Art Market Intrigue Part 4,231: Marlene Dumas vs. Collectors


In one corner, we have a female, South African artist with a MoMA solo show and a significant auction record under her belt. In the other, a Miami collector willing to name names, a no-no in tightly-knit commercial art circles. The issue at hand? Craig Robins has gone on record stating that painter Marlene Dumas “maintains an active blacklist of those she views as speculating in her work,” part of a larger spat with David Zwirner Gallery, who now reps Dumas. Robins — by all accounts, an extremely wealthy real estate developer — claims $3 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages from the gallery for denying him the right to purchase any more works by Dumas, of which he already owns 29. In our completely unlicensed court of law, we have to voice some skepticism about Robins’s litigious grounds.

First, David Zwirner’s ostensible, if not monetary, first interest is to its artist. And the gallery reps bring up a solid point to the New York Times:

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.”

Collector and plaintiff Craig Robins. Photo: Cindy Karp for The New York Times.

Legally, it will be difficult to prove that Zwirner ever “promised to help get Mr. Robins off the blacklist and sell him choice paintings from the current show of Ms. Dumas’s work at Zwirner” unless it’s in writing — in which case Zwirner have settled out of court. Additionally:

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.”

Marlene Dumas “Wall Weeping”(2009), part of Against the Wall, courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery.

The existence of such a list, of course, is not outlandish. That an artist would have ego enough to direct where his/her work ends up is not unheard of. And galleries are not immune to such puppeteering.

…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.

Some gallerists in turn blame the voracity of collectors like Robins. Jeffrey Deitch — you might recognize the nameadds his two cents:

“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.”)

Marlene Dumas “Charity” (2010), part of Against the Wall, courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery.

So where does the onus lie: should gallery sales be regulated, or should collectors who otherwise play the game shut up when things don’t go their way? Or should everyone just have a snack and take a nap?