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The Art World Takes on the New Normal and Other Headlines

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by Jana Farmer and Nicole Haimson on April 10, 2020


Art Market Reacting to the Global Pandemic
“May You Live in Interesting Times” was the title of the art world’s 58th Venice Biennale of 2019, a reference to an ancient curse and a comment on the complexities of modern political and social life. Year 2020 has now taken this complexity to a whole new level, with the novel coronavirus having a devastating effect on artists, businesses and art organizations.



Major auction houses are furloughing workers and cutting costs and executive pay as their salesrooms are closed and auctions postponed or conducted entirely online. Following worldwide closures of public venues, the museum sector is facing financial losses, layoffs and furloughs as it grapples with questions of how to continue connecting with audiences and bringing in-person experiences to visitors in a virtual world. And yet, with medical professionals highlighting the psychological toll that quarantines and self-isolation are likely to take on the population, museums and art may be part of the mechanism to support social cohesion and public engagement.

In the near future, government and philanthropic funding will be critical in helping museums and artists weather the crisis. Germany rolled out a €50 billion ($54 billion) stimulus package to support its creative and cultural centers while England’s Arts Council has announced a £160 million ($190 million) emergency relief package for artists and arts organizations affected by the ongoing public health situation. The United Arab Emirates purchased more than AED 1.5 million of works by local artists to support the artists and galleries in the region following the outbreak. The National Endowment for the Arts will distribute $75 million in funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Artists, dealers and art fairs are working on creating and improving online and virtual reality exhibitions, signaling the possible start of a new online era. The Biennale of Sydney has become the first major biennial exhibition to go virtual, using the Google Arts & Culture platform. The content will include filmed walk-throughs, podcasts, curated tours and artists’ takeovers, and Q&A sessions. As online use of artworks is considered derivative work, art market professions need to be mindful of the intellectual property laws and rights of privacy/ rights of publicity, making certain to secure appropriate licenses.


SCOTUS Holds That States Cannot Be Sued for Copyright Infringement
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the state of North Carolina could not be sued for copyright infringement based on the principle of sovereign immunity. The case involved videographer Frederick Allen who documented the recovery effort of a famous shipwreck, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of legendary pirate Blackbeard. North Carolina published some of his photos on its website without permission, and eventually agreed to pay Allen $15,000 in compensation. But then North Carolina published his work online a second time without permission, and Allen sued.

Purported Emmy, Grammy and Oscar Winner Pleads Guilty to Forging Certificates of Authenticity, Mail Fraud and Identity Theft
Los Angeles native Philip Bennet Righter has pleaded guilty in California and Florida to various charges involving his attempted sale of more than $6 million in counterfeit artwork, use of forged artwork as collateral for loans and improper tax write-offs. Righter purchased works of art alleged to be by renowned artists such as Warhol, Basquiat, Haring and Lichtenstein and attempted to resell them as real after forging certificates of authenticity for each piece. In a further effort to pass off the works of art as authentic, Righter used custom stamps for the artists featuring the insignias of artists’ estates and cited former dealers in provenance documents. Righter’s victims purchased more than $758,000 in counterfeit art from him. He used some of the forged artwork as collateral for loans, on which he later defaulted. Righter also donated some of the forged pieces to charity, enabling him to receive tax refunds. Despite Righter’s Instagram account indicating that he has won an Emmy, Grammy and Oscar, no record of him receiving any such recognition exists.

Artist Who Vandalized Cattelan’s Viral Banana Artwork Cleared of Charges
Rod Webber, a performance artist and activist, has been cleared of criminal charges in connection with alleged vandalism he committed at Art Basel in December 2019. The exhibition featured Maurizio Cattelan’s artwork titled “Comedian,” which consisted of one yellow banana duct-taped to the gallery’s wall. The work went viral, as its sale price was exorbitant and it evoked Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Marcel Duchamp’s readymade urinal. After artist David Datuna, without permission, took the banana from the wall and ate it in a work of performance art, Webber wrote “EPSTIEN [sic] DIDNT KILL HIMSELF” with red lipstick on the empty wall. The charges against Webber were dismissed after Art Basel declined to participate in the criminal proceedings.

Armory Show Moves Date and Location
The Armory Show, New York City’s premier art fair, is shifting its 2021 date and location, citing logistical reasons. After being held for nearly two decades in March at Manhattan’s West Side Piers, the event will now be held in September 2021 at the Javits Center.


Four Guards Under Investigation in Connection with Green Vault Heist
After as much as $1 billion in priceless art and artifacts were stolen from the Green Vault in Dresden, Germany, authorities have begun to suspect that several museum guards may have been involved. While two of the guards are alleged to have not “reacted adequately” to prevent the theft, one of the guards is suspected of having furnished the thieves with information about the museum’s security and layout, and another of having interfered with the alarm system. Authorities continue to search for the perpetrators and are offering a substantial reward for information that leads to an arrest or the property’s return.


Yoruba Sculpture Repatriated to Nigeria May Be Fake
In late February, the government of Mexico repatriated a bronze sculpture to Nigeria that was thought to be a 1,500-year-old Yoruba relic. The sculpture was seized by customs in Mexico City while allegedly being smuggled into the country. While Mexico’s and Nigeria’s experts and agencies initially authenticated the sculpture, other experts have now come forward, stating that they believe the sculpture to be a fake.


China Closes UNESCO Heritage Site After Initially Relaxing Social Distancing Measures
Thousands of visitors flocked to the Huangshan mountains in Anhui province, lured by the offer of free entry to the three-day Ching Ming festival offered by the government to boost tourism. The site was shut down promptly thereafter, having reached its 20,000-person capacity, amid concerns that another wave of the coronavirus may take hold in such massive gatherings.

Singapore Museums Will Close Again
Following Hong Kong’s example, Singapore’s museums and commercial galleries will close for at least four weeks, following the mandate issued by prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, in order to protect against a new wave of COVID-19 infections.

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