The stench of scandal : The Tribune India

art & soul

The stench of scandal

Fakes, manipulations, thefts besides court cases that rock the art world make it no less than a sordid drama

The stench of scandal

 Working Girl. Painting by Amedeo Modigliani, 1917

B. N. Goswamy

In the case of scandal, as in that of robbery, the receiver is always thought as bad as the thief

— Unknown

Every now and then, the world of art, for all its appearance of purity and truth, is rocked by scandals. One might say that this is nothing new, but that is no solace. If one hears whispers of faked signatures, or forgeries, even of modern artists, going around and doing brisk business — in India as much as in the West — one knows that the stench is everywhere. Consider this bit of news, even though a bit old, for instance:

“A former art dealer was arrested in South Florida last Thursday, and was accused of selling forgeries to a Los Angeles art collector. The dealer, Matthew Taylor, allegedly claimed that the pieces were the work of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The LA art collector, who has not yet been identified, supposedly bought over 100 pieces of fake art from Taylor, paying him approximately $2 million.He (the dealer) is being charged for wire fraud, money laundering, interstate transportation of stolen property and possession of stolen property. Right now he is facing up to 100 years in prison."

And this:

“Marion True, former chief curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, was accused of trafficking illegally excavated artefacts from Italy and Greece to the US. A monumental investigation was launched by authorities in both countries, resulting in the recouping of many works of art from respected institutions such as the Getty, the Met, and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. While Greek authorities have dropped the case, criminal charges are still pending in Rome.”

Or this:

“Last year, several works of art, including a painting by Gustave Courbet valued at $75,000 to $145,000, disappeared from the inventory of Paris auction house Drouot. Now, eight of the storage and transport workers hired by the company have been charged with conspiring in a string of thefts, and auctioneer Eric Caudron has been arrested for connections to the sale of stolen goods.”

News like these can be multiplied ad infinitum: year after year, decade after decade, they keep breaking. It would seem as if Mammon, the Biblical personification of greed and wealth, rules in all quarters.

What is currently keeping everyone connected with art markets riveted is the sordid drama that is unfolding in at least three different theatres: Geneva, Monaco and Singapore. The dramatis personae? Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer; Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire and art collector; and Sandy Heller, a New York art consultant. The story goes somewhat like this. Bouvier is “a high-end global art market player”, owning as he does a large art-shipping company and holdings in storage facilities known as freeports. Freeports, as they are called, are massive, maximum-security storage sites where a great deal of art is temporarily parked and that is where major deals sometimes take place between the globally rich. Bouvier is the largest client of the Geneva freeport in Switzerland, and, according to reports, actually owns freeports in Singapore and Luxembourg. Rybolovlev is a billionaire and a serious collector of art, having built up his collection over many years, some of it with the help of Bouvier. It so happens that one of the more recent works purchased by Rybolovlev, through Bouvier, was a painting by the modern Italian master, Modigliani: ‘Nude on a blue cushion”.

The price paid — one has to get used to these astronomical figures — was $118 million, including a $2.36 million as commission. Everything was fine till then. But only till Rybolovlev happened, at a New Year Eve party in New York, to hear Sandy Heller, the art consultant, boasting that the Modigliani painting had been sold to Bouvier for as high a price as $93.5 million. Which led the Russian to conclude, to his astonishment and horror, that Bouvier had, as his negotiator, defrauded him, by stating to him that he had got the work for $118 million. A gap of close to $25 million stood between the two figures.

Greatly incensed, Rybolovlev, “with the fury of a cheated oligarch”, decided to take Bouvier to court, charging him with fraud and asking that his assets be frozen wherever they were. A raging court battle ensued, and is not over yet. Other Bouvier deals, including one involving a work by Mark Rothko, another iconic figure, for the price of $186 million, have come into question. Also other suspicious deals, in which works by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Degas, Magritte, and one even by Leonardo da Vinci, figure, are being investigated. Meanwhile, Bouvier was arrested in Monaco on charges of fraud, among other things. He is currently out on bail. Picking up on the case, however, a Singapore court has ordered a freeze on Bouvier’s assets, forbidding him from removing any assets or disposing of any assets outside of Singapore, according to local media reports.

This is the point where the matter currently is. The art world is holding its breath. It is generally being said the case could expand well beyond Bouvier and reach into the top galleries and billionaire collectors in New York, London and Hong Kong. Tax-frauds, global money laundering, and possible bribery, are being talked about. “This is just the beginning,” someone high up in the art world is reported to have said.

I was reading recently about a sculptor, who works only with paper. Describing her technique she remarked about how complicated the work can be. For the procedure involves “cutting, peeling, boiling, rinsing, bleaching, dyeing, drying”, among other things. Much the same, one senses, is happening in the art market.

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