami Beach before we learned the U.S. vaccination rate is now dead last among G7 nations.

I think the shakiness extends beyond the coronavirus, though—and a new framework for thinking through the Big Tech ecosystem may help us understand what’s happening.


The Platform Delusion

In his new book, The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in an Age of Tech Titans, Jonathan A. Knee contends that AmazonAppleFacebookGoogle, and Netflix are fundamentally misunderstood. Their status as “platforms” (asset-light, primarily digital companies reaching for massive scale) is normally seen as their greatest strength… but has quietly proven to be their greatest weakness.

The problem is the network effect, the principle that every new user added makes a company or service even better for its existing users. Why?

  • For a digital-first company, more users = more data, which can theoretically be mined for vastly more competitive advantages via artificial intelligence.

But in fact, Knee argues, the trade-off doesn’t work as advertised. Going digital-first…

  • Makes platforms more easily interchangeable with competitors: just compare typing another URL into a browser vs. driving 30 miles to another store.
  • Lowers competitors’ barriers to entry: digital infrastructure is cheaper than physical infrastructure, making it easier for rivals to enter and stay in the game.

The network effect is more a narrative than a strategy, then, and it has an analogue in the gallery business.


Art-Fair Folklore

For dealers, the rationale for continuously exhibiting at more and larger fairs always hinged on an alternative network effect—one based on locations rather than users.

  • More physical storefronts (even if temporary) = more client connections, which can theoretically lead to vastly more sales.

But in fact, many dealers have found, the trade-off doesn’t work as advertised. Instead, continuously committing to a full slate of fairs headlined by the very biggest…

  • Makes dealers more easily interchangeable with competitors: compare waltzing to the next booth vs. flying or driving between cities, countries, or continents to another gallery.
  • Lowers competitors’ barriers to entry: major art fairs balloon participating exhibitors’ overhead costs while scrappier competitors increasingly opt for cheaper, less traditional forms of client outreach, such as online initiatives and medium-term pop ups.

So despite how clunky and limited they often were, the adjustments forced by the pandemic have made the reasoning behind art-fair maximalism look more like art-fair folklore than ever. And actions may (finally) be following suit.


The Bottom Line

COVID alone did not wake dealers up to the risks of automatically gorging on fairs. Even some of the mightiest galleries have been paying lip service to reducing their annual expo commitments for years. Some had already started to match words with deeds, at least when it came to smaller regional fairs, before the social-distancing era. The system was probably one shock away from jolting this structural shift into motion no matter what that shock was.

But even if the pandemic turns out to be the industry’s final push into greater art-fair selectivity, we were past due—and a whole new set of hard questions about gallery sustainability awaits.


[Read More]


Paint Drippings

Here are 25 items that made a mark around the industry this week, including the palace intrigue at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles courtesy of the latest Wet Paint (and the column’s new long-term captain, Annie Armstrong!).


Art Fairs

  • At last week’s TEFAF OnlineAmsterdam’s Rijksprentenkabinet snapped up a Venetian School work from Nicolaas Teeuwisse OHG; the Clark Art Institute picked up an Italian scene by Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot from Gallery 19C; and Belgium’s Groeningemuseum acquired a 16th-century portrait attributed to Gillis Claeissens from Caretto & Occhinegro.

  • Armory Show prize roundup: the $20,000 Pommery Prize went to Jane Lombard Gallery for Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Room F, Section 1, Northwest Palace of Nimrud (2019); the Armory Presents Booth Prize (which covers all fair costs) went to Saradipour Art in Tehran for their presentation of Moslem Khezri’s We Keep Reviewing (2019–20).

  • Berlin-based emerging artist Sung Tieu won the Frieze Artist Award and will debut a major new commission during the London fair in October.

Auction Houses

  • Sotheby’s will hold a dedicated single-owner sale of 55 works from the collection of the late dealer Richard Feigen in New York on October 18. The available lots will stretch from the 14th to the 20th century.

  • Sotheby’s will also sell more than 1,000 lots from the estate of the late designer Karl Lagerfeld across eight auctions in Monaco and Paris this December, and in Cologne in the spring.

  • Christie’s tapped comms veteran Natasha Le Bel, formerly an executive vice president at Finn Partners, to be its new global head of communications.

  • Bonhams has promoted its director of Impressionist and modern art, Molly Ott Ambler, tohead its fine-art division in the U.S.



  • Gagosian has persuaded the Judd Foundation to award it sole representation of the Donald Judd estate, replacing David Zwirner, which had managed Judd’s commercial legacy for more than 10 years.
  • Gagosian is also expanding its gallery empire in Paris, opening a third space near the Louvre on the city’s “Museum Mile” at 9 rue Castiglione on October 19, during FIAC week.
  • Timothy Taylor is hunting for a new space in Chelsea matching the size of its 4,500-square-foot London headquarters.
  • Half Gallery bought the neighboring lot to its East Village location at 233 East 4th Street for conversion into a project space; it will open in October with a group drawings show followed by a solo of work by Taylor Simmons.
  • Pace Gallery hired Halie Klein, a corporate associate at law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher who advised the gallery on its joint consignment of the Donald Marron collection with Gagosian and Acquavella, as its general counsel.
  • Almine Rech now represents rising Ghanaian painter Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe. (He will also continue working with Roberts Projects in Los Angeles.)



  • Klaus Biesenbach is bolting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles  to become the new director of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and upcoming Museum of the 20th Century… and MOCA board member Julia Stoschek, who put him up for the job, may have been the only other museum leader who knew before the deal was done.
  • The news broke just days after MOCA named Johanna Burton as its executive director in a power-sharing arrangement with Klaus as creative director. Upon learning of Biesenbach’s move, the museum announced it would not hire a creative director to replace him after all, upending its leadership structure once again.
  • François Pinault appointed Emma Lavigne CEO of the Pinault Collection effective November 1Former collection head Jean-Jacques Aillagon will remain an advisor to Pinault.
  • French president Emmanuel Macron named Christophe Leribault as the next president of the Musée d’Orsay. He will take over from Laurence des Cars, who has left to head up the Louvre, on October 5.
  • Prospect New Orleans has pushed its fundraising gala back to 2022, and will stagger the triennial’s openings beginning October 23 due to damage caused by Hurricane Ida.
  • Iranian-German sculptor Nairy Baghramian won the $100,000 Nasher Prize and will present work at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas in 2022.
  • Buzzy L.A. nonprofit space JOAN is losing cofounder and executive director Summer Guthery to an unnamed NYC nonprofit. Assistant curator Hannah Spears will lead JOAN until a permanent replacement is hired.


NFTs and More

  • Russia’s State Hermitage Museum will debut a digital exhibition of around 50 NFT works, titled “Ethereal Aether,” on November 10.
  • The German artist Katharina Grosse is dropping a $999 NFT inspired by her Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition earlier this year on Saturday, September 18, available for 24 hours only on Johann König‘s Misa platform.

  • Institut, the art-world NFT platform by London gallery Unit,will open bidding for works by the 100 artists included in its first exhibition, curated by Kenny Schachter, on Monday, September 20 (on view IRL at Unitor in the metaverse on Arium).

  • Crypto fund Metapurse is selling $150 tickets to an immersive physical experience of Beeple’s $69 million Everydays: The First 5,000 Days work, called Dreamverse.
  • Popular crypto marketplace OpenSea admitted its head of product repeatedly exploited the system to buy NFTs before public drops. New policies will (allegedly) prevent future incidents of frontrunning.

[Read More]


Data Dip

Georges Mathieu’s Posthumous Power-up

© 2021 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics

© 2021 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics

Flamboyant French action painter Georges Mathieu’s lively practice, all-encompassing bravado, and royalist politics swung his work in and out of fashion between his emergence on the international art scene in the 1950s and his death in 2012. But a flurry of high-level activity in the private and public markets have pushed demand for his theatrical abstractions to new heights in recent years.

During his lifetime, Mathieu never saw annual auction sales of his work rise higher than the $9.3 million registered in 2008. In pandemic-hampered 2020, however, Mathieu lots capped a multiyear comeback by ringing up more than $9.5 million—a new apex that nevertheless looks toppable by the close of 2021.


What changed?

  • Major auction houses began seeding Mathieu works into their sales in Asia (where his style was linked to acclaimed Chinese-French star Zao Wou-ki).
  • Perrotin and Nahmad Contemporary (who jointly represent the estate) also solidified Mathieu’s private market around the world, including by championing his work at fairs and now opening a new two-venue retrospective at their New York galleries.

The results are undeniable:

  • To date, 20 Mathieu pieces have sold at auction for more than $500,000 each, and three of those pieces sold for more than $1 million each.
  • Most works in the Perrotin show are priced between $100,000 and $500,000, with four priced at over $1 million per. The centerpiece, The Victory of Denain, is asking $6 million—a show of force that no doubt has the artist thumping his chest in that great big art world in the sky.

[Read More]


“Will we ever see that toilet again? Personally, I wonder if it’s in the shape of a toilet to be perfectly honest.”

—Thames Valley police commissioner Matthew Barber resurfacing the theory that Maurizio Cattelan’s America, the $6 million, 18-karat-gold commode stolen from Blenheim Palace in 2019, had more illicit value melted down and sold as bullion than as artwork.


Express Checkout

The Gulbenkian Guide to Art Scams + Three More Market Morsels


Here’s everything you’re dying to know about how recently convicted fraudster Angela Gulbenkian managed to pocket $1.4 million for Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin, a sculpture that was never hers to sell. (Artnet News Pro)

The “saved you a click” version of her strategy:

  • Trade on a famous name: The former Angela Irschwang married the great nephew of oil financier and philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian, once the world’s richest man. She took the name and used it for all it was worth in global cultural circles.
  • Look the part: Gulbenkian splurged her ill-gotten gains on couture, a $25,000 Rolex, private-plane rentals, and her own art collection. Her schmoozing also allowed her to borrow jewels from designers who wanted their work shown off in elite company.
  • Leverage liaising: Gulbenkian allegedly played the middleman role whenever possible, repeatedly passing the buck to invented end clients and other associates (like a fictional family accountant) to buy time and shirk responsibility. And it all worked… until finally, it didn’t.


After more than 3.2 million tickets sold at up to $70 each, “Immersive Van Gogh” is now the most successful event on earth by Ticketmaster sales—confirming that either art can conquer pop culture in certain packaging, we are all doomed, or both. (Bloomberg)


For rearview-mirror guidance on the frenzy of Armory Week 2021, the Artnet News Pro gang rounded up six rising-star artists from NYC’s fall fairs. (Artnet News Pro)


Unpaid internships still proliferate across all sectors of the international art trade despite reform efforts and class action lawsuits. (The Art Newspaper)


Artwork of the Week

A Meissen Mantel Clock Case

A highly important documentary and dated Meissen mantel clock case. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

A highly important documentary and dated Meissen mantel clock case. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.


Date:                      1727

Seller:                    Heirs of Dr. Franz and Margarethe Oppenheimer

Estimate:               $200,000 to $400,000

Sale Price:             $1.6 million (with fees)

Sold at:                 Sotheby’s New York

Sale Date:             Tuesday, September 14


Based on the findings of the Restitution Commission of the Netherlands, the Rijskmuseum recently agreed to return 117 works of 18th century porcelain by the renowned European manufacturer Meissen to descendants of Dr. Franz and Margarethe Oppenheimer, who were forced to vacate the valuables while fleeing the Nazis in 1936. The heirs decided to sell the trove through Sotheby’s this week—and the strategy worked better than anyone expected, bringing $15 million against a presale high expectation of just $2 million.

What happened? Turns out the Rijksmuseum desperately wanted back what it had just restituted. The museum bought more than half the lots offered at the auction, partly thanks to a generous contribution from the Rembrandt Association.

Among the works completing this double Circle of Collecting Life was this mantel clock case, the sale’s top earner. Boasting a gilt-bronze mount (most likely of German origin from the mid-18th century) and a movement signed “Barrey à Paris” (dated circa 1700), the piece will return to Amsterdam’s best-known museum after quadrupling its high estimate. I don’t think the outcome qualifies as poetic justice for the heirs, exactly, but it’s a lot closer to that than the alternative—as well as a noteworthy lesson in the new economics of restitution.


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

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