The rise in popularity of contemporary art over the past decade has led the price tag on many living artists’ work to soar exponentially. One of the painters who has truly benefited from this upswing is Marlene Dumas. In 2002, the South-African born Neo-Expressionist had sent few paintings to auction and her record sales price was approximately $50,000. In 2008, The Visitors, her Kirschner-esque painting of six working girls waiting for a john, sold at Sotheby’s for $6.3 million, making her the most expensive living female artist.
Although the market has been good to Ms. Dumas, the artist’s distaste for speculative art buyers has led her to create a ‘blacklist’ of individuals to whom she will not sell a piece. If she and her dealers discover that a collector has been buying paintings only to turn them over for a profit, they add said philistine to the index. Dumas’ frequently updated list is the subject of a lawsuit between Craig Robins, a collector and successful real estate developer and art dealer, David Zwirner. In 2004, Robins sold a piece in his collection, Dumas’ painting, Reinhardt’s Daughter through the David Zwirner Gallery. The haunting, thinly-painted canvas depicts an upside-down baby fading into a dark background. The piece alludes to the work of Ad Rienhardt, the mid-century American abstract expressionist, who is noted for his black paintings. It’s title suggests that it is a sort of self-portrait and exploration of how the female artist’s work fits into the boys club of art history.
According to Robins, Zwirner agreed to keep the terms of the transaction confidential to avoid angering Ms. Dumas. When Zwirner began representing the artist in 2008, he allegedly informed her of the sale, causing the irate painter to add Robins to her blacklist. Robins is now suing David Zwirner for $8 million, claiming that the dealer reneged on his promise to get him off the list and to offer him first dibs after museums on choice pieces from Dumas’ recent Middle East-themed exhibition, Against the Wall. Mr. Robins has also filed a preliminary injunction against the New York dealer in an attempt to stop him from selling three choice works from Against the Wall that he as been eying. The judge will give his ruling on the issue shortly.
The lawsuit illustrates the strange line between property and vehicle intellectual expression that art occupies. On the one hand, if an artist creates a tortured, confessional work, it it totally understandable that she would want to place it with a genuine art lover who will appreciate it, lend it to the occasional museum for a show, and perhaps eventually donate it to a cultural institution. The collector’s relationship to the piece can also greatly influence the work’s later art historical significance, the fact of which artists and dealers are keenly aware.
At the same time, there is no other area of investment where a person is expected to hold onto property out of principle, regardless of whether it’s value is increasing exponentially offering a chance at extraordinary financial gain. Artists might like to think that a collector’s purchase is motivated solely by their love of the art, rather than investment strategy. The reality is that anything that costs hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, whether it is purchased out of love, necessity or speculation, is an investment. Moreover, people’s lives, financial needs and aesthetic tastes change over time and a collector may have many reasons for parting with an artwork beyond a cynical desire to cash in.