The Gray Market
What Galleries Can Learn About Poaching Artists From Soccer Star Neymar’s Transfer Deal Gone Wrong
Our columnist kicks up art-market lessons from the curious case of soccer superstar Neymar's fraud and corruption trial.
Every Wednesday morning, Artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.
This week, extending the game…
Since I create a lot of art-industry thought experiments out of other industries’ progressive strategies, I also feel a responsibility to update any of the former whenever facts change about the latter. In this spirit, the ongoing (as of publication time) trial of global soccer sensation Neymar demands that I return to what FIFA’s player-transfer system might be able to teach galleries and artists about how to work cooperatively in the era of poaching.
The good news from the Neymar case is that it shows how widely implementing a similar transfer system in the art trade could create positive effects for rising artists and smaller dealers even before any lucrative artist actually jumps ship to a larger dealer. The bad news about the Neymar case is that it also establishes a new way that such a system could be abused.
First, a refresher. FIFA, the governing body for more than 200 national and international soccer associations worldwide, years ago established a robust set of regulations meant to align the incentives of three parties: promising young players, the modest academies and clubs that invest resources to help those players, and the big-money titans (think: F.C. Barcelona, Paris St. Germain, Chelsea) poised to outbid everyone else to secure the services of the few developmental success stories.
The goal isn’t just to ensure that the bigger clubs compensate the smaller ones enough to stay solvent; it’s to ensure that the rewards are large to keep the smaller clubs energized and properly equipped to continue nurturing prospects for the long run.
Art pros and the art media have now been poking and prodding the possibility of a FIFA-inspired artist-transfer model for roughly a decade. Collector Alain Servais introduced the concept in a 2012 talk. Writer Scott Reyburn took the idea wider in the New York Times in 2013. I’ve built on it myself in the years since, including in multiple pieces here at Artnet News.
More importantly, gossip has persisted about certain galleries actually teaming up in more or less formal arrangements to establish an ongoing talent pipeline, with promising artists going up and some kind of payback flowing back down. Here’s the key, though: in every one of these deals I’ve heard whispered about over the years, the smaller galleries only profit at the end of the process. Even then, their only compensation comes from the lone larger gallery that gets to add the rising-star artist to its roster.
The facts of the Neymar case open up another way that a transfer system could benefit smaller galleries—and how it could go wrong, too.
SONDA AND FURY
At bottom, FIFA’s player transfers rely on fractionalization, a topic we’ve heard an awful lot about in the art market in recent years thanks to populist artwork-investment platforms and a whole mess of blockchain-based business models. What makes Neymar’s current predicament noteworthy to me is that it shows that once you start fractionalizing a person’s potential value, there are all kinds of creative ways to keep fractionalizing it, without necessarily exploiting anyone.
FIFA’s standard transfer regulations require that any time a footballer switches clubs between the ages of 12 and 23, the acquiring club pays five to 10 percent of that player’s compensation to the developmental clubs, prorated to account for when, and how long, the player trained there. For a developmental club, then, these payouts represent classic return on investment. Club leadership pumped money and resources into the player (usually for years) to help them level up enough to entice competing clubs whose wealth literally puts them in another league. After striking a transfer deal with one of these bigger fish, the developmental club makes back more than it put into improving the departing player’s game.
Meanwhile, for the player, the transaction operates something like a loan repayment. They receive a short- or medium-term injection of resources from the developmental club with an eye toward the common goal of attracting premier clubs’ interest, and in return, they are responsible for paying back that investment over time with interest.
But what happens if the developmental club— the original source of investment—wants to keep the player on its roster beyond the point where they start drawing interest from elite clubs? This is the dilemma that Santos, one of Brazil’s most storied professional soccer clubs, faced while it held the rights to an amateur phenom named Neymar. It’s also where supermarket tycoon Delcir Sonda and his brother, Idi, came in.
Over the past five decades, the Sonda family has amassed a fortune in Brazil by building dozens of grocery stores that together employ more than 15,000 people. In 2004, Delcir and Idi established DIS, a company named for brothers’ first initials and surname, to buy “shares” in players rising through the soccer circuit, according to the New York Times. The move scratched multiple itches, in Delcir’s telling: the cold calculus of investment diversification, plus love for “the beautiful game,” patriotism, nostalgia, and a desire to lift up Brazilian youth who often came from nothing, just as he and his brother did.
Money troubles at Santos allowed Neymar to become the unicorn in DIS’s fractionalized soccer portfolio. Although the club has been revered in Brazil for ages, partly for discovering (and holding onto) hall-of-famer Pelé throughout his career, by 2009 it was on the financial brink. To quote the Times, Santos “desperately needed an influx of money, lots of it, in order to keep Neymar, then 17, at the club long enough to wow the crowds at Vila Belmiro, its chocolate box stadium, while it negotiated the sale of his rights for the huge profit it knew he would bring.”
So the club came up with an unusual solution. It offered to return 40 percent of Neymar’s “economic rights” to Neymar if he agreed to stay for the next four years. Even better, Santos had pre-negotiated a deal with a private investor ready to pay 5 million Brazilian reais (about $2 million at the time) for that 40 percent stake immediately: DIS, aka Delcir and Idi Sonda.
Neymar eventually took the deal. On the surface, it appeared to pay off for everyone. Neymar and his family became millionaires in advance of the larger payday that they knew would still come from an overseas club a few years later. Santos held onto the majority of its superstar’s economic rights while keeping him in house until the end of his contract in 2013. Just before its expiration, Santos negotiated Neymar’s transfer to F.C. Barcelona for €17.1 million (then roughly $22.5 million). For DIS, the pact meant a payout of €6.8 million (just under $9 million), almost a five-fold return in under four years.
That explains why the arrangement between Neymar, Santos, and DIS set a precedent that has been followed by Brazilian clubs, players, and investors several times in the years since. It also sketches a potential template for galleries with ascendant talent on their rosters. But it doesn’t answer why Neymar is now in court over the Barcelona transfer nine years later—and that aspect has a bearing on the art world, too.
OUT OF BOUNDS?
Suppose that transfer agreements were a more common feature of the art market. Sure, they would protect smaller galleries from losing rising stars for nothing once those stars decided to move up to larger galleries. But what if the smaller galleries wanted to extend the inevitable, just like Santos wanted to keep Neymar on its roster for a few more years before he took his talents to Europe? It seems undeniable to me that more than a few collector-investor types would be eager to play the role of Delcir and Idi Sonda.
The topline financial picture is the same in both contexts: an outside investor pays an up-front chunk of cash to an in-demand talent (see: a player or an artist) in exchange for a stake in their transfer rights and a promise to stay with their current representative (see: a club or gallery) well beyond when they otherwise would. The current representative sacrifices a fraction of their long-term payout from the transfer still to come in exchange for the greater short- and medium-term benefits that come from keeping the star on their roster longer. The talent gets to cash in a portion of their earning potential immediately, reducing the incentive to rush to the top as fast as possible, while also retaining a portion of their long-term upside. Again, it seems like all parties win.
Does the art market need a transfer system to make deals like this possible? I think it does. In theory, a smaller gallery could work out an arrangement in which a collector-investor agreed to either pre-buy a set amount of artworks before the artist had made them, or pay a retainer fee for some portion of whatever an artist goes on to produce over a designated time period (as Peggy Guggenheim did with Jackson Pollock for two years in the 1940s).
But the problem with these latter agreements is that they silo too much of the artist’s output with one buyer. Even if that one buyer abides by a contractual requirement to hold the work until some number of years in the future, it’s still a far better long-term strategy to build up the artist’s collecting network by spreading the work around to as many influential individuals and institutions as possible.
By structuring a Neymar-style interim deal around fractionalized transfer rights instead of artworks or retainer agreements, the artist and the dealer would be largely free to place works wherever they see fit. The only party giving up a hard asset immediately would be the collector-investor, who also happens to be the only party with the capital to spare.
The one caveat is that this kind of fractionalization can also be abused, and international soccer has established the template for the dark side, too.
Neymar, his parents, and two former Barcelona executives now stand accused of fraud and corruption charges related to a secret deal made in tandem with the official 2013 transfer agreement. Although Barca paid €17.1 million to Santos (including the €6.8 million to DIS), it did not come to light until later that Barca paid an additional €69.1 million directly to a company set up by Neymar’s family. Since this larger sum was technically outside the official transfer price, the Sonda family received as little of it as you and I did: zero. (Delcir Sonda also alleges that the backroom pact explains why Neymar pressured Santos officials to finalize a transfer with Barcelona rather than other clubs that were offering a higher transfer price.)
If the defendants in the Neymar case are found guilty, Spanish prosecutors are pushing for the superstar to serve two years in prison and pay a fine of €10 million (now about $9.8 million), according to Reuters. The New York Times reported that Delcir Sonda “is seeking at least $35 million, the figure he says he is owed according to the terms of his original investment in Neymar’s economic rights.” (Neymar’s attorney is arguing that Spain has no jurisdiction over a deal made in Brazil concerning Brazilian nationals.)
Both the good and the bad of these machinations only churn out food for thought in the gallery system, and there would be real obstacles to making FIFA-style artist transfers a widespread feature of the ecosystem. Still, the Neymar story shows how participants in another star-based system found a creative solution to a long-running structural problem. Even if a Spanish court finds that some of those same people later stepped beyond the bounds of the law, we should at least be willing to ask which of the long-ago-chalked lines on our field are there because they’ve always been, and which are keeping us from actually going too far.
That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: whether in art or soccer, sometimes gamesmanship matters more than skill.
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