The Online Otto Dix Project

A German Artist and Print Maker

The Ronald Lauder Collection

Ronald Lauder and his daughtersAs the Top One Percent prepare for the oppulent excess of Art Basel Miami Beach, the New York Times published a detailed summary of art collector Ronald Lauder’s uncanny ability to shield his wealth from taxation.

Lauder is the heir to the Estee Lauder fortune and owner of the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue and 86th Street. In celebration of the museum’s 10th anniversary, Mr. Lauder’s personal collection is now on display. It spans the medieval period to the modern era. Of personal interest were several preparatory drawings by Van Gogh along with German expressionist works by Otto Dix, Max Beckman and Egon Schiele. (Mr. Lauder bought his first Schiele years ago with his bar mitzvah money.)

Unfortuantely, the exhibition lacks context beyond “look what I can afford.” Some works felt like they were collected on the basis of availability, not as the coveted card of an inside straight. The collection was not nearly as satisfying as a Met retrospective but it’s worth $20.00 and a few hours of time. It provides an opportunity to surmise the manner in which you’d invest the billions that you inherited from mumsy.

The Federal tax code provided Lauder incentive to buy all he could. He’s entitled to deduct full market value of all works he donates to museums including museums he owns. At the time he amassed much of this collection, the deal was even sweeter. Lauder was able to deduct a portion of a work’s value without actually donating it to a museum.

In fairness to Ronald Lauder, his collection is more readily accessible than others that were amassed with the aid of tax loopholes. Neue Galerie exhibits are always worth visiting and I suggest you take an opportunity to view the owner’s personal collection. Afterall, you helped finance it.

A Lost Michelangelo Heads Home

It was the Age of the Robber Barons, a time when Industrialists could amass huge fortunes in a manner that one muckraker termed “immoral, unethical, and unjust.” As coffers filled, these New World aristocrats sought Old World treasures to help affirm their place beside the great houses of Europe.

She was a German baroness whose house was in decline. Among her relics was a painting loosely attributed to Michelangelo. She shipped it to America in the hope that it might fetch a nice sum on the market there. There were no takers. The painting passed to an acquaintence and eventually to the hands of a middle-class Rochester family. In a manner that was certainly tongue-in-cheek, they referred to it as “The Mike.”

Some time in the 1970s, the Mike fell as it was dusted so the Kober family placed it behind a sofa where it remained until it was inherited by Martin Kober.

After retirement, the former fighter pilot took renewed interest in the work. With the help of an Italian art historian, they were unable to discount the possibility that it was painted by Michelangelo. In fact the pair are certain it was painted by the Rennaisannce master. Officially, the jury is still out.

In a recent twist to this story the painting, La Pieta With Two Angels, is headed to Rome where it will be included in an exhibition of Renaissance art. This is a good step towards acceptance by the art world. For now it will appear in the exhibition as “in the style of Michelangelo.” The distinction is important. Should the painting be accepted — if goes from Michelangeloesque to Michelangelo — it would be worth between 100 and 300 million dollars.

Lost Otto Dix Works Discovered In Bavaria

Peter Barth and Herbert Remmert have done it again. For the second time in a little more than a year, we learn they’ve discovered previously unknown works by a German expressionist.

Last year the owners of Remmert Gallery in Dusseldorf discovered a prepatory watercolor for “Germany, a Winter’s Fairytale” by George Grosz. It was a remarkable find since the original has been missing since 1933. It was presumeably destroyed by the Nazis who felt threatened by its content.

This year, Barth and Remmert uncovered four works by Otto Dix. They were discovered on the Bavarian estate of Hans and Martha Koch. The trove includes three water colors and a prepatory drawing of the art dealer Alfred Flechtheim.

Hans Koch was a kidney and bladder specialist from Dusseldorf. He was a noted art collector whose portrait Dix painted in 1921. His wife Martha also posed for the artist then left Hans for him. She would become Mrs. Otto Dix. The Doctor was undisturbed by this event since he was already romantically involved with his wife’s sister. The Dixes and the Kochs would remain friends.

Gallery Remmert plans to show the newly discovered pieces along with other works in an exhibition in Düsseldorf to mark Dix’s 120th birthday later this year.

Read more: [Otto Dix: Online Catalog]

Art Theft Is On The Rise … Maybe

Art TheftThe Art Newspaper reports that art thefts are on the rise across North America. Over the past decade, the paper says, international art theft has risen in value from $3 to $6 billion dollars. More on that number in a bit.

My position holds that art theft is actually rare. Opportunities are far more abundant than occurrences of theft. In the US, every twenty-four seconds a car is stolen despite locks, alarms, garages and other security measures. This is because thieves can convert cars into cash. They are stripped for parts which are resold on secondary markets.

Art security is notoriously lax. Valuable items hang on publicly accessible walls. Mark Lugo, an exception rather than the rule, simply pulled works from hotel and gallery walls. But Lugo didn’t try to profit from his ill-gotten gains. He was building a private collection. Since he didn’t steal for profit, Lugo didn’t face a deterrent that stops other thieves. It’s hard to profit from stolen art.

Toyota, GM and Volkswagen each sell over seven million cars a year. That makes it difficult to locate an individual vehicle. And if you consider that vehicle has value even when its chopped into pieces, then you understand why car theft is prevalent – it’s practitioners feel they can make money.

In the art world, great value is contained in fewer items. Print runs might number from a few dozen to a couple hundred. Paintings are literally one-of-a-kind items. It is difficult to move stolen merchandise without attracting attention from police and theft victims. As the Art Newspaper notes, the LAPD’s two man art theft department was able recover more stolen merchandise than any of the twenty-one other departments.

Now about that six billion dollar theft number. The FBI includes fakes and forgeries in the crime of art theft. Given that context I can believe that “theft” is on the rise. Art forgery is as old as the art market. Online auctions are crawling with fakes and this market has greatly expanded over the last decade. The Art Newspaper should have more correctly said, “Art crimes rise across North America.”


On Grosz and Dates

Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse

George Grosz was an German Expressionist working in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. If his style was an affront to Nazi aesthetics, his politics were more offensive. Soon after the Spartacus uprising in 1919, Grosz joined the Communist Party of Germany. In 1933 as it became clear the winds were shifting to the Nazis’ backs, Grosz fled Germany for the United States.

Grosz left several important works behind with his Berlin dealer. Now his heirs hope to recover those pieces from their current owners, the Museum of Modern Art. As the New York Times reports today, the entire case may hinge on filing dates. The MoMA has already won several cases because the heirs filed too late to be considered under New York law.

As noted in the article, the United States has signed several international agreements in which the signatories agreed to decide these types of cases based on merit rather than technical issues such as late signings. These agreements have no legal binding and they’ve ignored them in previous cases.

I would prefer to see these works in the hands of their rightful owners. In this case, that’s probably the heirs of George Grosz. But given the current Supreme Court’s reluctance to encroach on state matters, it seems very unlikely it will hear the case. The previous decisions will stand and the Grosz works will remain in the MoMA.

UPDATE: On October 3, 2011 the Supreme Court denied the heir’s petition for certiorari.

Is Trickle-Down Economics Good For Art?

Trickle-down economicsIf the CEO drops a fifty in the parking lot as he pulls the keys to his S-class from his pocket and if you can manage to snag it while nobody’s looking, that’s trickle-down economics.  This economic model is hotly debated among political partisans but the question before this blog is this: Is trickle-down economics good for art? Ben Davis doesn’t think so.

Virginia Lunatic Strikes Again!

Susan Burns, the lunatic who attacked post-impressionismSusan Burns of Virginia seems to be a harsh critic of post-impressionism. In April she attacked Gauguin’s “Two Tahitian Women.” She screamed “This is evil!” and she tried to pull the painting from the gallery wall.

As she was pounding the painting with her fists, a social worker from the Bronx tackled her. Police arrived and Burns was immediately arrested. There was no apparent damage to the painting but we can’t help but wonder if the social worker got a try-out with the Jets.

At the time, common wisdom held that she took issue with the painting’s nudity. Afterall, she screamed “He has nudity and is bad for the children!” In the painting, both women bare naked breasts and offer fresh fruit to the viewer. That might be a little more than a Bible Belt denizen can handle.

Well, Susan Burns is back again. On August 5th, she returned to the national gallery and attacked Henri Matisse. She walked over to “The Plumed Hat” and slammed it repetitively against the wall. According to the Smoking Gun, she damaged the original 1919 frame.

The Plumed Hat contains no nudity. There’s no need to shield it from children since it contains no breasts. It certainly seems like she hates post-impressionism. Or perhaps a responding police officer hit the nail on the head. “Maybe she just hates art,” he said.

The Incarceration of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is kind of visionary most countries would be proud to count among their artistic classes. His creativity has helped pull the international spotlight toward contemporary Chinese culture. His persistence has drawn attention to the plight of underclasses and the abuses of political power. And he has helped form an iconic image of contemporary China with his design for the Olympic stadium.

Instead of celebrating an extraordinary career, China placed him in jail.

This spring, Ai participated in an online campaign for a Chinese style “Arab Spring.” In April, a huge contingent of police cordoned his studio. They entered and searched the premises. Officers left with laptops and hard drives. Ai was detained along with eight studio workers, his wife and his son. The official line was that Ai was arrested on economic crimes. A day after that announcement, police returned to his studio in search of evidence to support the charge.

He was detained for three months against a backdrop of international outrage.

Now new details emerge of Ai Weiwei’s detention. According to a New York Times report, Ai was held in a tiny room and watched 24 hours a day by shifts of two military guards who never left his side. The guards were never more than 30 inches away — even as he slept, shit, showered and shaved.  Ai described this type of scrutiny as “mental torture.” And “it worked,” he said.

Mr. Ai’s associate, who insisted on anonymity because of the risk of official retaliation, said that from the very beginning of his detention the police made it clear that it would be a difficult experience. “He told me that when he was taken from the airport, the police told him: ‘You always give us trouble, now it’s time for us to give you trouble’,” the associate said.

Arrests for tax evasion are rare in China. Ai Weiwei’s “crime” was an appeal for democratic reform. As long as China continues to use incarceration for rebuttal it does not deserve the kind of prominence that Ai’s career helped bestow upon it.

Who Vandalised The Poussin Paintings?

I’ve noticed that many of you are wondering who vandalized two Poussin paintings at the National Gallery. Unfortunately, not much is known at this time.

From an eye-witness account, we’re led to believe he is of French origins. After spraying the Poussins, he was heard muttering in French. Steven Dear told the Guardian, “He seemed proud of what he had done, giving a verbal protest – some kind of explanation in French as to why he had done it – and then just standing there waiting to be arrested.”

From the West End Extra, we learn that he’s a fifty-seven year old resident of Westminster. After the arrest, he was detained and charged with “criminal damage.” The maximum sentence for this crime is ten years. There is a special section of criminal damage for ‘heritage items’ but it strangely does not include paintings.

The last we’ve heard of the Poussin vandal, he was before the Westminster Magistrates Court. As a result of that appearance, he was detained in a mental health unit. So he’s either a French-speaking, elderly man, with a taste for conceptual art or bat shit crazy. Perhaps a little of both….

Who Stole The Mona Lisa?

The Mona LisaAugust 21 marks the 100th anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa. Security was so lax its disappearance was noted a day later when it became apparent that it wasn’t in the hands of a scholar or a photographer.

When the museum opened a week after the theft, a large line of guests queued to see the empty space where the master work was once located. The thin beguiling smile was replaced by four hooks and a square of unfaded paint. It was the century’s first exhibition of conceptual art.

Opportunities for art theft are far greater than occurrences of art theft. If it’s difficult to profit from obscure stolen art, then imagine the daunting task of selling the world’s most famous painting. The thief was able to remove the work undetected. His downfall occurred when he tried to sell it.

As the anniversary nears, there are several great books and articles to mark the event. I encourage you to read at least one article about the theft. It’s a fascinating story and it helps explain how the Mona Lisa was transformed from a 15th Century masterwork to the star of the Louvre.  One hundred years later, long lines still form for a brief gaze at the lady from Florence.

[FT: Who Stole The Mona Lisa] [Gaurdian: The Man Who Stole The Mona Lisa]