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She Can't Be Bought

You want a Mehretu? A Hirst? A Koons? Fat chance. A much-watched lawsuit is exposing the painful truth of this overheated market: It takes more than money to buy a hot piece of art.

The Artist: Julie Mehretu in front of a work-in-progress. She makes her large paintings by projecting one of her drawings onto a canvas, then tracing the lines.   

In January, one of the art world’s brightest young stars, Julie Mehretu, was put on display in a highly unusual way—on the stand in a Manhattan courtroom, where she’d been called to testify by her dealer, who’s feuding with a collector over her work. Born in Addis Ababa to an Ethiopian father and a white mother from Florida, Mehretu currently lives in Harlem with her girlfriend, fellow artist Jessica Rankin, who accompanied her to court, visibly pregnant with the couple’s first child.

The two women, in their scuffed construction boots and jeans, seemed out of place and a little bewildered. But in a way, everyone was. The suit was brought by Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a leading collector of cutting-edge contemporary art who was there to assert his right to buy Mehretu’s paintings. Yet she testified that before this case, she’d been completely unaware of Lehmann’s existence, even though he was one of her most passionate fans.

During a courtroom break, Lehmann looked hurt: “She’s never heard of me. I can’t understand why.”

Lehmann v. The Project Worldwide is the first lawsuit ever to come to court over a collector’s thwarted access to contemporary art. The case hinges on an unusual agreement: In February 2001, art dealer Christian Haye, who wore an electric-blue suit and cowboy boots to the trial, approached Lehmann, a 66-year-old French-Swiss collector who spends more than $1 million a year on contemporary art for his homes in New York, East Hampton, and Gstaad. Out of the blue, Haye asked him to invest $75,000 in his Harlem gallery, the Project, now at 37 West 57th Street and known as the Project Worldwide. In exchange, Lehmann would receive a 30 percent discount on his purchases from the Project until he had racked up an aggregate of $100,000 in discounts.

To sweeten the deal, Haye also offered Lehmann a right of first refusal on any work by any artist sold by the gallery. The arrangement went awry, according to Lehmann, when Haye declined to give his investor the one thing he kept asking for—and that other buyers seemed to be getting: large paintings by Mehretu, 34, whose exuberant abstract works map real and imaginary cities in layered flickers of ink and broad strokes of color. Her first big break came with P.S. 1’s first “Greater New York” show, in 2000, a launch pad for young talent (the second edition opens March 13). Then Empirical Construction, one of her largest works, was included in last year’s Whitney Biennial and snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art, where it is prominently displayed right around the corner from Barnett Newman’s obelisk. Now her art is very much in demand.

The courtroom battle has become an object of fascination in the art world. That may be because it reflects an increasingly common collector’s predicament—at its heart, it’s about someone’s being denied the opportunity to obtain what he can patently afford. The contemporary-art market hasn’t been this overheated since Soho circa 1989. Nowadays, hedge-fund billionaires who stroll into Chelsea galleries seeking work by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, or Cecily Brown quickly discover that money alone won’t help them get it. There is, more than ever, a waiting list, and more to the point, a pecking order within the list, which vaults some collectors above others.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, of course, is no hedge-fund upstart; a discreet private investor, he’s been collecting art for three decades, and his wife co-owns a leading Chelsea gallery, Lehmann Maupin. But in this instance, he might as well have been one. Unlike other stymied collectors, however, he decided he had grounds to sue.

“This case shows the length a collector would go to secure themselves choice material,” says Sandy Heller, an art consultant to some of New York’s top hedge-fund managers. “Julie Mehretu’s work looked amazing at MoMA. If I were told I was going to get something by her and didn’t, I’d get pretty pissed, too.”

When did collecting art become such a maddening exercise for wealthy collectors, akin to having to go before picky co-op boards only to be rejected over and over again? Even Rembrandt and Dürer had waiting lists. But “lists for younger artists are a much more recent phenomenon,” says Chelsea dealer Barbara Gladstone. “It’s a function of this excitable market.” People on Wall Street are seeking contemporary-art trophies—and waiting lists make works even more enticing to obtain. It sounds familiar, and naturally everyone wonders when this bubble will burst. Right now “feels like the last days of the Roman Empire,” says private-art curator Todd Levin. “Compared to the eighties, it’s a much broader group with much more money”—though some of the people are the same ones who bought art the last time around.

During her brash ascendancy as the queen of Soho in the eighties, art dealer Mary Boone succeeded in manipulating market demand by setting up waiting lists for such neo-Expressionist painters as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Ross Bleckner, and Eric Fischl. (It was a far cry from the dark ages of the sixties, when dealer Irving Blum struggled to find buyers for Warhol soup cans, which now fetch millions at auction.) Operating out of a former garage on West Broadway, Boone was the first gallerist to require aspiring collectors to purchase work by artists before it was even created—a move that exposed her to criticism that she sometimes persuaded artists to part with substandard work to meet the frenzied demand she’d helped stoke.