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She Can't Be Bought

Luc Tuymans
Waiting list at David Zwirner gallery: As with Rauch, “50 serious collectors,” says Zwirner.
Current gallery prices: $200,000 to $400,000.  

According to Feuer, three collectors agreed to his terms. One, Susan D. Goodman, a strategic-marketing consultant whose clients include AOL, donated one of her Schutz paintings to the Corcoran in Washington. “I’m very philanthropic,” she says, “and I loved the idea of being able to do something for the museum and helping Dana’s career. It also had some tax advantages.”

The artwork Goodman is donating is a 78-by-72 oil-on-canvas painting called Twin Parts. “Isn’t it wild?” she says. “The subject is plastic surgery.” The picture she gets to take home is the 25-by-22-inch Head Eater. “It’s an image of a person eating their face. It’s really gross but kind of cool.”

Some dealers scoff at Feuer’s arrangement. But he can’t get his head around Christian Haye’s practice of promising investors access to works of art. “This paying-for-access thing is insane,” he says. “It seems like it’s going to end in a lawsuit no matter how you do it.”

What many in the art world don’t understand is why Haye allowed the case to go to court, rather than simply giving Lehmann the opportunity to plunk down $200,000 or so on a large painting by Julie Mehretu. For one thing, Lehmann is precisely not the kind of collector who would flip the work at auction. “Frankly, I can’t imagine what was going through Christian’s mind,” says Boesky.

Haye, 35, who was a poet and an art critic before becoming a dealer, says he did fulfill his agreement with Lehmann by selling him works by a video artist he was also keenly interested in, Paul Pfeiffer. (Lehmann purchased six works by Pfeiffer for a total of $250,000.) “It’s not like I told him he’d never get a Julie Mehretu painting,” Haye says. “I just said, ‘Wait.’ The people who wonder why I didn’t sell him a painting to avoid trouble are the galleries he spends a million a year at. Basically, if he had not sued me, he’d have one already.”

But did Haye really have a Mehretu to offer? By his own admission, it normally takes Mehretu five months to produce a large painting like the one at MoMA. She is currently said to have a commission to produce paintings for Michael Ovitz, the former Hollywood power broker who is a longtime member of MoMA’s board (a commission that was neither confirmed nor denied by Haye or Mehretu).

Lisa Yuskavage
Waiting list at Marianne Boesky gallery: 40.
Current gallery prices: $12,000 (for a six-by-four- inch painting) to $175,000.  

It’s also possible there were other people Haye wanted to reward for their support. In court, he identified Dennis Scholl, a Miami businessman, as an investor in the gallery. Scholl denies investing but acknowledges making a “friendly loan” in 2003. That same year, Haye sold him an ink-and-acrylic Mehretu for $80,000.

Ruling in Lehmann’s favor, Judge Ira Gammerman said Haye was in “a clear breach” of contract, and warned that “unless the parties reach an agreement, there’s going to be an award of substantial damages for the plaintiff.”

The two sides are scheduled to appear before Gammerman on March 2 to learn just how substantial. Haye’s attorney, Alan Effron, assesses the damages at $120,000, while Lehmann’s lawyer, Peter R. Stern of McLaughlin & Stern, puts the number in excess of $1.9 million.

Haye says he’s not worried about the damages, though the courtroom experience has left him dispirited. “This is hopefully my first and last lawsuit,” he says. “Law & Order and The Practice are fun to watch, but not much fun to be in.”

But, he adds, “once Jean-Pierre started the legal process, I had to figure that with an endless amount of museums and private collectors that want [a painting by Mehretu], is it in Julie’s best interest to give the fruits of her labor to someone who is going to sue me?”

Julie mehretu doesn’t seem to have much interest in discussing the subject of what’s in her best interest. “It’s an issue between the gallery and the parties involved,” she says. “I’m not a party of those contracts. That’s why I’ve tried to steer clear of the whole situation.”

A testament to her covetability, the case is hardly an embarrassment—even if her dealer’s lawyer put her on the stand to back up his contention that the Project should owe Lehmann less in damages than he’s seeking because her works haven’t increased that much in value since their original sale. (“I couldn’t believe a gallery would call their artist to testify about how little her work is worth,” says Stern.) “I would go with whatever the square foot is,” Mehretu says, estimating the worth of her paintings by their size. She later estimated that the one sold to Scholl had gone up in value only two and a half times—and was worth only $200,000—rather than the almost fourfold increase estimated by the plaintiff’s expert witness.

Despite such a blunt assessment, Mehretu must be aware that what gives her paintings such value in the wild, unregulated art market is precisely what can be least regulated about them: herself. Collecting the work of living artists excites, and frustrates, collectors because it is so unpredictable. Will an artist’s output dry up? Will her style change? Will a painting soon be worth four times what was paid for it?

And although many artists attempt to sway their own markets, dining with collectors if not (like Rembrandt) bidding up their own works at auction, Mehretu seems a bit more removed from the fray. After all, she didn’t even know Lehmann’s name.

“I make paintings, and when they’re finished, the gallery decides who has been interested in the work and they discuss with me who they’re planning to sell it to,” she says, while adding that right now she has no intention of leaving Christian Haye. “And they usually make very good decisions.”

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