Win, place, sell

blacklist_3Randy Kennedy has finally brought the Craig Robins v. David Zwirner legal spat to the pages of the great Grey Lady; so, now would seem to be as good a time as any to open up this issue for debate.  That issue, as laid out by Kennedy, turns on the presumptive practice of art-world “blacklisting,” whereby collectors are kept from purchasing works by artists they covet because the dealers or artists fear that those same works will soon find their way to the auction block.  In this case, Robins sold a work by Marlene Dumas, and allegedly did so a bit too early for the artist’s taste, which is why, according to Robins, he was blocked from buying new pieces from Dumas’ recent show at Zwirner’s.

You see, the art world doesn’t like speculators.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  The art world doesn’t like anyone else speculating on what it’s already speculating on.  And it’s this attitude, largely hypocritical in character, which has likely brought Zwirner’s lawyers to characterize Robins as a petulant child who is being told he can’t have the big red and white lollipop in the gallery window.  Or rather,

“By bringing suit,” the gallery’s lawyers argue, “the wealthy Robins has literally made a federal case of not being able to buy what he wants, when he wants.”

Kennedy goes on to offer some choice quotes from Allan Schwartzman and Jeffrey Deitch about dealing with speculators and the difficulties of “placing” works of art with the right “serious” collectors (as opposed to those who will flip the work to make a quick buck) or simply selling them to some schlub just in off the street with a briefcase full of cash.  But then to “place” a work is a form of speculation in and of itself, no?  After all, even if that schlub loves the work so much as to never even entertain the possibility of selling it, “Some Schlub’” under the “Collections” column on the artist’s CV doesn’t exactly send prices soaring.  We call this the problem (and power) of “access.”

To my mind, though, the “blacklist” issue misses the point (and perhaps purposely so, if Zwirner’s lawyers are trying to deflect attention).  At issue in the suit is whether or not Zwirner’s gallery breached a confidentiality agreement it had with Robins when it brokered the sale of his painting and promised not to tell anyone (which includes the artist) about it.  Not the list, then, but that agreement itself would seem to hold the greater significance.  And not just for the outcome of the suit.  What does a collector stand to loose if it’s known that he or she is party to the sale of a work of art?  Why does a gallery see it fit to protect that identity in the first place?  (We know the obvious answers to these questions; what I’m after are the less obvious ones.)  Is getting “blacklisted” the only thing buyers or sellers of art are worried about? And is discriminating between buyers–i.e. blacklisting, wait-listing, pre-reserving–justified?

One thought on “Win, place, sell

  1. The practice of “placement” should be an encouraging sign in one respect: It must be a seller’s market, at least for some galleries and artists.

    It’s understandable that dealers would like to prevent works from going to auction and compete against their own inventory, perhaps setting prices they may not be able to back up and from which they do not profit. It’s also understandable that dealers, where possible, like to make sure they can realize a second commission on the same piece when a work does return to market. But the world doesn’t work that way. Collectors have too many places to go. Very little is ever stipulated in contracts.

    So we’re left with the murkier and far less enforceable domain of “ethics”– which always depends on one’s particular point of view. It might be nice if there were some organizations of clout that could arbitrate such disputes. Because these disputes don’t benefit anyone.

    It was interesting to read that MoMA banned a museum member from visiting the museum because he made untoward advances toward one of the naked performers in the Marina Abramovic exhibit. That was one member out of thousands. But can dealers really afford to “blacklist” major collectors?

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