Our play, "Beneath the Gavel", which just completed its original run at the New Britain Museum of American Art, explored how the modern art market grew into a global business. We explored how branded art -- branded by the artist, by the dealers, and by the auction houses -- has transformed the art world.
In our play, we explore the tensions between collectors, galleries and auction houses as each tries to stoke demand. For example, we tell the story of one art dealer who represented parties on both sides of a transaction. What the Panama Papers have shown, however, is that even provenance can be manipulated for profit. Here, from the New York Times:
The Seller Isn’t Always the Seller
The papers reveal that a collection of modernist masterpieces assembled by Victor and Sally Ganz, a Manhattan couple, and auctioned for $206.5 million at a landmark sale at Christie’s in New York in 1997, was not actually sold by their family, but by a British financier who had secretly bought it months earlier.
According to Mossack Fonseca [Panama Papers] documents, the British billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis — or rather, one of his shell companies — was the seller at the auction, apparently in some kind of partnership with Christie’s. It was all a massive “flip,” a quick resale that was early, if undisclosed, evidence of just how much art was being treated like a commodity.
The event set a high for any single-owner collection at auction, ushering in a new era of blockbuster prices for trophy art. The question is whether people would have paid as much if they had known that the art was not fresh from the estate of two connoisseurs who had spent half a century scouring galleries for gems by artists like Picasso, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella.
“To ‘flip’ an entire collection of that quality is unprecedented,” said the art adviser Wendy Goldsmith, who was Christie’s director of 19th-century European art in London at the time and was unaware of the auction house’s arrangement with Mr. Lewis. “It was an icon of estate sales, a milestone in pricing. Bidders were buying the Ganz provenance.”
Scott Reyburn, “What the Panama Papers Reveal About the Art Market”, New York Times, April 11, 2016
If there was one criticism that early audiences had about "Beneath the Gavel", it was that some of the true stories in our play weren’t believable. The Panama Papers have revealed just how far down the rabbit hole the high stakes world of high art goes, and you can be sure that these new discoveries will be reflected in the touring version of "Beneath the Gavel". Stay tuned.
For more information on the Panama Papers and art:
New York Times:
Panama papers main site:
Art Net News: