The past year has brought us some of the most complex art scandals in recent memory. We watched in awe as an artist defended himself against the accusation that he created a painting he said wasn’t his (the Peter Doig trial), as a billionaire art dealer stood trial on charges of hiding millions in art and assets in an effort to avoid paying taxes (the Wildenstein case), and as the Chairman of the Sotheby’s board said angrily in court, “I got a fake painting for $8.3 million and I want my money back” (The Knoedler forgery trial). The art world was filled with these and other dramas that played out in courts and museums from St. Louis to Paris. Here are 10 of the biggest ones.
1. Panama Papers
When 11.5 million documents were leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, it revealed details of how the world’s one percent exploit secretive offshore tax structures. Among the names that surfaced in connection with shell companies were many art world insiders, including collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, art magazine publisher Louise Blouin, Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev (who, it was claimed, used an offshore entity to shield millions in art assets from his wife during a divorce), Chinese auction house head Chen Dongsheng, gallerist Dominique Lévy, and dealer David Nahmad. Although use of offshore tax structures is legal and there are legitimate reasons for using them, the appearance of the names of art world players in the documents raised a lot of questions. The list was extensive.
2. Kelley Walker at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Controversy erupted over the exhibition “Kelley Walker: Direct Drive” (on view through December 31, 2016) at CAM St. Louis, leading the museum to modify the show, which included silk screened works of images featuring police brutality obscured by smeared chocolate. With many calling for his termination, chief curator Jeffrey Uslip abruptly announced that he had accepted a position at another institution.
3. Old Master Forgery Scandal
Some 25 paintings worth an estimated $225 million brought to market by French art dealer Giulano Ruffini were revealed as cunning fakes over the past year, raising suspicion that a forgery ring of Old Master paintings has been active in the art world, with its full extent still unknown.
The scandal is all the more compelling because of the high-profile organizations that appear to have been taken in by the scam. Sotheby’s issued a $10 million refund when a portrait it had sold, which was supposedly by Frans Hals, was proven to be inauthentic.
Sotheby’s went on to purchase James Martin’s forensic research company Orion Analytical, which discredited the Hals painting, to provide comprehensive technical analysis of artworks in a new scientific research department. Could this be a last gasp for the embattled field of connoisseurship?
4. Wildenstein Tax Evasion Trial
The jury is still out on the outcome of the long-awaited Wildenstein family trial, which wrapped in October. The tribunal is expected to issue a decision in January over whether art dealer Guy Wildenstein and his family are guilty of evading French tax law, using a complicated system of offshore trusts, to the tune of some €500 million ($522 million). Should the court rule against him, the family patriarch is facing up to four years behind bars and a €250 million ($260 million) fine.
5. Jewish Themes Get Museum Director Fired
In December, Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, the director of the Polish Culture Institute in Berlin, was unceremoniously fired, with internal documents revealing that the Polish ambassador in Berlin had complained that her programming included “too much Jewish-themed content.” The Polish Embassy denied that there was any link between Jewish themes and Wielga-Skolimowsk’s dismissal, but the decision to let her go was still widely criticized.
6. Nazi Loot
A reliable entry on any art world scandal list, cases of Nazi-looted art continued to make headlines in 2016. Congress passed the Helen Mirren-backed Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, but the Commission for Looted Art in Europe found that Nazi-looted art recovered by the Monuments Men were in many cases returned to high-ranking Nazi officials or their families. A government investigation is now underway.
French Impressionist Camille Pissarro was at the center of two restitution battles: The University of Oklahoma agreed to return La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep) to French Holocaust survivor Léone Meyer (the canvas will henceforth be shared between the school’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and a to-be-named French museum); and the long-running case between Spain’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and David Cassirer returned to court.
The contentious Cornelius Gurlitt case also continued, with a Munich court ruling that the Nazi-tainted collection will go not to his family, but to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern. Moving forward, we have our eye on the high-profile case over a suite of paintings once owned by Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, now held by the German state of Bavaria, that reportedly passed through the hands of Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand. Flechtheim’s heirs are suing for the artworks’ return.
7. Donald Trump Purchased His Portrait With Charity Money
In their election-season investigations of Donald Trump, the Washington Post discovered that the reality star, now our president-elect, spent money from his charitable foundation to purchase not one but two portraits of himself. The first, a six-foot-tall Michael Israel canvas, was painted on the spot at a 2007 benefit auction, where Melania Trump bid first $10,000, and then $20,000, to take it home.
In 2014, Trump picked up a second piece featuring his portrait by Argentinian artist Havi Schanz, for $10,000 at a charity gala. Altogether, the Post found that Trump misused $258,000 of foundation funds.
While making his defense, the painter had to prove that he had not been incarcerated in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1976, and that the piece was actually, in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction coincidence, created by the hand of a since-deceased man named Peter Doige. (The difference in the pronunciation of the two names was a constant point of confusion during the trial).
Doig ultimately won the case, but the fact that he had to defend himself before a judge remains scandalous. “Artists, like scholars and other experts, are—and should be—able to express their opinions about the authenticity of art works without fear of being sued—and, if they are sued, without having to mount an expensive defense that includes a full-blown trial,” art lawyer John Cahill told artnet News.
9. Jerry Saltz’s Instagram
Jerry Saltz’s Instagram fame comes with a price: not everyone appreciates his off-color, nudity-heavy posts. A public conflict erupted on October 15, when artist Leah Dixon and curator Lauren Christiansen published a lengthy Facebook post decrying “Jerry’s irrelevant vagina obsession,” and likening the New York magazine critic to the Donald Trump of art world social media.
Having occasionally been banned from the social media network, Saltz generally requests that the “squeamish art world loyalists and new moral Taliban” just unfollow him. Following Christiansen and Dixon’s tirade, Artspace asked Saltz, “Do you understand why people might find it offensive that a man, especially a man with a lot of power in the art world, post so many pictures of naked female bodies, including ones that degrade women?”
The critic admitted that he understood their point of view, insisted that he wasn’t trying to be provocative, and said he was sorry to have upset anyone. “Please, please block me because I’m not here to offend,” he said. “I’m sad about it. It hurts my feelings that I’ve hurt other people’s feelings.”
10. Roadkill at the Hermitage
Artists who use animals in their work often find themselves the subject of protests from animal rights activists. Jan Fabre found that out the hard way with his exhibition “Knight of Despair/Warrior of Beauty” at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which featured taxidermied animals, including dogs hung from the ceiling. (The artist also made headlines this year for his brief tenure as director of International Festival of Athens and Epidaurus, resigning abruptly when his plans to feature Belgian artists came under fire from the Greek art community).
According to Russia Beyond the Headlines, Fabre has been decried as a “tramp” and a “pelt-skinner,” and his works labeled “an abomination.” An Instagram movement, #ShameOnHermitage, called for the show to be shut down, even though all of the animals used in the show were actually killed in traffic accidents, and the work is meant as a negative commentary on animal abuse. Fabre previously ran afoul of animal activists with a 2012 Antwerp performance in which he threw live cats in the air.
Despite the outcry, curator Dmitry Ozerkov is standing behind the show (which is scheduled to run through April 30, 2017), and the Hermitage director told The Art Newspaper that Fabre “definitely does not deserve any accusation of mistreating animals.”
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