Monthly Archives: April 2012

Where in the world is Michael Hammer?


Pierre Lagrange is upset and no one can blame him. Untitled 1950, a painting ostensibly created by Jackson Pollock is proving impossible to sell, much less return or authenticate. It would help if Knoedler & Co. Gallery, where he bought the work in 2007 for $17 million, were still open (it closed the day after he sent notice that the painting contains pigments unavailable until years after Pollock’s death).

“Untitled 1950″, a possibly-Pollock

It would help if Lagrange’s lawyers could locate owner Michael Hammer and subpoena him into providing documents and testimony in a lawsuit that has captivated the art world over the past months (he has ducked 11 attempts to serve him, at the same time maintaining that the gallery’s closing was unconnected to Lagrange’s attempt to return his painting: “I made a well considered and difficult decision to close the business and expect to realize significant savings in ongoing expenses”).

It would help if Glafira Rosales, a small-time Long Island art dealer, would divulge her source for the painting, which she sold to the renowned New York gallery alongside about 20 other fabulous, previously-unknown Abstract Expressionist works (she’s invoked her fifth amendment rights, and we may never know from whence they came). Heck, it would clarify things if Ann Freedman, who was Knoedler’s president at the time and closed the sale with Lagrange, hadn’t spent upwards of $500,000 on paintings by Pollock, Motherwell and Rothko supplied to her by Rosales for her personal collection.

Lagrange, a London hedge fund manager, bought the probably-Pollock in spite of its very fuzzy provenance and absence from the artist’s catalogue raisonné; he maintains that Freedman had assured him it would be included in an upcoming revision, which she denies. Either way, he probably didn’t know that a client had recently demanded his money back for a different Pollock from Freedman– who paid up promptly – after the International Foundation for Art Research declined to confirm the authenticity. What persuaded him, beyond great salesmanship and an irresistible artwork, was probably Knoedler’s reputation as a venerated gallery with a shining 165-year history. And this, everyone is speculating, is how Rosales could have gotten her incredible and unlikely cache of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces onto the art market in the first place.

The lack of provenance, absence of concrete authentication almost too-good-to-be-true nature of the artworks that eventually brought Knoedler between $27 and $37 million in profit were explained away by the Knoedler name; on one side there was Rosales whispering changing tales about an anonymous and wealthy Mexican buyer, while on the other stood the tall, silver-haired Freedman, who seems to believe to this day in the authenticity of this group of artworks. Various pieces have come into question over the past few years, with Lagrange’s being the most high-profile – and priciest.

In regards to the posthumous paints in his Untitled 1950, Freedman has noted that artists were often given experimental pigments to use before they became officially available to the public.  Furthermore, the son of the man who created these paints for artists such as Pollock explains that separate elements for a pigment exist prior to its creation. Pigment dating, in other words, is not always decisive. The whole truth may never come out, as long as Michael Hammer remains in hiding, Glafira Rosales stays mum, and Ann Freedman insists, “The works are of a five-star quality.” As Patricia Cohen writes in the New York Times, “Whether any lawsuit or criminal investigation will provide a definitive answer to the mystery of the paintings is far from certain.”

What remains of Knoedler

It seems to me that the best possible outcome for all beleaguered parties would be an official stamp of authenticity for each Ab-Exp painting in question. But then detractors from the messy, masculine, abstract style wouldn’t get to make their jokes about a fifth-grader – or forger – being able to create the same thing.


Information taken from:

Patricia Cohen, Suitable for Suing, Feb. 22, 2012, New York Times.

The Knoedlers’ Meltdown: Inside the Forgery Scandal and Federal investigations, April 6, 2012, Vanity Fair.

Rachel Corbett, Lawyers Chase Elusive Figure in Knoedler Lawsuit, artnet. 

Berthe Morisot Revived

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, Edouard Manet, Oil on Canvas, 1892

For the first time in over 70 years, Berthe Morisot, the major female figure of the Impressionist movement, has her own retrospective show at the Musée Marmottan Monet in FranceThe collection will exhibit paintings, pastels, sketches, furnishings, and personal documents that tell the story of Morisot’s exceptional career.

As an adored muse of the greatest painters of her time, such as Renoir and Manet, Morisot was the wonder woman of Impressionism. A grand lady of the bourgeoisie, an attentive mother, and an avant-garde painter, Morisot broke gender stereotypes in an exclusively male dominated medium, paving the way for many future female artists.

Morisot was born into a successful bourgeois family in 1841, and discovered her love of art through classes at a young age. With the support of her family, Morisot befriended instructors and artists alike making her debut at the Salon de Paris at the age of twenty-three. The beauty in Morisot’s work is that she painted what she experienced on a daily basis. Her paintings reflect the 19th-century cultural restrictions of her class and gender. She avoided urban and street scenes as well as the nude figure and, like her fellow female Impressionist Mary Cassatt, focused on domestic life and portraits in which she could use family and personal friends as models.

Woman at her Toilette by Berthe Morisot, 1875

Morisot made her mark with compositions that fit into the Impressionist mold but was at the same time embodied with her own momentary styles that still inspire and awe today. So if you are in Paris this summer then stop by the museum and learn more about her life and work because you never know when another retrospective will appear, and her work is truly something to behold.

A Pleasant Surprise: Earliest Copy of Mona Lisa Discovered in Prado

The earliest known copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous masterpiece Mona Lisa has been discovered by conservators at the Prado in Madrid.  Experts believe that this copy, originally hidden beneath black overpaint, was painted in Leonardo’s studio by one of his pupils alongside Master da Vinci himself.  The two key authorities at both the Louvre and the Prado have accepted this work as a copy, lending validity to this claim.

LEFT: The Prado copy before restoration RIGHT: The Prado copy after restoration Images from The Art Newspaper

The copy is painted on walnut and is very close in size to the original.  Experts date this work to c. 1503-1506 and have narrowed down the artist as one of two of da Vinci’s pupils: Andrea Salai or Francesco Melzi.  The Prado’s curator Miguel Falomir identifies the work as a portrait listed in the 1666 inventory of Madrid’s Alcazar Palace. How or when it became a part of the Spanish Royal Collection remains a mystery.  As to why the black overpaint was applied over the background in the mid 1700’s, nobody can be certain.  Falomir’s best guess is that this effect was intended to assimilate the copy into an interior where other portraits had very dark backgrounds.

LEFT: The original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci RIGHT: The Prado copy Images from The Art Newspaper

This copy is extremely important for two reasons: it informs us about Leonardo da Vinci’s studio practice and also reveals a lot about the original Mona Lisa.  This copy is better preserved than the original, so we may view the exact details that Leonardo intended us to witness upon his creation of the Mona Lisa – details that are no longer visible due to the Mona Lisa’s current condition. This copy is currently on loan to the Louvre in Paris so that visitors may view both the copy and the original side by side.

Information obtained from The Art Newspaper:

Bailey, Martin. “Earliest Copy of Mona Lisa Found in Prado.” The Art Newspaper, February 2012

Trouble for Sotheby’s?

The CtW Investment Group, an adviser to many union-sponsored pension funds (including the still-locked-out Sotheby’s art handlers) sent out a public notice to shareholders through the Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing the Sotheby’s board of favoritism and an unchanged internal structure since going public. The filing notes that four of the last six board members elected were nominated by CEO William Ruprecht (who earned $6 million last year), an executive that the board is in charge of overseeing, according to Sotheby’s own internal guidelines. Is it justified for someone to choose their own superior? Well that is the business ethic that CtW is taking a stand on publicly, and wants the buyers and shareholders of Sotheby’s to take notice of.


The company was privately controlled by the Taubman family a decade ago, but after a price-fixing scandal with rival auction house Christie’s they went public. Today, CtW is urging stockholders to vote against the re-election of three Sotheby’s board members as these figures are on the board’s “nominating committee,” in charge of naming potential new candidates.  In order to change the current structure, those members need to be removed, and an independent search firm to nominate candidates should be used CtW is stipulating.

As an example for the failings of the current structure, the CtW’s filing cites the failure of the Sotheby’s board to expel James Murdoch, who served as a member until stepping down last month, after he became involved in the News of the World hacking scandal. The airing of such grievances publicly is surely meant to send a statement and make buyers aware of Sotheby’s business practices, but are the practices really that abnormal for a corporate business?

Boards of directors are generally populated by elite business professionals, and the act of bringing in new individuals with expertise and knowledge who are not adjusted to the other board members can be difficult and create hostilities. While the current structure of the Sotheby’s board may not be good practice, it is common enough throughout the corporate world. The difference however, that CtW insists, is that such practices reflect poorly on the auction house’s business, which in turn hurts shareholders. As Sotheby’s is a public entity with a $2.5-billion market capitalization, the CtW believes that outside recruitment is necessary for Sotheby’s to remain objective and independent.

Protesters rallying outside the Sotheby's headquarters in New York

This filing, when taken in accordance with the current Sotheby’s lock out of their art handlers, is certainly tarnishing Sotheby’s reputation. The unionized workers have been locked out since August of 2011 over a contract dispute in which Sotheby’s was asking for the elimination of certain senior positions, such as general foreman and deputy foreman, and the replacement of 12 senior union workers with non-union workers. The auction house also proposed shortening the handlers’ work week by 2.5 hours. The union, in turn, was hoping to eliminate all non-union workers and restore the art handling staff to a full roster of 60 union members. Unable to settle, the union walked out and Sotheby’s brought in temporary replacement workers, during which union employees are unable to work or collect paychecks.

Such business practices are common in corporate America, but no matter your viewpoint on business ethics, image and publicly for a company is vital in the art world. With so many other competitors that have fewer to none corporate grievances, will Sotheby’s survive this onslaught unharmed?

Information obtained from ArtINFO articles:

Investors Slam Sotheby’s Corporate Board for Incestuous Governance, Calling for a Shake-Up by Shane Ferro

Will the Teamsters Strike Sotheby’s? The Head of the Art Handlers Union Discusses the Touchy Negotiations With the Auction House

Could the Mystery be over?

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston experienced one of the most famous American art heists in recent memory that has yet to be solved. In 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers made off with 13 masterworks: three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Flinck, five Degas sketches, a Manet, a Chinese beaker, and the eagle from on top of a Napoleonic flag, worth over $500 million today. The Gardner has been offering a $5 million reward for the paintings’ return since 1994, but to no avail. Finally however, after 22 years of twists and turns in the clueless and lead-less case, the FBI may finally have caught a break.

Federal authorities believe that Robert Gentile, a 75-year-old Hartford-based mobster, may have information pertaining to the heist and are detaining him in the hopes that he talks. Robert Gentile has been involved in the local criminal underworld since the 1950’s and was implicated by the leader of Philadelphia’s mafia family Capo Robert Luisi in part of a plea deal. Unable to pin Gentile down until recently, the authorities are hoping he starts talking.

Gentile however is not the first mobster to be implicated, as gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was suspected of knowing details in 2010 but the investigation concluded that he was not involved. The only other strong lead the investigators had was all the way back in 1994, when an offer was made from a unanimous source to return the paintings, but sides failed to come to terms and there has been silence since then.

Time is often the enemy of art crime investigators as the trail quickly gets cold, but time has changed the Gardner case in one way that could increase the chances of the paintings’ being recovered. This is due to the fact that the statute of limitations has passed for prosecution of the theft itself. As well as from a statement made by the US attorney that he will not prosecute anyone who has the paintings and offers to return them.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt 1633, one of the missing works

The paintings’ have never surfaced, not even as a strong rumor, in the international art underworld. Auction houses and dealers would never dare to touch them which means one of two possibilities for the works: (1) that they are in a private collection or (2) they are in storage somewhere waiting to be returned or sold.

With the emergence of a possible lead, could the mystery be finally over?  Not likely, as Robert Gentile is refusing to talk, but only time will tell. However, through the entertainingly cinematic tale of this heist there is a very important lesson to remember: properly protect your collections. From installing security cameras to setting up alarms to creating proper inventory lists for insurance, the security of your art should always be a priority as it is irreplaceable