Here is our first report on the Dallas Contemporary’s eBay art sale.
The Dallas Contemporary has returned the remainder of its inventory of limited edition prints to the artists who donated them to the non-profit art space after it was revealed that dozens of the artists’ works had been sold on eBay for pennies on the dollar.
In addition, one of the prints given to the museum, “Dead,” by artist Vernon Fisher, was discovered listed for sale on the website of a gallery co-operated by a Dallas Contemporary employee. While works of the same edition had sold in 2012 on eBay for as little as $50, Red Arrow Contemporary shows a list price of $1,800.
The owner of Red Arrow Contemporary, Ed Stafford, whose daughter works at the Dallas Contemporary, said he did not purchase the piece on eBay, but bought it a month ago at a Dallas Contemporary pop-up shop sale for $1,000. The difference in the prices of the same work of art at the Contemporary’s pop-up shop and the Contemporary’s eBay store highlights the lack of oversight that led to the mistaken sale of art by dozens of highly-esteemed artists at prices as low as $15.
Members of the Contemporary’s board of directors met Tuesday afternoon with director Peter Doroshenko to determine what led to what board president Shelby Wagner called a “disconnect.”
“Obviously we made a huge mistake and a huge mistake was made by someone at the Dallas Contemporary,” Wagner said. “And we all take full responsibility for it.”
The prints that were sold on eBay were made during the tenure of the Contemporary’s previous director, who asked artists to donate prints as a way of raising funds for the art space. When new director Peter Doroshenko arrived in 2010, he instructed staff to unload much of the organization’s inventory as a way of raising a few extra dollars. He said he knew an eBay account had been set up, but believed that it was being used to sell-off the Contemporary’s overstock of books.
In an email sent on Tuesday evening, Doroshenko said he takes full responsibility for what transpired.
“My sincerest apologies have been conveyed to the artists and their galleries for the decisions that were made,” Doroshenko wrote. “We continue to hold the artists we have exhibited and partnered with over the years in the highest esteem.”
Still the return of the artwork offered little consolation to gallerists who believe the records of the eBay sales could affect how the artists’ work is valued. For example, the eBay listing of one of the prints made for the Contemporary, From North to South, East to West by Linnea Glatt, was also referenced on the website WorthPoint.com, which aggregates online sales for the purpose for researching and valuing art and antiques.
Talley Dunn, who runs a gallery that represents many of the artists whose work wound up on eBay, said when she first became aware of where the artwork was being sold, she tried to purchase as much of it as possible just to get it off the online marketplace. It wasn’t just that the work was being offered at prices that drastically undercut the market, she said. Some artists wouldn’t sell their work on eBay at any price.
“They don’t sell their work on eBay, even at $50,000,” Dunn said. “That’s not what anybody does. And taking it to a public forum on the internet without letting the artist know — there were so many levels of trust broken. There are so many elements of it that are disturbing.”
Murky Secondary Market
The sale of the prints by the Dallas Contemporary pulls back the curtain on a murky secondary art market in which works by artists are often sold and resold at great profit without any benefit to the artist’s themselves – and sometimes not even the galleries most invested in their careers. This situation is made particularly tricky when art work is donated to non-profit organizations, a common practice among art organizations who hold auction fundraisers. Artists, unlike patrons who offer cash donations, do not get tax write-offs for the donated work, and a poor showing at a fundraiser auction could affect an artists’ reputation. Regardless, artists often feel pressured by collectors and patrons to contribute artworks to fundraisers.
“The attitude towards artists is that they give art to non-profits as if it doesn’t have value,” gallery owner Dunn said. “If you or I gave $10,000 to the Contemporary, we might get our name on a wall. And there wouldn’t be a chance that we would be associated with something that harmed our careers.”
While sometimes fundraiser auctions lead to works being sold for above their going market rate, the reverse can also be true. The sale of the Dallas Contemporary’s Vernon Fisher print at Red Arrow Contemporary highlights how the for-charity price of a work of art can be quickly bumped-up once it enters the retail marketplace. The Fisher piece was purchased a month ago at the pop-up shop and is now being resold with an 80 percent mark-up.
Even Ed Stanford, who owns Red Arrow, admits that the secondary market can be unforgiving for artists.
“To some degree I think artists should be rewarded in the secondary market too,” Stanford said. “I would consider putting back some money to [Vernon Fisher] on [a sale of Fisher’s print]. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns went through this whole episode. They became famous but didn’t own any of their work anymore. So it has always been a sore spot for artists.”
Artist Vernon Fisher said he views the whole situation of finding his work listed on eBay with amusement.
“I’ve been around a long time and nothing much surprises me anymore,” Fisher said. “They look like clowns, let’s face it. The upside is the guy apologized and promised to return the prints.”
As for the resale of the prints, Fisher has experienced worse. He said there was a time in 1980s when he showed a piece in Dallas priced at $5,000. The work then traveled to a gallery in Dusseldorf where it was purchased by a collector. Fisher got $2,500 from the sale. After that, the work was repurchased by a collector in the United States and flipped to a museum, which paid $18,000 for the piece. The entire series of transactions transpired in just four months.
“This kind of sh*t happens all the time,” Fisher said. “There are a million art works out there that are floating around. The secondary market is way bigger than the primary, and I don’t see that changing. As an artist, if you get involved you’re wasting your time.”
Image: (left) Vernon Fisher, Dead, 2008 Color Serigraph Size 21” x 23” (right) Linnea Glatt, From North to South, East to West, 2009 Size 9″ x 9″