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.)