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Artnet News
Mar. 3, 2009 

Superdealer Larry Gagosian has hit a snag with his plans for Chris Burden’s new show, titled "One Ton One Kilo" and slated to open at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, Mar. 7- Apr. 4, 2009. Centerpiece of the new installation was to be 100 gold bars, worth more than $3 million, but the glittering hoard has inadvertently gotten caught up in the Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, whose assets have been frozen by the government amid allegations of massive fraud.

Gagosian had bought the gold in January from Stanford Coins & Bullion, a company belonging to Stanford. Now it seems that a middleman, Dillon Gage Group, is refusing to deliver the gold because of the investigation -- sending Gagosian to court, arguing that the gold should be released because it "represents a straightforward spot purchase of a tangible commodity," rather than the sort of investment deal with Stanford that is the subject of the SEC investigation.

Christie’s Paris sale of the Collection Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé on Feb. 23-25, 2009, was a spot of bright news amid generally glum prospects, setting an assortment of auction records and raking in a total of $483.8 million [see Art Market Watch, Feb. 26, 2009]. But now the auction has been sucked into a whirlpool of politics, clouded by disputes over colonialism and human rights, and what appears to have been a calculated attempt to embarrass the auction house.

As has been widely reported, Cai Mingchao, the collector and auctioneer who submitted the pair of $18-million winning bids for the two Qing dynasty bronze heads, was making a political gesture, and never in fact intended to pay for the lots. "I did this on behalf of all Chinese people," he said at a press conference in Beijing on Mar. 2. Cai serves as an advisor to the National Treasure Funds of China (NTFC), an organization that since 2002 has worked to repatriate looted Chinese artifacts. According to a report by China’s Xinhua news service, NTFC deputy director Niu Xianfeng specifically stated that Cai had sought to disrupt the sale of the two bronzes. It was "an extraordinary method taken in an extraordinary situation," Niu stated, "which successfully stopped the auction."

The general manager of China’s Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Company, Cai had solid standing in the auction world, having purchased a for a Ming dynasty bronze Buddha for close to $15 million ($HK 116 million) at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in 2006. He had registered as a bidder on the same day of the Sain Laurent auction, and made the winning bids by phone. It seems unlikely, however, that either major auction house will welcome Cai at future sales.

The disputed works, part of a set of bronze heads based on the Chinese zodiac from an antique water clock, ca. 1750, were identified in the Saint Laurent catalogue as an Exceptionally Rare and Important Bronze Head of a Rat (lot 677) and an Exceptionally Rare and Important Bronze Head of a Rabbit (lot 678). They were listed as sold for €15,745,000 each, handily topping estimates of €8 million-€10 million. As for their history, the heads disappeared during the Second Opium War, when the Summer Palace was looted by Anglo-French troops in 1860, an unpleasant fact that makes the two objects particularly volatile symbols.

A Christie’s spokesman said that the house had offered to sell the works to the Chinese government in advance at a discount, but had been rejected because the price was "too high." The colonial provenance led to sharp rhetoric leading up to the sale. A group of Chinese lawyers sued to try to stop the sale, calling the plunder of the Summer Palace an "unhealed scar, still bleeding and aching." China has little claim to the objects under international law, however, and the legal efforts failed. Following the auction, Chinese authorities vowed to make it more difficult for the auction house to operate in China.

Meanwhile, Pierre Bergé has done little to calm the situation, stating that he will now keep the two sculptures. Before the sale, he had offered to return the heads to China if the People’s Republic would "observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama." A Xinhua editorial shot back, "It's a big irony that Berge uses the bronzes, the exact evidence of human rights abuses done to the Chinese by British and French colonists more than a century ago, to ask China to apply human rights."

In recent years, China has been aggressively trying to repatriate looted objects. According to the New York Times, the state-run China Poly Group acquired tiger, ox and monkey heads from the zodiac fountain in 2000, while the NTFC brokered a deal to buy a bronze pig from the set in 2003, with a $1 million donation from Macao billionaire Stanley Ho, who in turn bought a bronze horse’s head from the set at Sotheby’s in 2007, for $8.84 million. The whereabouts of the remaining five zodiac heads from the Summer Palace are not known.

Xinhua reports the Chinese government is hailing Cai’s stunt as "a lesson to the world, including the French people" -- presumably, a lesson not to mess with China.

The urban graffiti artist Swoon is setting sail for the upcoming Venice Biennale. Her latest project is titled the Swimming Cities of Serenissima, and consists of a series of hand-crafted boats made from recycled materials, a sequel to her previous efforts, including Miss Rockaway Armada, which sailed down the Mississippi River in 2006-2007, and the Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, seen in the Hudson last year. For the latest in this series of art flotillas -- part traveling circus, part art collective -- Swoon and her crew plan to navigate the Adriatic Sea, beginning in the Karst region of Slovenia and arriving in Venice for May 2009, in time for the opening of this year’s scheduled Biennale. Along the way, Swoon and her crew of 30 collaborators hope to transform the project into an "ark-like cabinet of wonders" with souvenirs from their travels, to be displayed in Venice. They will also offer a variety of performances.

For those interested in supporting such free-spirited endeavors, two fundraisers are planned in the immediate future. The Brooklyn art space Glowlab has put together a benefit during the Fountain art fair (which coincides with Armory Week, Mar. 5-8, 2009), with proceeds from the sale of donated art works from a variety of figures going to the Swoon’s project. On Mar. 14, 2009, Williamsburg’s Secret Project Robot is hosting a silent auction, starting at 7:30 pm, also to help fund the Swimming Cities voyage. See for more information.

The cash-strapped Metropolitan Opera in New York is "collateralizing" its two large 30-by-36-foot Marc Chagall murals, The Triumph of Music and The Sources of Music. Met spokesman Peter Clark told New York magazine that "the Met has had a long-term loan for a number of years which relied on cash holdings as collateral. The Chagalls are now being used as partial replacement collateral in order to free up some of the use of the cash." The dollar value of the murals has not been disclosed, and they remain in place, of course, unless the opera house’s finances deteriorate to the point at which it defaults on its commitments. The Met is already slashing salaries by 10 percent, according to the AP, in the face of a plunging endowment and a shortfall in donations.

The move has powerful symbolism. The two Chagall murals were made for the opening of the company’s Lincoln Center headquarters in 1966. Chagall designed the sets and costumes for the Met’s inaugural performance, a production of The Magic Flute, in 1967.

The Pre-Raphaelites are coming to Minnesota this summer. "Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision," June 14-Sept. 6, 2009, features more than 60 works by Holman Hunt (1827-1910), the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement -- called "the Damien Hirst of his day" in the museum publicity -- alongside art by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and their associates Arthur Hughes and Ford Madox Brown, as well as textiles collected by Hunt during his travels in the Middle East. The exhibition was organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario in association with Manchester Art Gallery in England, where it already has appeared. The MIA is the show’s only U.S. stop.

Raven Row
, a new nonprofit contemporary art exhibition center in London, has opened with "Ray Johnson. Please Add to & Return," Feb. 28-May 10, 2009, the largest exhibition of the late "Correspondence School" artist’s work to appear in Europe. Located in the Victorian Spitalfields neighborhood adjacent to the City of London and open free to the public, Raven Row is housed in an 18th-century domestic structure with a contemporary addition designed by 6a Architects. The space is founded and directed by Alex Sainsbury, an art collector and member of the family that owns the Sainsbury supermarket chain.

This Saturday, Mar. 7, marks the SoHo debut of ecoartspace NYC, brainchild of East Village art scene veteran Amy Lipton with San Francisco’s Patricia Watts, as the ecoartspace "project room" opens on the third floor of 53 Mercer Street with a project by Simon Draper and the Habitat for Artist’s Collective. Ecoartspace has been operating as a website,, since 1997, promoting environmentally aware art projects ranging from "scientifically based ecological restoration to product based functional artworks, from temporal works created outdoors with nature to eco-social interventions in the urban public sphere, as well as more traditional art objects." The new project space is open on Saturdays only; for more info, contact (917) 743-8275.

Explicitly looking back to the decrepit -- but creatively fertile -- Soho of New York City’s last fiscal crisis as a model, a team of street artists is trying to breathe some life into the now-chichi neighborhood with "Work to Do," Mar. 26-Apr. 16, 2009. Curated by Royce Bannon of the Brooklyn street art collective ELC(Endless Love Crew), the show takes over the basement of 112 Greene Street, and promises a cavalcade of interesting street styles. In fact, the location itself is worth the visit -- it was the original home of the 112 Workshop, back in the ’70s, which played host to early experiments by legends like Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson and Gordon Matta-Clark.

The colorful crew to be featured in "Work to Do" includes the likes of Aiko, Alone art, Anera, AVOID pi, Avone, Bast, Beaulieu, Chris Brennan, Buildmore, Cake, Celso, NohJ Coley, Dain, C. Damage, Dark Clouds, David, Deeker, Deo, Destroy and Rebuild, DR, Erica Faulke, Ellis G., Abby Goodman, Christopher Gordon, Bobby Hill, Hush, Infinity, Jazzmine, Keely, Kenji, Abe Lincoln Jr., Moody, OHM, Maggie Pounds and Adam VOID, Pufferella, Chris RWK, Matt Siren, Smells, Adam Torio Skewville and Veng  RWK. The opening is set for an appearance by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force. For more information, see

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