Category Archives: art

MoMA beats out Met for landmark artwork “Canyon” — thanks for a stuffed eagle

Part 2 of the tax feud between the IRS and the Sonnabend family over Robert Rauschenberg’s famous combine “Canyon” has finally come to a close, as I wrote in this Times story.

As those in the museum world know though, this round went to MoMA, but the next could easily go to the Met.

MoMA Gains Treasure That Met Also Coveted

Published: November 28, 2012 73 Comments

When Glenn D. Lowry arrived 17 years ago as director of the Museum of Modern Art, he and the curator Kirk Varnedoe sat down and wrote out a list of the 10 works they most wanted. “Canyon,” a landmark of 20th-century art by Robert Rauschenberg, was at the top, Mr. Lowry recalled.

Now that wish has come true. “Canyon” is to go on display on Wednesday at the Modern after being captured in a contest with its uptown sister, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it had resided on and off since 2005. Its owners agreed to donate the work as part of a $41 million settlement with the Internal Revenue Service.

MoMA made a concerted effort to woo the work’s owners, the children of the New York art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who died in 2007. Mr. Lowry said it agreed to add their mother’s name to the Founders Wall in the lobby of the museum (which was established in 1929, when Ms. Sonnabend was 15), and to devote an entire show to “Canyon” and Ms. Sonnabend, an important figure who helped introduce and nurture modernist artists.

Though the Met also offered a spot on its lobby wall and an exhibition, the Sonnabend family’s lawyer, Ralph Lerner, said in the end the children thought “Canyon” — a mixed-media collage from 1959 known as a “combine” — would have a higher profile and greater context at MoMA, which already has a rich collection of these combines.

Here’s the reason for the tax dispute:

The presence of a bald eagle — a bird protected by federal laws — means that the work cannot be legally sold or traded. So when the Sonnabend children, Nina Sundell and Antonio Homem, inherited “Canyon,” five years ago, their appraisers valued it at zero. The I.R.S., however, insisted this masterwork was worth $65 million. It demanded they pay estate taxes of $29.2 million plus another $11.7 million in penalties.

As part of the settlement, the I.R.S. dropped the tax assessment; in exchange, the family was required to donate “Canyon” to a museum where it would be publicly exhibited and claim no tax deduction, Mr. Lerner said.



Lawyers claim the Knoedler art gallery made big profits on fakes

The lastest story in the saga of the 165-year-old Knoedler gallery, which closed last year after accusations that the gallery was trafficking in multi-million dollar forgeries.

Lawsuits Claim Knoedler Made Huge Profits on Fakes


Published: October 21, 2012

For more than a dozen years the Upper East Side gallery Knoedler & Company was “substantially dependent” on profits it made from selling a mysterious collection of artwork that is at the center of a federal forgery investigation, former clients of this former gallery have charged in court papers.

Glafira Rosales, the little-known dealer at the center at the center of the FBI investigation, has said the bulk of the newly discovered masterworks came from an old family friend, an anonymous collector whom she has steadfastly refused to name. Files at Knoedler about him were labeled “Secret Santa.”

According to Ms. Freedman’s lawyers Ms. Rosales at one point told Ms. Freedman to stop pressing for more information about the unnamed collector, saying, “Don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg.”

Read the whole story here.


Looking for a Warhol or Matisse? Try Costco.

     The giant warehouse club store Costco sells diamond rings for upward of $65,000, so why not fine art? In 2003, Costco started selling signed lithographs and original drawings, including, for instance, a $147,000 crayon drawing by Picasso. But when questions were raised about the authenticity of a couple of the Picassos, Costco immediately shut down the operation. Now it is testing the waters again, offering a handful of fine art prints  on its Web site. Maybe it seems strange, but given that venerable dealers like Knoedler are being investigated by the FBI for selling million-dollar fakes with thousand-percent markups, the idea of a respected brand standing behind its merchandise is comforting. Nor are they the first. Sears sold more than 50,000 pieces of art through its Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art from 1962-1971.

Check out Vincent Price selling for Sears on youtube.

Preface to the The Vincent Price Collection taken from Sears catalog.

Perhaps You’d Like a Warhol With Those Paper Towels

Published: October 5, 2012

Along with the bales of toilet paper and drums of tomato sauce that Costco customers load into their online shopping carts, they can now add an original Warhol or Matisse, a result of this giant discount retailer’s recent decision to re-enter the fine-art market.

Quietly and cautiously, like someone newly divorced returning to dating, Costco has begun selling fine art again after quitting the business six years ago when questions were raised about the authenticity of two Picasso drawings it had sold online.

In the two weeks since Costco, a warehouse club store, began listing “Fine Art” in the Home & Décor section of its Web site, it has sold five works: two framed lithographs by Henri Matisse, one for $1,000, and the other for $800; a framed lithograph by Georges Braque for $1,400; a framed screen print by Andy Warhol for $1,450; and a framed textile-and-paint collage by Heather Robinson for $1,699, said Greg Moors, the San Francisco dealer supplying the art to Costco….

Michigan voters show they are willing to pay more taxes to support the arts

People hate taxes, but designated levies show that people are willing to pay for services and institutions that they think are worthwhile. Obviously that approach does not work for everything, but it is working for several museums and zoos around the country.

Suburban Taxpayers Vote to Support Detroit Museum
Published: August 8, 2012

The Detroit Institute of Arts was saved from devastating budget cuts Tuesday night after voters in three Michigan counties agreed to institute a property tax increase earmarked specifically for the museum.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

“We are thrilled,” said Graham W. J. Beal, the institute’s director, who gathered with supporters at the museum Tuesday night to await the count and then celebrate the proposal’s passage.

The institute now becomes one of a handful of American museums, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the St. Louis Art Museum, that rely on property taxes for a portion of their revenues. But Detroit’s is unusual among major urban museums because it does not have a large endowment and receives no financial support from either the city or the state. ………..

A Rauschenberg that has zero value in the market but a $29-million tax bill. Why people hate the IRS.


“Canyon” – Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, NY

In today’s Times, I recount a tax dispute involving “Canyon,” a combine that Robert Rauschenberg created in 1959 that cannot be sold because it contains a stuffed bald eagle, which is protected under federal laws.



Art’s Sale Value? Zero. The Tax Bill? $29 Million.

Published: July 22, 2012

What is the fair market value of an object that cannot be sold?

The question may sound like a Zen koan, but it is one that lawyers for the heirs of the New York art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and the Internal Revenue Service are set to debate when they meet in Washington next month.

The object under discussion is “Canyon,” a masterwork of 20th-century art created by Robert Rauschenberg that Mrs. Sonnabend’s children inherited when she died in 2007.

Because the work, a sculptural combine, includes a stuffed bald eagle, a bird under federal protection, the heirs would be committing a felony if they ever tried to sell it. So their appraisers have valued the work at zero.

But the Internal Revenue Service takes a different view. It has appraised “Canyon” at $65 million and is demanding that the owners pay $29.2 million in taxes……..

Read the full story here.


After selling hundreds of forgeries, a conman sells “genuine fakes”


I write about an incredibly talented forger  in today’s Times:

Published: July 18, 2012

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. — For nearly three decades Ken Perenyi made a small fortune forging works by popular 18th- and 19th-century artists like Martin Johnson Heade, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Bird King.

Then in 1998, Mr. Perenyi says, two F.B.I. agents showed up on his doorstep, curious about a couple of paintings sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, ostensibly by the maritime artist James E. Buttersworth but actually his own meticulous creations.

Over the next few years, he says, the F.B.I. continued to keep a close watch on him at his bayside bungalow here, tracking his work and where it sold, and talking to his friends and associates. Though the authorities never charged him, the scrutiny pushed Mr. Perenyi to develop what he calls “a new business model”: openly selling his faked oils as the reproductions of the finest masters.

Now they are bought by Palm Beach decorators, antiques dealers, professionals, business executives and others who want the look of cultured gentility without the price tag.

Perenyi tells his own story in a new memoir titled “Caveat Emptor” due out August 6th.


In Art, Freedom of Expression Doesn’t Extend to ‘Is It Real?’

Today’s front-page story is about how art experts are increasingly anxious about saying if a work of art is real or fake because of fears of being sued. Actually several art world denizens doubt that the actual risk of being sued is any greater now than in the past 20 or 30 years, but because of some high-profile suits, particularly involving the Warhol Foundation, the perception of higher risk is nonetheless having an effect.

Published: June 19, 2012

John Elderfield, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, remembers the days when scholars spoke freely about whether a particular work was genuine.

Walter Maibaum/The Degas Sculpture Project

They were connoisseurs, this was their field of expertise, and a curator like Kirk Varnedoe, Mr. Elderfield’s predecessor at the Modern, would think nothing of offering his view of a drawing attributed to Rodin, his specialty.

“He was qualified to do it and felt he had a moral obligation to do it,” Mr. Elderfield said.

But when the owner of a painting attributed to Henri Matisse recently asked Mr. Elderfield for his opinion, he demurred. He worries he could be sued if he says the painting is not a real Matisse.

Mr. Elderfield is hardly alone in feeling that art’s celebrated freedom of expression no longer extends to expert opinions on authenticity. As spectacular sums flow through the art market and an expert verdict can make or destroy a fortune, several high-profile legal cases have pushed scholars to censor themselves for fear of becoming entangled in lawsuits.

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and the Noguchi Museum have all stopped authenticating works to avoid litigation. In January the Courtauld Institute of Art in London cited “the possibility of legal action” when it canceled a forum discussing a controversial set of some 600 drawings attributed to Francis Bacon. And the leading experts on Degas have avoided publicly saying whether 74 plasters attributed to him are a stupendous new find or an elaborate hoax.

The anxiety has even touched the supreme arbiter of the genuine and fake: the catalogue raisonné, the definitive, scholarly compendium of an artist’s work. Inclusion has been called the difference between “great wealth and the gutter,” and auction houses sometimes refuse to handle unlisted works. As a result catalogue raisonné authors have been the targets of lawsuits, not to mention bribes and even death threats.

“Legal cage rattling was always part of the process,” said Nancy Mowll Mathews, president of the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association. But the staggering rise in art prices has transformed the cost-benefit analysis of suing at the same time that fraud has become more profitable, she said.

While some argue the fear is overblown, others warn the growing reluctance to speak publicly about authenticity could keep forgeries and misattributed works in circulation while permitting newly discovered works to go unrecognized.

The perceived crisis has prompted a pointed ethical debate: Do you speak out if you spot a suspicious work or keep quiet as lawyers recommend?

Judge strkes down California’s resale royalty act.

A federal district judge has struck down as unconstitutional a California law that gave artists a part of the profits when their work is resold.

The artists Chuck Close and Laddie John Dill and the estate of the artist Robert Graham brought a class-action suit in November against the auction giants Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and against eBay, arguing they had failed to pay them money owed under the California Resale Royalties Act. That act, which took effect in 1977, was the first of its kind passed in the United States. It required state residents who resold a work of art, even out of state, to pay the creating artist 5 percent of the price over $1,000; anyone selling art in California was also subject to the law.

Artists in most of the United States have long complained that unlike composers, filmmakers or writers, they do not receive a share of any future sales — known by the French expression droit de suite — under copyright law.

In her ruling on Thursday, Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen did more than simply find against Mr. Close and his colleagues: Because the law has the effect of controlling sales “wholly outside the boundaries” of California, she ruled that it violates the commerce clause of the Constitution and that therefore “the entire statute must fall.”

You can read the full item on Artsblog


Artist family says Knoedler sold fake works it was warned about #art

The list of possibly forged works sold by Knoedler and its former president, Ann Freedman, grows as the family of the late artist Richard Diebenkorn says that the gallery sold drawings that it had been warned were fakes. As I detail in today’s New York Times:

A few months after the abstract painter Richard Diebenkorn died in 1993 his family visited Knoedler & Company, the gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that had long been his dealer. His wife, Phyllis; his daughter, Gretchen; and an art scholar went to see two gouache drawings that the gallery had recently acquired and that it hoped to sell as works from Diebenkorn’s celebrated Ocean Park series.

The disputed drawing attributed to Diebenkorn

What happened at the meeting nearly two decades ago is now a matter of dispute, one that has only grown in significance as the gallery, once venerable and now closed, battles accusations that it sold many works of modern art that were actually sophisticated forgeries.

The Diebenkorn family says it made it plain that day, before the drawings were sold, that it suspected the drawings were fakes.

“They didn’t look quite right, and we said, ‘The provenance is wacky and the story behind the provenance makes no sense,’ ” said Richard Grant, the artist’s son-in-law and the executive director of the Diebenkorn Foundation.

The gallery and its former president, Ann Freedman, say the family embraced the drawings as legitimate.”

Is Google Art Project failing to deal with artists and their copyrights?

A preview of an article in tomorrow’s paper that is already up on the Web about artists’ copyright. Whether a painting appears in Titanic 3D or on a coffee cup, the artist owns the image — at least for 70 years after his or her death.

Whose Copyright Is It, Anyway?

Published: April 24, 2012

It is there in the new 3-D version of “Titanic,” as it was in James Cameron’s original film: a modified version of Picasso’s painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” aboard the ship as it sinks.  Of course that 1907 masterpiece was never lost to the North Atlantic. It has been at the Museum of Modern Art for decades — which is precisely the reason the Picasso estate, which owns the copyright to the image, refused Mr. Cameron’s original request to include it in his 1997 movie.

But Mr. Cameron used it anyway.

After Artists Rights Society, a company that guards intellectual property rights for more than 50,000 visual artists or their estates, including Picasso’s, complained, however, Mr. Cameron agreed to pay a fee for the right to use the image.

With the rerelease of “Titanic,” the society wants Mr. Cameron to pay again, asserting that the 3-D version is a new work, not covered under the previous agreement….

“I don’t expect we’ll have any difficulty,” said Theodore Feder, president of the society, who contacted Mr. Cameron last week.