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Still Chill: More on Christie’s Protest Against Sotheby’s Deal with Denver

Jan Brennan, Arts & Venues Denver’s Director of Cultural Programs: Contract-awarding process was “fair and appropriate.”
In taking the highly unusual step of publicly taking Denver to task (scroll down) for choosing Sotheby’s as its agent for the sale of four Clyfford Still paintings (to benefit his eponymous museum), Christie’s may have created potential problems for itself in appealing to future consignors.

On Wednesday, I posed this (so far unanswered) question to Christie’s spokesperson, Toby Usnik:

Might future consignors feel wary about contacting you in the first place, if they think it’s possible that you might retaliate against them in a similar fashion?

I also asked Usnik for the full text of Christie’s statement (mentioned in Monday’s Denver Post article), which had called Denver’s choice of Sotheby’s “‘arbitrary and capricious.” Instead, Usnik sent me a one-sentence statement that was conciliatory towards Denver. Soon after that, he shot off another e-mail, instructing me not to quote that statement. It’s possible that Christie’s is rethinking its combative stance and is now engaged in damage control.

I have now obtained (not from Christie’s) the full text of the auction house’s earlier admonitory statement:

Christie’s believes that it has the best track record in selling the paintings of Clyfford Still and was, in fact, chosen by the Estate of the artist to value his artistic legacy. We are concerned that the process of awarding of the contract was arbitrary and capricious. The public will not be served by rushing into a binding sale agreement before a full and complete consideration of proposals for sale. Based upon our review of the publicly available documents, we had offered a considerably more favorable bid to the City and its citizens.

Christie’s hasn’t yet answered my query as to the specific reasons why it regarded Denver’s process as “arbitrary and capricious,” so I can’t judge whether there is merit to that charge. According to the Denver Post, the auction house engaged attorneys and a lobbyist to press its case.

I can only assume that the auction house wouldn’t take such an adversarial stance against a private consignor, and was basing its objections on the fact that a government body has the highest obligation for due diligence, due process and public accountability. Then again, museums consigning works to auction have similar ethical, if not legal, obligations, so one wonders if Christie’s actions could spook institutions seeking a sales agent.

Jan Brennan, Director of Cultural Programs for Arts & Venues Denver, the city agency overseeing the Still/Sotheby’s deal, had this to say about the fuss raised by Christie’s:

We are confident that the contracting process was fair and appropriate, and the City Council has indicated by its support that it is satisfied. We are proceeding now through the signature process for all city
contracts and do not anticipate that there will be any delay….

The City Council followed standard processes in the approval of the Sotheby’s contract, which does include a Committee vetting that took place on Aug. 24….At this meeting, Christie’s objection was raised and we were questioned about the selection process and decision…..The approval of the contract is complete and not under any reconsideration.

If all goes according to plan, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock will give his final approval to the Sotheby’s deal next week.

Auction-house squabbles aside, there is a much more serious issue tainting this sale, which I’ve previously discussed—the violation of donor intent, which has become increasingly rampant among institutions that seek (and usually receive) court approval to deviate from the written stipulations of deceased benefactors.

I’ll have more to say about this vexing ethical issue, probably next week.

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