An Oxford criminologist looks at Leonardo; Nando’s supports African artists; Rebecca Wei leaves Christie’s; ‘That’ Porsche reveals classic car market’s fade.
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Rebecca Wei Waves Goodbye to Christie’s
The news earlier this week that Christie’s Rebecca Wei is taking a break from the auction business and stepping down was followed by Wei taking a nostalgic tour on Instagram of her first and last auction bids which were, tellingly, on two different works by Pablo Picasso.
Wei was an art world outsider when she became Christie’s Asia general manager in 2012. Based in Hong Kong, she had spent the previous decade as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. The former leader of McKinsey’s Asia hi-tech and telecommunications practice was promoted to Christie’s Asia president in 2016, assuming responsibility for the crucial mainland China market. […] Art market insiders said on Tuesday that, while Wei’s departure had come as a surprise, even within the company itself, there had been speculation she was not comfortable with being Christie’s Asia chairman..
Tsui also points out that a former Swarovski executive, Francis Belin, has been running the day-to-day business in Asia since December 2018.
The Unreality of Art Market Conspiracy Theories
The $450m sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi appears to have been more of a curse, at this point, than a blessing to everyone involved. The vendor, at the very least, made back his money back on purchase he clearly regretted and, at the most, made a huge profit on a transaction that he previously felt cheated over, is still pursuing lawsuits against all parties in the first transaction. The buyer, widely identified as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman, has withdrawn the work from previously announced exhibitions and doesn’t seem interested in lending the work to the Louvre’s landmark anniversary exhibition.
What was a dramatic coup for Christie’s—the auction house that did so much to re-position a work with an unstable reputation as a cultural trophy that inspired almost religious awe in spectators and cultural pilgrims—is now constantly and relentlessly denigrated as an example of the ethical bankruptcy of the ruling elite. There is no constituency left to take satisfaction in the highest auction price ever achieved for a work of art. The trade jealously traffics in conspiracy theories; the work’s authenticity (despite Christie’s extensive disclosure) is treated some sort of scandalous mis-representation; and a host of outside commentators regularly puff up the story of the sale into a scene from a mediocre international thriller.
The latest example of this genre comes from the Times Literary Supplement where Frederic Varese, an Oxford sociologist whose expertise in criminology ought to suggest sober analysis, describes one of the buyers of the Leonardo as “a blond, elegant forty-something who might have stepped out of a James Bond novel.” If Yves Bouvier ever had a role in one of Ian Fleming’s spy procedurals, it would not have been as a hero or a villain but as local functionary, perhaps the manager of one of the hotels, resorts or estates James Bond briefly found himself.
With this sort of myth-making going on, one might expect a professor of criminology at Oxford to have something original to say about the art market’s putative legal status as “an unregulated jungle.” Instead we get the kind of vague, warmed-over innuendo that something fishy must be going on where there’s so much money sloshing around.
This case aside, the art market has other, more general problems to face. “The art market [is] exposed to money laundering and tax evasion risks”, states a European Parliament study published in October 2018. The US government has recently accused several Malaysian businessmen of laundering $200 million by buying art at auction. Works of art are easy to transport and preserve, and they do not have an objective value, so any price tag is plausible. They can also be a good way to hide wealth from tax officials as one can pretend that they are not an investment, but rather a passion.
These are commonplace complaints about the art market. They have very little evidence to back them up. “The art market [is] exposed …” is not the same thing as having a meaningful number of money-laundering cases. In fact, the instances of money laundering using art are vanishingly small when one considers the number of private transactions. The one case Varese cites, Jho Low’s use of art loans to build his yacht, is actually not a case of money laundering. Low used embezzled money to buy art. He later took half of the value out of the art through loans to build his yacht. But the entire scheme was made possible not by passing off art sales as the source of wealth but by a much larger scandal involving the world’s foremost investment bank, Goldman Sachs. The criminal and civil consequences of Goldman’s role in the 1MDB scandal have yet to be fully felt. Yet to say a peripheral transaction within a more significant multi-billion dollar fraud is your best evidence of money laundering with art is to admit you have little evidence of the fact.
Varese does raise one legal issue tangentially related to the Salvator Mundi and Yves Bouvier. Describing Bouvier’s position as the operator of the world’s primary freeport in Geneva, Switzerland, Varese suggests that Bouvier was using his position as the operator of the freeport to gain an unfair overview of the market:
Whoever is in charge of the depot will receive the documentation pertaining to every transaction and thereby come into possession of confidential information regarding owners, prices and chains of purchases and sales. As he told Sam Knight in an interview published in the New Yorker in 2016, Bouvier at some point realized that this information could quite legitimately be put to work and decided to do what none of his colleagues had thought of doing: become an art dealer himself, without having any sort of relevant training or a gallery.
It’s not clear that the freeport works this way. Bouvier may have been selling to Rybolovlev and, possibly, others the idea that he had access to all of this information but it is Swiss customs that learns the contents of the various storerooms in the freeport, not the freeport operator.
The freeport business is a bit like the Russian Matryoshka doll. It’s cells within cells. The freeport leases space to storage companies who deal with freight forwarders who have clients storing stuff. The only entity that is required to know what’s in the boxes that are being stored is Swiss customs. They’re not sharing that information with Yves Bouvier.
Sure, Bouvier’s former role as owner of multiple companies, including freight forwarders, might have allowed him to gain some knowledge of what works of art were stored by whom within the freeport from his staff. But the conceit that he had a panopticon’s view everything of everything in the Geneva freeport is the stuff of poorly researched spy thrillers.
Nando’s Art Collection Supports African Artists
The Financial Times ran a long, detailed story about the South African family that owns the Nando’s fast food chain primarily in London. Through the advisory firm Spier Arts Trust, Nando’s buys $600,000 worth of art each year from artists like Diane Hyslop, “a painter who now has more than 250 works in the collection, says, ‘What Nando’s does is amazingly generous; they come here and buy something every two months.’”
Nando’s also support artists through Creative Blocks which are effectively canvases that Nando’s gives to the artists along with regular critiques from the Spiers Arts Trust chief curator. The trust then buys the works it deems promising for set prices. According to the FT, “More than 250 artists have participated in this income-generating programme so far, with around 85 at any given time.”
Nando’s currently owns about 12,000 block works and many of the participating artists are making it beyond the program:
Increasingly successful artists who have come through Nando’s programmes include the Kinshasa-born Patrick Bongoy, whose rubber-based works now attract an international market, and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, whose work was a sellout at Frieze New York in May through Mariane Ibrahim (the artist also shows with South Africa’s Stevenson gallery).
More on That Porsche
Hannah Elliott has a far-reaching essay on the classic car market sparked by the Type 64 debacle at RM Sotheby’s last weekend. According to Elliot who writes about the market for Bloomberg, intense competition in the classic car market has led to “a perfect storm,” according to Paul Zuckerman, a lawyer and the host of a podcast about the classic car market. “There are too many auction houses auctioning too many cars. And then you get too many questionable cars,” Zuckerman told Elliott.
Elliott also explains that the hype around the Type 64 was a mystery to the few players in the classic car market with the money and interest to buy a $20m car. They’d all been offered the vehicle before at a much lower price and passed. Why anyone would get caught up in an auction is a mystery only RM Sotheby’s can answer since they’re the ones who tried to sell it.
The car now goes back to its German owners who Elliott says have been “revealed as the billionaire Schoerghuber family active in the beverage, hotels, and aircraft industries.”