Imagine a market for highly sought-after items in which the makers and sellers work hard to ensure that the items go only to certain buyers, even if other buyers might be willing to pay more. The favored buyers are then expected not to resell the items for many years, even if the values skyrocket. Ideally, in fact, the buyers are expected to give these items away eventually, for the public good. And if the buyers don’t abide by these expectations, they risk being cut off, cast out with the other unwashed wealthy who can afford to buy but have no access.
At least according to Craig Robins, a prominent Miami art collector and real estate developer who filed a federal lawsuit on March 29 in Manhattan, this is a portrait of the workings of the primary market for contemporary art, which, despite the recession, remains immense and highly competitive.
At its heart, the $8 million suit is a fairly ordinary contract dispute about confidentiality agreements and sales promises. But the details of the disagreement have provided a rare view into a normally very private world of high-end art selling in which membership rules, responsibilities, rewards and reprisals can be so complex and changeable that even art world veterans say they sometimes struggle to decode them.
Mr. Robins asserts that he sold a painting of a dark figure by the highly praised South African-born artist Marlene Dumas through the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea in 2004 with an agreement that the sale remain confidential. But the gallery, which did not yet represent Ms. Dumas, told her about it, Mr. Robins claims, causing her to become angry with him because, like many artists, she prefers to see her paintings remain long term in prominent collections.
Mr. Robins says that Ms. Dumas — one of whose paintings sold for more than $6 million at Sotheby’s in 2008 — maintains an active blacklist of those she views as speculating in her work, a blacklist that, he says, he is now on (and whose existence his lawyers, who were back in court on the case this week, say they plan to prove).
The suit, which claims $3 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages from the gallery, also claims that Mr. Zwirner promised to help get Mr. Robins off the blacklist and sell him choice paintings from “Against the Wall,” the current show of Ms. Dumas’s work at Zwirner (which is now her gallery), but that this did not happen.
In its legal response, the gallery has called the suit baseless, saying it had never promised choice works or confidentiality after the sale.
“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.”
As for the supposed blacklist, the lawyers added, as if addressing a purely philosophical problem, “If such a list exists, and if Robins is on it, Zwirner did not put him there and cannot take him off.”
But several dealers, art advisers and collectors specializing in contemporary art said in recent interviews that with the explosion of the art market over the last several years and a sharp rise in the number of speculative buyers entering the market, those who sell art have become much more wary of collectors’ motives — and that they keep, in addition to secret waiting lists for in-demand artists, another even more secret list of buyers suspected of wanting to flip art for a quick profit.
“This is the biggest fear for most artists for whom there is serious demand,” said Allan Schwartzman, a veteran art adviser and curator, who, like others involved in selling work, described an increasingly complex interplay between contemporary artists’ market value, collector base and long-term reputation.
“In general,” Mr. Schwartzman said, “there has been so much profiteering in recent years, even from so many people who are seen as being serious collectors.” (Of course, dealers and auction houses also earn commissions on this kind of profiteering.)
Jeffrey Deitch, the longtime dealer and art world dealmaker who is closing his SoHo gallery this summer to become director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, described collectors whom “we have to chase away, who are at the gallery trying to buy, in the primary market, work by desirable artists,” only to end up selling it a year and a half later at auction for a steep profit.
“They humiliate us by this kind of manipulation,” he said. (He described a collector who bought a work from his gallery after “intimating” that it would be donated to a museum but who then quickly sold it at auction. After Mr. Deitch informed him that he would no longer do business with him, he said, “He was shocked, but he knew what I was talking about.”)
Of course, some collectors contend that it is the dealers and artists who are guilty of manipulation by operating in such a highly selective manner, artificially suppressing the supply of popular artists’ work in order to drive up prices. And if they have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a work of art, the collectors ask, why should they necessarily be required to keep the painting — or to try to shepherd it into a museum collection — if they decide they no longer like it or want it?
Even serious collectors who are generally regarded more as keepers than as sellers complain that, in recent years, several dealers — and highly involved artists like Ms. Dumas — have gone overboard in their protectiveness and desire to control an artwork’s destiny after it is sold.
“I think sometimes there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy from some of these dealers,” said Adam Lindemann, a longtime collector and author of a 2006 book, “Collecting Contemporary,” that offers advice to aspiring collectors.
“I’m not buying a can of sardines here,” Mr. Lindemann said. “I’m buying something that I’m in love with. But times change, and sometimes you need to sell things.”
Mr. Robins’s suit — and a similar one filed in 2004 against a New York dealer by a prominent European collector, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, who also complained of an inability to buy choice works — are seen as evidence by some within the collecting world that the contemporary art market has become so contentious that even serious, long-term collectors are now being pushed into fights. Mr. Robins, for example, owns 29 works by Ms. Dumas, and has called her “one of the top three artists in my collection.”
Mr. Zwirner and Ms. Dumas declined to comment about the lawsuit. Mr. Robins’s lawyer, Aaron Richard Golub, also declined to comment, except to offer a general observation about dealers: “They might say they’re motivated by trying to place pieces in museums and the right collections and such, but at the end of the day it’s all about profit.”
Mr. Deitch said that while the tension in the market has calmed since the downturn — “We’re certainly having to play defense less than we did a few years ago” — the international market for contemporary art has now become so large that there never will be a return to a time to which many dealers look back nostalgically. It existed even as recently as the 1980s, built around a much tighter-knit group of dealers and collectors, for whom money played a lesser role.
“People laugh at this whole notion of us saying that we ‘place’ work instead of selling it,” Mr. Deitch said. “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.”