Are brick and mortar art galleries the loss leaders in an art world, potentially spiraling beyond viable limits? More than ninety art fairs now define the rhythm of globalized art business. This development has profoundly altered the relationships amongst artists, gallerists, and collectors.
This panel discussion explores and critiques the impacts and challenges – legal, ethical and business – of the rise of art fairs. This is part of an initiative to create dialogue amongst lawyers, artists and emerging and established art professionals working in the primary or secondary markets.
, Chair, Committee on Fine Arts, New York State Bar Association, Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law (EASL) Section, Attorney and Faculty at Sotheby’s Institute of Art
Elizabeth Dee, Gallerist
, Attorney at Stropheus Art Law
, Litigation Partner at Sullivan & Worcester LLP
Here in Part 2, an audio/video recording of Richard Lehun’s PowerPoint presentation can be found in the section on his presentation below. A dedicated audio recording of Nicholas O’Donnell’s comments also precedes his text.
Judith B. Prowda, Moderator:
In Part 1 we began with Gallerists Ed Winkleman and Elisabeth Dee. Ed offered an overview of the research on art fairs he is conducting, in preparation for his upcoming book, Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market. Elizabeth reported on the chances and risks that art fairs impose from her perspective as a dealer and a founder of an art fair.
Here in Part 2 our speakers are attorneys Richard Lehun and Nicholas O’Donnell.
Richard M. Lehun is a founding member of Stropheus Art Law, New York’s pioneers in the provision of unbundled legal and business services to artists, gallerists, collectors and museums. Richard is one of the few to have completed a doctorate in fiduciary law, cross-appointed between McGill and Harvard Law School. He is responsible for gallery, museum and auction house ethics and fiduciary duties at Stropheus Art Law. He’ll be looking at the ethical problems that fairs raise.
Nicholas O’Donnell is a litigation lawyer at Sullivan & Worcester LLP and the practice group leader of the firm’s art and museum group. He has spoken frequently on the topic of WWII restitution litigation, including at a conference in Heidelberg last January about the Cornelius Gurlitt affair. Nick’s widely read Art Law Report offers commentary on legal issues affecting visual artists – the visual arts community. Nick will present on legal issues that art fairs carry with them.
I’m grateful for my employer, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, for graciously hosting this event, as so many New York State Bar Association, Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law (EASL) Section events, in this beautiful space which is my second home. This program is part of an initiative of EASL’s Fine Arts Committee to create dialogue amongst lawyers, artists, and emerging and established art professionals working in the primary and secondary market. Two years ago we pioneered a program on legal issues for artists and galleries during Bushwick Open Studios Weekend, geared to the primary art community. Last October we held a program on Gallery Ethics and have posted an audio podcast and transcript of that program on the Stropheus Art Law website, and we will do the same for tonight’s program.
Richard M. Lehun:
To situate our discussion let me quote Michaela Neumeister de Pury: “Whenever I hear about a new art fair starting, it is almost physically painful for me. The art world is becoming a Gypsy circus.” And Jerry Saltz, who I’m sure many of you know, categorizes the situation like this: “The downside, the beloved linchpin of my viewing life is playing a diminished role in the life of art. And I fear that my knowledge of art, and along with it, the self-knowledge that comes from looking at art, is shrinking.”
We’re in a situation where there are significant contradictions. By looking at ethics in my presentation, I’m going to be looking at contradictions. And what is an ethical problem? An ethical problem is when you have to make a choice between outcomes. Both outcomes contain good and bad, and you’re in a situation where you have to resource that decision, and you have to carry with your stakeholders the consequences of those decisions. This is an area that I spend a great deal of time with in my practice; trying to figure out what burdens on decision-making mean when there is no clear answer.
Art fairs are unavoidable, and they are a contradictory phenomenon, and contradictions increase complexity. The main problem is, the more complex things become, the fewer people can typically do something, or do it well. Those who can master the complexities profit immensely. Those who can’t, as our past panelists have repeatedly underscored, may be threatened with extinction. With the rise in the complexity comes an increased risk of failure, and not only of a financial dimension. The art context is a web of relationships. Those relationships have always been difficult, fraught with idiosyncrasy, failure, and injustice. I don’t think that the art fairs themselves bring an entirely new dimension of dysfunctionality. What they do is bring a different dynamic of dysfunctionality that people may or may not be adequately prepared for. So how do the art fairs affect these relationships? That’s what I’m going to try to cover in very few minutes.
I’m an attorney and my special interest is conflicts of interest. I want to know how we can best deal with these types of situations. I’m concerned about how stakeholders – this means artists, gallerists, collectors and museums – succeed or fail when confronted with contradictory needs and conflicted obligations.
Let’s look at some of these contradictions that affect specific groups.
We have the contradiction, that on the one hand, collectors and visitors value accessibility. This means they get to see a lot, and you get to see it in one place, and it’s very efficient. We know that collectors and advisors are time-poor. They want to consolidate research, search, and purchase. As Don Thompson wrote in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, comparison shopping at fairs is easy. A single dealer might with difficulty get three Gerhard Richters to show a client. Dealers at Art Basel can show twelve of these at the same time. There is the impact of the herding element; that the sheer number of people and the sold stickers alleviate collector uncertainty.
Fairs are playing to the experience economy. People don’t just want to go one place and have one kind of limited aesthetic experience; they want to interact with a globalized jet-setting world where they experience something. Fairs replace quiet sessions in the gallery with a shopping mall, blending art, fashion, parties in one place. Collectors buy impulsively. They may never visit the gallery of the dealer from whom they buy at the art fair. With each fair, collectors become more accustomed to purchasing art in a shopping mall.
Okay, so that’s good for the collectors somehow, one thinks. Previously, collectors had to consider the interests of the gallery to gain access to works, and indirectly or directly, the interests of the artist, because they had to go through the gallerist, and behind the gallerist one assumes, in most cases that there was an an artist. Collectors are now rendered significantly less conflicted by art fairs. They have simpler choices. If we want to analyze what’s going on at that level, it’s not just the efficiency, it’s also something beyond that. Ethical choices of collectors are diminished by art fairs. Their lives and relationships are simplified. They can spend more money easily. This decrease in transaction costs seems like a benefit, but it also means that their virtual, idealistic investment is discounted. There is significantly less incentive to invest in the dealer and the artist. Even as the gallerist makes more money, social and contextual capital is being lost. The structural degradation of social and contextual capital is a significant structural downside of the art fair.
The art fair has a structural bias toward undermining the threshold investment of the collector in the artist and gallery relationship. Being able to see works on what may appear to be a level playing field ignores the fact that art fair politics, as has astutely been pointed out here, is no less determinate at art fairs than it is at galleries. But there is a difference here, a very important difference in the frame of reference. In their own gallery, a gallerist answers to stakeholders like artists, collectors, and others. At an art fair gallerists must uphold the fair’s standards and interests. A fair does not represent anyone. It does not have an agency relationship to anyone. If anything, it survives on visitor interest. As we saw in the previous slide, attracting collectors by lowering the ideal threshold investment makes money for the art fair and gallerist. The art fair cultivates and depends on these organic relationships, but it is structurally conflicted and motivated to removing barriers to trade by undermining those relationships. The art fair piggybacks on relationships, while needing to undermine them in fact.
We’re still on the potential benefits of the art fairs in terms of accessibility. But there are other important potential conflicts. You might be able to see a work at the fair, but is it for sale? Or is it for sale to you? Very difficult to know at times. The incentive in the old system of galleries to hang works that were pre-sold, borrowed, or otherwise unavailable to build the feeding frenzy was negligible in comparison with that of the art fairs. There is an obvious moral hazard here. What a gallerist may or may not have done in the confines of the gallery, where their practices were under scrutiny over time by a group of often knowledgeable actors, shifts dramatically under the pressures and opportunities of an art fair cycle.
Thus the lessening of the investments by the collectors is mirrored by a weakening of obligations by the gallerist. And in the first law of thermodynamics we know that that energy is going to go somewhere. And that loyalty is going towards the art fairs themselves, at the expense of other stakeholders. The problem, however, is that gallerists can’t have the same kind of perspective as an art fair, which is a money making machine essentially. The gallerists, contrary to art fairs, are often agents, representatives, and in fact fiduciaries of their artists. More on that in a second. Let’s look a little more closely at the structure of the gallerist’s conflict with art fairs.
I invite the audience to read these two quotes. Now, I’m going to refer to Matthew Slotover a few times, not because I have anything against him, or believe that he is a pernicious agent in the art world. Simply, he’s representing a perspective that is clear and necessarily differs from that of gallerists like Ed Winkleman.
„And of course, galleries are not obliged to do art fairs. Art fairs really exist for the galleries—the galleries are our clients, and we’re there to serve them. It’s up to them whether art fairs exist; if they don’t want them to exist all they need to do is stop participating and art fairs would immediately not exist. So I think there are a lot of things being confused here.“ Matthew Slotover, Artspace Interview, 2013
„Because getting into the right art fairs (or not) can truly change the fate of a gallery, dealers are spending more and more of their time strategizing and networking other influential art dealers.“ Edward Winkleman, How to start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery
Slotover obviously knows a lot about art fairs. What makes his opinion so glib here? He is not actually responsible to anybody. He can make it up as he goes along. He does not owe a duty of loyalty, so he can be as self-interested as possible without moral ambivalence. Ed, on the other hand, is a gallerist. He has a duty of loyalty and absence of conflict of interest regarding his represented artists. But if a gallerist cannot fill demand without being at art fairs, then serving Matthew Slotover’s doublethink becomes increasingly important.
I’m not going to repeat the figures about the necessity of art fairs to the dealer’s life, we’ve had enough of that. I will sum up with a blog quote: “The most expensive booth at the Frieze Art fair will go for $80,000, but the greater risk for dealers lies in not participating.” In conclusion, the costs and economic advantage of being at an art fair will reduce the ability of mid-range galleries to remain viable. The gallerists have the choice of embracing the new paradigm and its hidden costs, or risk their existence. This conflict of interest is having a profound impact on the art world as we speak.
So then, let’s talk about what this does to our artists. Again we have quotes from Matthew Slotover and Jeff Poe:
„You know, artists can make one work a year or a thousand works a year, and they make that decision based on what they are comfortable with, what their public desires are, what their credibility desires are, and how many great ideas they have. But artists are extraordinarily strong personalities in most cases—they’re not going to let their galleries tell them what to do because of an art fair.“
Matthew Slotover, Artspace Interview, 2013
“If they are any good, they make art because they have to. They don’t do it to please the market. So for some artists, hanging out here can mess with their heads. Also, let’s face it, this is not the optimum place to exhibit work. The subtle notes in artworks are drowned out by the cacophony.”
Jeff Poe, Blum and Poe
The mythical notion that artists can exist on idealism alone, and that their personalities are immune from being affected by market forces, is an act of willful blindness, self-serving towards the art fair ideology. And let me be clear, I am not here to do a cultural critique of art fairs. I’m here to look at the ethical conflicts involved, so that we can discuss them, so that decision makers at the art fairs can respond to them, as well as all other the stakeholders in the process.
It is clear that gallerists are by law fiduciaries of the artists they represent. The investments that galleries are forced to make in the art fair model impoverish their brick-and-mortar galleries, lower the collector’s necessary ideal investment, and lower their necessary investment in the collectors. This means that their ability to represent artists changes. Their role becomes one to broker access to art fairs, but the art fairs do not represent the artist. So, on the way to adapting to the new reality, potentially surviving and making more money, the artist’s reliance on the gallery is also reduced. What’s the point of a solo show, or gallery representation, when the gallery does not bring the artist to the only game in town?
In fiduciary obligations, the key thing is loyalty. So all gallerists that represent artists are fiduciaries, and the primary responsibility they have by law to those relationships is loyalty. One of the very special things about the artist-gallerist relationship is now being shifted by the art fair ideology. And we need to be aware of what that means.
Those who are perhaps less familiar with the definition of the fiduciary relationship are invited to spend a moment on the text of this slide and I’ll come to my conclusion.
Fiduciary concept’s central rationale is “nurturing and enforcing commitments to act loyally toward the interest of others […]”
De Mott, Fiduciary Obligation Under Siege: Contemporary Challenges to the Duty to be Loyal, 1992
“The principle of altruism requires that any conflict of interests between the parties […] must be resolved in favour of the beneficiary, who is entitled to the ‘single-minded loyalty’ of the fiduciary.”
Hoyano, The Flight to the Fiduciary Haven, 2011
Loyalty, pre-art fair, could mean a vast spectrum of different responsibilities. Loyalty post-art fair may mean little more than more art fairs. Post-art fair could mean for the gallerist being nothing but a broker for the art fair ideology. This fundamentally reduces the scope of what a gallerist needs to provide, and in fact, they may fail as a fiduciary if they don’t produce this outcome. What used to be a fiduciary obligation in a broad sense to the potential of an artist’s career etc, shifts as gallerists become conflicted by the obligation to bring that represented artist to a fair, or they’re not doing their jobs, while the at the same time undermining their very relationship to that artist and their collectors.
This makes the gallerist’s life more complicated. It will become much harder to balance interests. At the same time, not chasing the money will not be an option. So there is no going back to the past practices. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
And the artists are also not unaffected. They must be complicit to survive. This is why I say, those who care about what they do have to sit down and go through these questions carefully. The whole point of thinking of things in fiduciary terms is to treat certain ethical questions as more than just happenstance.
There’s no time like the present, and in fact there will be no time like the present, to take a moment to strengthen our capacities with these ethical issues. Thank you for your attention.
Good evening everyone. First I want to start by thanking Judith and Richard for inviting me and to Ed and Elisabeth. It’s really great to be here, and for their thoughts. It’s really a privilege to participate. I’m going to talk little bit about relationships.
The interaction between a client and a dealer, whether at a brick and mortar gallery, or an art fair, is the commencement of a legal relationship. It might be a successful relationship, it might be strained, but that’s what it is. So what I want to talk about tonight are some of the ways that the formation of that relationship, and its rights and duties, might be affected by the fact that it is happening at an art fair. My focus is going to be on US and NY law given my practice, but hopefully we can issue spot on things that can arise around the world.
It seems obvious, but the starting point is to remember where you are. In the absence of an agreement, in most instances for the sale of art the place of the transaction will supply the law that governs that transaction. So New York law will govern Frieze, Dutch law will govern TEFAF, and Hong Long law will govern Art Basel Hong Kong.
The nature of an art fair also creates practical differences in the formation of that relationship. Consider: every art sale involves some sort of diligence, whether cursory on the spot or in depth, a negotiation of the essential terms of the transaction, and an actual exchange. A contract, after all, is an exchange of promises: I will do this if you do that. But every contract has explicit terms and implied terms, and the practical aspects of an art fair, and the law of the place where it is, will all go into what constitutes the resulting agreement.
Diligence and preparation. What does the buyer have time to investigate, and what are the consequences of proceeding with the transaction?
This is as much a matter of risk management as it is a legal question. But whether you are a dealer at a show or a buyer, your starting point has to be the rules of the show. Is there anything in the materials in which a buyer agrees to a set of terms incorporated by reference? That is, when you attend or pay for something, do you end up signing a form that says something like “buyers agree to abide by the rules of the X show”? If so, those rules will be a part of your deal.
If you are a dealer, the same will hold true most likely at the application stage. Even without a single buyer, the dealer is probably setting foot more firmly in the location of the fair. Art Basel, for example has a choice of law provision in its application form in favor of the location of the particular show (Canton Basel, Florida, Hong Kong).
What is it? What representations and warranties are inherent to a sale, and how does the dynamic of an art fair complicate how you can rely on what you have been told?
If you’re in a Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) jurisdiction, like New York, the mere exchange of information will give rise to enforceable obligations related to that exchange if there is ultimately an agreement.
UCC 2-313 provides that
(1) Express warranties by the sellerare created as follows:
(a) Any affirmation of fact or promise made by the seller to the buyer which relates to the goodsand becomes part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the goods shall conform to the affirmation or promise.
(b) Any description of the goods which is made part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the goods shall conform to the description.
( c ) Any sample or model which is made part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the whole of the goods shall conform to the sample or model.
(2) It is not necessary to the creation of an express warranty that the seller use formal words such as “warrant” or “guarantee” or that he have a specific intention to make a warranty, but an affirmation merely of the value of the goodsor a statement purporting to be merely the seller’s opinion or commendation of the goods does not create a warranty.
We can well imagine how this will play at an art fair rather than a gallery. Hundreds of people are passing a booth each hour. Routinized conversations ensue. The sellers give a standard litany of descriptions-they think, if they can remember. Buyers have spoken to dozens of people that day. Was it this dealer, or another, that talked about the condition of the paining or the location of origin. Which conversation becomes “part of the bargain”? So where advance homework is wise in a storefront, some system for noting what you heard from whom—or what you told whom—may matter if and when a deal is struck.
To illustrate the point, imagine a buyer who attends a fair of rare cars on Long Island. He talks to several sellers at the fair, but he is taken with one conversation in particular. This Chrysler LeBaron, he is told, belonged to a certain specific individual. Because of that, he buys the car in a handshake deal. The handshake representation about who owned it? “John Voigt.” You may well laugh at the idea of being as senseless as George Costanza, but the larger point is that once you shake hands, exchange promises, make a deposit, or otherwise commit yourself, what happened in that one conversation among many could turn out to matter a great deal.
Consider a less ridiculous scenario. In a conversation at a booth, the buyer observes a signature at the lower portion of an etching that looks to her, a sophisticated buyer, to be Picasso’s. She asks the dealer, what is that? “That’s signed Picasso” he says. Or did he say “that’s signed BY Picasso?” or did he say “that SAYS Picasso”? Do either remember accurately. The buyer purchases it. In a way that is so much less likely with an auction catalogue, there is now an issue with WHAT 2-313 warranty was made. This scenario happened to a client of mine in a more old fashioned context, and the particulars were more easily sorted out, but the dynamic of the show makes it one to look out for.
Here too geography will matter of course, and whether a civil law or other jurisdiction implies warranties into a contract like this. Many don’t.
Before we leave this topic, remember that an expression of VALUE is considered an opinion, and not a statement of fact within 2-313 or other law. But a claim of comparable sales is an expression of fact.
Did you make an agreement?
Let’s take a step back and talk a little about the basics of contract formation in this context. With apologies to the lawyers in the room who have done their best to forget about first year of law school, it is worth repeating that an agreement does not consist of what you think it meant, it consists ordinarily of the objective manifestation of the parties’ respective intent to be bound.
The New York Statute of Frauds, Gen. Obligations Law § 5-701, like most, requires that any agreement must be in writing to be enforceable if “By its terms is not to be performed within one year from the making thereof or the performance of which is not to be completed before the end of a lifetime.”
The key thing to remember here is not whether it IS performed within a year, but whether it can be.
So contrast: a visitor from a civil law jurisdiction sees a contemporary work at Frieze. She has a structured payment coming to her own business, so she needs some time to make the full payment, but she is willing to commit. So she says I’ll give you 50% now, 30% in six months, and the rest a year from today, after which I’ll pick it up. The dealer, happy to obtain 80% within six months, agrees. She’s never heard of the Statute of Frauds. But six months later he’s heard nothing, and he sues. Strictly applying the statute of frauds, he should win, right? Strictly, no. a year from today is not within a year. Cases have gone to court over this issue, and the party seeking to enforce the agreement has not always prevailed. Good news for them recently, although addressing a different aspect of the Statute of Frauds concerning auctions (this is the Jenack case), the New York Court of Appeals reserved some choice words for relying on the SOL disingenuously:
It bears repeating in such a case as this that: The Statute of Frauds was not enacted to afford persons a means of evading just obligations; nor was it intended to supply a cloak of immunity to hedging litigants lacking integrity; nor was it adopted to enable defendants to interpose the Statute as a bar to a contract fairly, and admittedly, made.
But here, seller in particular, beware.
I started by teasing out some of the geographical implications on the choice of law that might apply to an art fair transaction. But, as I like to phrase the foundation of all legal questions: so what? Who cares where the fair is?
With regard to the most important aspect of any sale, title to the object, you will care a great deal. Consider again a pair of scenarios, different only in geography.
First, in New York at an art fair views a striking Max Beckmannn domestic scene on consignment from an identified and reputable seller. He views its condition, and notes its presence in the catalogue raisonné with approval. The provenance provided is orderly and has no gaps or suspicious activity. He buys the painting for $25 million, which is noted in the local and international press.
Two weeks later, he receives a letter from a lawyer. The painting, the lawyer argues, was sold at the auction at Galerie Fischer in Lucerne in 1939 after being looted from a Jewish family in Frankfurt. The provenance he was given was fictional; the catalogue raisonne confused this work with another version. The lawyer’s client wants the painting back. Oh, and the reputable and known seller has gone bankrupt and fled to Zimbabwe with our buyer’s money.
Now imagine the same scenario, but at Art Cologne. What happens, and why does it matter?
Assuming that the buyer really did not know of the painting’s history, the location will not only be important, it will probably be dispositive. In New York and elsewhere in the United States, a thief cannot pass good title. So purely as a matter of title, the buyer will lose the painting. He may have some defenses like laches if the true owners knew of the painting’s intermediate location and failed to act, but that is necessarily an uphill battle, and his burden to prove AFTER a trial.
In Cologne, or Maastricht? More than likely, as a good faith subsequent purchaser, he will keep it. Even within the western art market, an increasingly seamless one, different places make different judgments about who should bear the risk of loss in that situation.
World War II looting isn’t all that matters by location. Assume fairs in the same two locations, New York and Cologne, but for a Giorgio di Chirico. The same facts apply, but assume that in 1955, the true owner had located the painting in a Geneva gallery, sued for its restitution—and lost to a “good faith purchaser.” Now, even in New York, the seller is not passing a thief’s title, he is passing adjudicated good title. So the buyer may get the painting after all.
Lastly, assume the di Chirico hypothetical: but fair number two is in Rome, where just last week, a new government passed a law declaring all Italian metaphysical art to be the national patrimony of Italy.
The buyer in New York may now be better off. Unless it was imported to the US AFTER the patrimony designation (in which case there could be customs problems, and a visit from the Asset Forfeiture Unit of their friendly local U.S. Attorney office), it’s here and it’s probably not going back. But within the EU? That jurisdiction that favored good faith title may be out of luck.
So, to foster the discussion, remember: where you are will affect whether there is a relationship, and how it plays out in the short term, and if people ever disagree. Thank you very much.
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