Zwirner vs. Huber, the fallout

The artworld spent the weekend digesting dealer David Zwirner’s salvo versus dealer/fair entrepreneur Pierre Huber, sparked by last Monday’s $16.8M Christies sale, drawn entirely from Huber’s collection. Josh Baer, author of the essential-reading Baerfaxt is apparently preparing an article on the sale and offered his readers this advance peek, in the form of a killer direct quote from Zwirner:

“I think as a result of the sale Pierre Huber should be barred from the Basel Art Fair. He has lied and misled not only his fellow dealers but artists such as On Kawara and Thomas Ruff on my end. The sale was completely carried by dealers doing the right thing, supporting their artists prices, the buyers and underbidders predominately representing galleries. So we made Pierre money, because we need to protect our markets. He is just too much… I don’t want to share an artfair with such a cheat and opportunist. His gallery in Geneva is a sham. It’s the size of a shoebox, just a front for his auction ploy. PS, I never sold him anything (except a Kippenberger from the secondary market).”

In the discreet artworld, this is a particularly virulent attack. The subtext of Zwirner’s blast is a widespread sentiment that Huber bought the auctioned works on false pretenses, implying that he was amassing a private collection that would turn into a museum – not inventory for potential resale.

These situations always leave me a little equivocal. Granted, if someone lied to get work at a major-museum discount and then cashed in (e.g. Hans Grothe’s mirage museum of photography) that’s one thing. On the other hand, if they made no such explicit promises, then from an ethical standpoint this is simply private property, purchased at a price agreed between consenting adults. So when the owner wants to sell, that’s his right.

Several dealers from whom Huber bought have told me works were always sold simply to him, not an institutional entity (i.e. “La Fondation Pierre Huber,” or some such). And everyone in the artworld knows Huber’s a wheeler-dealer. It’s true that his gallery is small, but as he explained to me in early 2004, “I don’t need a 5,000-square-foot space to deal secondary-market Andreas Gursky photos.”

To me this furore makes the case for wider-spread resale agreements. Because the handshake-deal days are clearly over. And maybe galleries need to consider NOT supporting their artists at such auctions. If they truly think a sale is morally wrong and/or that the estimates are too high, a publicity campaign targeting the art market and stressing those facts would be less expensive than, say, buying eight On Kawaras for $1,944,000. (UPDATE: Just to be clear, Zwirner was apparently the underbidder on this lot at $1.7M, not the winner.)


8 thoughts on “Zwirner vs. Huber, the fallout”

  1. I agree with your conclusion Marc. If there were indeed no conditions attached to Huber’s original purchases then he is free to sell what he wants, when he wants, in any way that he wants. But that is not what interests me here. It is rather the thinking behind Zwirner’s reaction that bears noting. Towit :-

    How real is a market that requires the sort of market “support” that Zwirner describes? In any financial markets such actions would be called market manipulation. The need for such “support” suggests that the market is artificially inflated by orchestrating when items can be sold, in what quantities, and by whom. This may be current and accepted practice within the gallery world, but Zwirner does himself, and his fellow dealers, no favours by speaking about it in public.

  2. I’m not in a position to judge Zwirner’s heated response to Huber’s taking his collection to auction (we’re working with artists whose work has years to go before hitting the auction houses, I suspect, so it’s hard for me to gauge why he’s so angry at Huber), but the fire in that statement suggests to me it wasn’t meant for publication. Is Josh Baer saying it was? That’s surprising.

    With regards to “supporting” artists prices, there are very transparent things that galleries do toward that end. IMO, there’s nothing wrong with a gallery letting the world know that they believe enough in an artist’s work to buy it back when it comes up at auction. No one is in a better position to know that interest in the work is growing and the flippers are wrong to unload at a particular time.

    Zwirner’s statement about “protecting our markets” could be read as inflating the price at auction, but could also be read as merely making a very public show of buying the work back.

  3. Edward, the lead-in to that quote in the Baer Faxt was: “Speaking of Zwirner, and in reference to a story we are still working on – the Pierre Huber sale at Christie’s Zwirner said, “‘I think as a result of the sale Pierre Huber should be barred from the Basel Art Fair….'” So that sounds like it was a quote (or maybe an email, because who says “PS”?) intended for publication.

    The NY Sun has the first article of what I suspect may be many stories on this topic. And based on that story it sounds like some artists and dealers are feeling particular promises were betrayed.

    I’m going to split the difference between Ian and Edward on the protection-at-auction thing. It’s not really market manipulation if people can see you doing it. But I think it’s too easy to say that dealers are just showing confidence in their artists. The reality is that bought-in pieces at auction are widely noted (E.G. Matthias Weischer in London at Sotheby’s last fall) and quite bad short-term for an artist’s market.

    Otherwise many dealers would just let things buy-in (go unsold) at auction and then lowball the consignors afterward on a private-treaty deal. That’s why I suggested the PR strategy of dealers saying: “We believe in the artist, but we condemn this auction, so we’re not bidding. And anyone else who wants to sell can approach us directly.” Or some such…

  4. OK, you’re right. I’m still surprised, but I see Zwirner was (and isn’t the only dealer) criticzing Huber openly. My guess is that Huber had indeed made very clear his intentions not to do what he ended up doing. Hudson notes that wasn’t the case with him, but other dealers clearly nonpleased include Luhring and Augustine, and others chimed in in support of Zwirner’s assessment. Given how understated dealers normally are about such things, it seems Huber really crossed the line here, IMO.

  5. As an historical aside, dealers and artists have been protecting prices at auction for decades. In 1955, Georgia O’Keeffe complained to her dealer that she had spent nearly as much money buying her own artworks at auction as she had earned from sales. Both O’Keeffe and her dealer, Edith Halpert, were afraid that low auction prices would damage the retail market. Halpert and O’Keeffe traded off buying back the artworks and were usually furious at collectors who sold.

  6. A dealer I know made an insightful point re this whole controversy: Huber may be losing lots of artworld friends over this sale in the West; but he’s currently focusing his attentions Eastward, so that may not hurt him much in the long run.

    History recap: Huber was a key player in promoting the forward edge of the current Chinese contemporary-art boom, bringing artists such as Chen Zhen to the West and playing a big behind-the-scenes role in the 1999 Venice Biennial, aka “The Chinese Biennial,” curated by the late Harald Szeemann. And more recently Huber has been pushing Subodh Gupta, sometimes called “the Damien Hirst of India,” into prime market position. He’s also launching the ShContemporary fair in Shanghai this September.

    Though their art markets are very different from each other, neither China nor India share the notions of proper collector protocol that predominate(d?) in the West. So Huber’s newer business associates may be more likely to see his Christie’s sale as a coup than as a character indictment. Not to amalgamate the two nations, because I’m guessing it will play particularly well in China, where the artmarket’s totally cowboy and the gambler spirit rules supreme.

  7. Agreed. Dealers here in China, foreign and local, have enough trouble trying to develop and maintain strong relationships with their artists, never mind their customers. (Most artists seem to see nothing wrong with selling direct, bypassing their dealers and ignoring their dealer pricing recommendations, any time anyone contacts them.) So the notion that primary dealers might have any say how or when a new collector or gallery disposes of work, purchased from them, at a subsequent auction would be perplexing in the extreme.

  8. An update from the Baerfaxt, which seems to be digging into this story: “We asked Mr. Huber a few questions at his press conference about his reasons for selling at auction – one of his replies was that he felt that since these were not ‘his’ artists he could sell in this fashion. We checked – according to his web site 14 of these were ‘his’ artists and 26 of the lots offered came from them. We tried to ask 2 further questions the next day through Christie¹s press office: 1) ‘How many, if any, of the works sold had he promised either the artist or the dealer he bought the work through to donate to a museum?’ and 2) ‘How much, if any, of the profits from sales did he share with any artists?’ These questions drew no response.”

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