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Art Noir: Black Lists and Speculators

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2010-09-15-iChia0013.jpg
Artist, Sandro Chia, who wants you to know that he agrees with Charles Saatchi.

When a big name collector "offloads" the art of a specific artist from his collection, it can, we have heard, have a chilling effect on the market for that artist's work. Sometimes this makes the artist very angry. And sometimes things escalate.

All the same, Charles Saatchi feels that a collector should do as they will with the artwork they buy.

Asked about a long-standing rumor that he had "ruined" the career of Sandro Chia when he purged his collection all of his Chias at once, Saatchi said:

At last count I read that I had flooded the market with 23 of his paintings. In fact, I only ever owned seven paintings by Chia. One morning I offered three of them back to Angela Westwater, his New York dealer where I had originally bought them, and four back to Bruno Bischofberger his European dealer where, again, I had bought those. Chia's work was tremendously desirable at the time and all seven went to big-shot collectors or museums by close of day.

His take away? "If an artist is producing good work, someone selling a group of strong ones does an artist no harm at all, and in fact can stimulate their market."

Weighing in on the story, artist Sandro Chia had this to say about the whole Saatchi affair:

Sometimes I wonder how long it takes to correct such nonsense, stupid and untrue nonsense. It took years to find out that Saatchi did not flood the market but he simply sold, with a profit, three of my paintings. Probably that transaction wouldn't have had consequences if I did not get mad at him because he didn't sell the painting to me as agreed. Now how long is it going to take to find out that Saatchi did not ruin my 'career' since in the mean time I had several museum shows and my work did sell in auction even during recession. And, most importantly, how long is going to take before art people understand that art is stronger than manipulation?

But not everyone agrees. And in an increasingly volatile market, apparent slights from collectors can alert dealers and artists to a dreaded new phenomenon: SPECULATORS.

Artist Marlene Dumas, allegedly, placed collector Craig Robins on a blacklist after he had crossed her by selling one of her pieces from his collection to David Zwirner Gallery. At that time, Mr. Robins claimed that the sale to Zwirner was supposed to be confidential and so he sued Zwirner for breaching that agreement in telling Dumas of the sale, and for reneging on promises to remove him from the blacklist.

Robins' claims that Ms. Dumas keeps a blacklist of buyers that she views as "speculators" and that the David Zwirner Gallery held any sway with her, remain to be proved. But dealers and collectors do seem to agree that the motives of collectors are under greater suspicion now that art prices have shown a tendency to rise quickly from sale to sale at auction.

This is because contemporary artists have become a sort of gambling chip. Speculators are likely to buy art in the hope of making a lot of money fast by flipping the art at auction. Such behavior, though, can mess with the provenance of an artwork or the reputation of the artist herself. The existence of waiting lists, of preferred customers who are given first choice and preference, has been common knowledge for a long time. But the existence of blacklists that hold the names of speculators or undesirable buyers who may need to dump art due to financial trouble, has also recently been acknowledged by insiders.

Art dealers who wish to protect the reputation of their artists will try to chase speculators away, preferring to place art with collectors who will lend status to them.

Just ask Jeffrey Deitch who told the New York Times:

People laugh at this whole notion of us saying that we 'place' work instead of selling it, but in fact that's what we try to do. We want the work to go to people who are as serious about the work as we are. And that job is probably only going to become more difficult

The ethics of this practice has, of course, been called into question as this sort of artificial exclusivity and the enforced suppression of sales can drive prices skyward without regard to the real merit of the work as it would be tested in a free market.