Buying Art Like a Madman
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Head of a Madman (1982)Two weeks ago, Artsy’s Nate Freeman did yeoman’s work piecing together the $400m or so in art purchases made by Low Taek Jho, the fugitive mastermind of Malaysia’s 1MDB Ponzi scheme, from the US Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture case filed in June of 2017 and a book by two Wall Street Journal reporters about the case. From The Billion-Dollar Whale, the book so-named for Jho Low’s reputation in Las Vegas as a heavy gambler and frequent loser, Freeman culls the information that Low was the $170m underbidder on Pablo Picasso’s Femmes d’Algiers (Version O) from the Looking Forward to the Past sale in May of 2015. Assembled all together, the revelations have had a galvanizing effect on many art market participants. Some see it as further proof that the art market is a vehicle for money laundering; others wonder about the effect on buyers who were forced to compete for works against Jho Low, the now-proven fraud. As one person close to the Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani of Qatar who has been long rumored to be the buyer of the Femmes d’Algiers (Version O) for a then-record price of $179m asks, “what must he be thinking now?” With that question in mind, let’s look at the potential damage these revelations might have on the art market. We have a good case study in some of the artists Jho Low bought and even better evidence of whether his intent was to use the art market to launder money.
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