Nice Work If You Can Get It: Kreuk v. Vo & Co.

JUNE 2015 UPDATE: The Dutch judge ruled in Kreuk's favor, ordering Vo to create "a large and impressive" work as he apparently originally committed to do. There are other conditions and instructions, like, they have to get along and stuff [not kidding]. It's an extraordinary ruling, and while I'm sure Borgias or burghers compelled artists to make stuff in the past, this proposes an almost unprecedented situation for the creation of a contemporary artwork. I'll do a separate post on the matter, I think. Kreuk emailed me to let me know of the judge's decision, reminding me that I had called his suit "folly." I'm happy to be corrected when I'm wrong, but I'm not so sure I was. Winning can still be folly. I do know I'm even happier not to be involved in this mess.

kreuk_danh_vo_letter_b.jpgoy, is this a mess, and the reporting about it is not helping. As the English-speaking art world has learned in the last week or so, Dutch collector Bert Kreuk is suing Danh Vo for around EUR900,000 ($US1.2m) for failing to deliver a $350,000 installation commissioned for a show of Kreuk's collection at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague last summer.

The original RTL story [in Dutch] didn't have many details of the case, but it did mention that Kreuk had been criticized for selling 11 works from the exhibition at Sotheby's just weeks after it closed. This translated into artnet's headline calling Kreuk an "art-flipper." Which was apparently worse than losing a $350,000-1.2m Danh Vo, because it was the focus of much of Kreuk's sympathetic q&a with Sotheby's & BLOUIN ArtInfo writer Abigail Esman.

It all seemed rather confusing and odd to me, and frankly, cut and dry, legally, when an artist takes money and then doesn't deliver. Kreuk had also said that "Danh Vo has already been ordered by the courts to finish another, different work in my collection, backed by an immediate due and payable fine of 40,000 euros and 2000 for each day of delay." Which, again, seemed pretty severe, so I wanted to see the actual court documents, to see the facts underlying the various, specific claims Kreuk was making. Fortunately, one of Kreuk's first tweets was a Dutch art law firm's facebook post which linked to the Rotterdam District Court's preliminary finding [Case no. C/10/442131 / HA ZA 14-57, by the way]. And now I am more confused. But I also find some of Kreuk's characterizations inaccurate at best, and I think his lawsuit is folly, and he would be wise to withdraw it.

Kreuk told Esman this week:

What happened was: Danh Vo was selected as one of the artists to make an installation piece for the exhibition "Transforming The Known" [held at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague in (June - Sept.) 2013]. He selected (and got) the best hall in the entire exhibition. Early January 2013, we extensively discussed his contribution - a commissioned work, which I would buy for $350,000 and add to my collection, due before the opening in June 2013. Vo confirmed that this gave him more than enough time.
Kreuk goes on to say Danh Vo stopped communicating with them, failed to show up to install, and on the day before the opening, Kreuk "had to completely rearrange the space." But Kreuk never paid for anything. The damages Kreuk claimed of EUR778,000 include "loss of profit" and other suffering from having only three Danh Vo works in his show--two he already owned, plus one loaned or "consigned" by the artist--not a full, new installation. His ideal resolution, he says, is to get his big Danh Vo at an early 2013 institutional price. "Loss of profit" here seems to be the 20-month run-up in Danh Vo's prices.

The court dismissed all of these damages, however, in their preliminary finding published August 15th, saying they were based only on "vague statements taken in a general sense." The only finding favoring Kreuk I can see is some kind of agreement that Danh Vo would create a new work for the Gemeentemuseum show. But even this seems unclear to me, as no contract, agreement, invoice, or terms were ever formalized. And the statements used by the court to justify that conclusion don't seem definitive at all. And the artist and his dealer both assert that no agreement or sale existed at all. The unnamed dealer described the January visit as "a first visit of an exploratory nature...to meet [Kreuk, who they did not know] and look around to see if you can and want to work and what would be the room in which will be exhibited suitable." [sic Google Translate] She further asserted, and Danh Vo re-emphasized, that no "business" or "price" was even discussed, and that no "formal proposal" was made, much less agreed upon.

Yet this meeting appears to be the crux of Kreuk's claim against Danh Vo. At best, the case hinges on Dutch commercial law and how standard art world practice meshes with this law. And whether such a discussion constitutes an enforceable oral agreement. I can't believe that this is enough.

danh-vo-alphabet-m_sytskeroskam.jpg
Danh Vo, Alphabet (M), 2011, installed at Gemeentemuseum, formerly Collection Bert Kreuk, then Lot 409 at Sotheby's, via sytskeroskam

There is also ambiguity--and thus a dispute--around the difference between being willing to exhibit in the museum show, to make new work for a museum show, and to make such work available to a collector. It's an unusual situation that these would be the same here, and it arises from Kreuk's being at once the collector, curator, and funder of a show at the municipal museum.

Kreuk dismissed as "naive" any criticism that his show would boost his auction results. But he cannot pretend that he didn't expect playing gatekeeper for a respected museum wouldn't increase his standing within the art world, and gain him access to more significant work. Or, as in this case, give him the chance to commission entire, new installations rather than just shop off a dealer's iPad or out of an art fair booth.

This distinction matters because the judge's finding is that some agreement existed to make new work for the show, but the show is now past, so the remedy is unclear. Yet it's also not the case that Danh Vo stopped participating altogether. The judge's ruling cited a quote from a gallery email in April as evidence of an agreement to make new work--and a decision to send existing work instead. That email said that due to "the health of [defendant] 's father (it) was unclear whether [defendant] would be in The Hague [show]." [sic Google Translate]

kreuk_gemeente_danh_vo_box1.jpg
Art handlin': Bert Kreuk [L] making a Danh Vo box on Dutch TV, June 2013

So six weeks out, there is still uncertainty about being in the show at all. And Kreuk knew this. And he was told that the reason, six weeks out, was that the artist's father was sick. This is when it is clear there is no commission, and there will be no new work, not June. This, presumably, is also when the collector/curator goes to the backup plan, of showing the two gold leaf-on-cardboard Alphabet paintings he already owns, and asking the studio for whatever they've got lying around. Which ends up to be one more gold-leafed box, which happens to arrive just as a Dutch TV crew is covering the installation of the show.

[ed. note: In an email to me, Kreuk says that Vo's gallery asked in May to book a hotel in The Hague for five days for installation, and that this was also evidence of the artist's agreement and intention, at some point, to install a more elaborate, presumably new, work. Vo not showing up, then was a late surprise. FWIW, this hotel situation is not cited specifically in the judge's finding.]

kreuk_gemeente_chris_wool.jpg
Art handlin' 2: Kreuk moving his Christopher Wool at the museum before moving it at Sotheby's

[Let's talk for a minute about how Kreuk is right in there, hanging his own show in a museum, and building Danh Vo boxes himself, in realtime. Also, time: did they literally hang NOTHING until "the day before the opening"? Almost every description of a time frame in Kreuk's accounts turns out to be inaccurate in favor of his version of events. Between that and his elisions, his account becomes ever less persuasive to me.]

[ed. note: Kreuk responds that yes, indeed, the TV crew was shooting on the 5th & 6th of June, and the show opened on the 7th. The program captures the arrival via Fedex of the Vo box. Kreuk also explains that the three galleries left to be hung were only those affected by Vo's missing work and the reorganization it caused.]

danh_vo_kurimanzutto.jpgIs this box the other, EUR40K "different work" Kreuk referred to on Artinfo? Because I can't see any ruling on it by the court, only that Danh Vo had demanded its return after the show closed Sept. 29th. It's not clear how this has turned out. [Update: Oh boy now we know. The artist says Kreuk "intercepted" it before the museum could return it, and still has it. See the artist's statement added below.]

Kreuk's damages, though, are coming into focus. He thought his museum show helped him get an entire, custom, Danh Vo installation. Then the artist's father got sick, and all Kreuk ended up with was an empty cardboard box. With the show open, his leverage evaporated, and he fell back down the waitlist. He told ArtInfo the artist showed and sold "a similar installation" at kurimanzutto in September, which he didn't get to buy. And that's what's wrong with Kreuk's world.

Except that's not all. No one's mentioned it, but Kreuk is also suing Danh Vo's unnamed dealer, who is listed in court documents as "Mrs. [gedaagde2 (defendant2)]." Would that be Mrs. Goodman, Ms. Crousel, or Ms. Manzutto? I've bought from all three, so I'm sure not going to ask. [Update: It's Ms. Bortolozzi. See updates below.]

kreuk_1.jpg
Danh Vo, Alphabet (B), 2011, formerly collection Bert Kreuk, image: kreuk_1.jpg [sic] via gemeentemuseum.nl

Also, Kreuk links Danh Vo's alleged reneging on the installation deal to his objection to Kreuk's sale of Alphabet (M) in Sotheby's day sale. And to his unloading of Alphabet (B) in a sale show at Sotheby's in January-March 2014, right before he filed the lawsuit. "One cannot try to justify a default by an event (selling some of my works at auction in November 2013) that took place more than 11 months after the fact," he said.

Except the dispute is not just about what was agreed in January, but what happened in April-June, and then what happened after that. Kreuk has been disingenuous about when he decided to sell works (including Danh Vo's) from the Gemeentemuseum show. One month after the exhibition had ended, Kreuk told Volkskrant that he'd only decided "Two months ago, just after the exhibition in The Hague had ended." A November 13 sale would require consignment agreements and catalogue information to be locked down by mid-September. At the very latest, Kreuk was deciding which works to unload while the exhibition was going, if not before. If I understand correctly, all 11 works he sold last fall were among the 65 he showed from his "eight hundred works" collection. Of 29 works in Kreuk's other, curated sale, only 4 are from artists not included in the Gemeentemuseum show. [At least one of those was not for sale. Kreuk donated the large 2012 electroplated painting by Jacob Kassay to the museum in January. I haven't seen museum officials criticizing Kreuk's sales, and unnamed museum employees gave statements to the court backing Kreuk's interpretation of the Jan. meeting.]

Anyway, with all this selling going on, it would be naive to assume an in-demand artist would want to keep pursuing a proposal for a site-specific installation for a show that's already happened, at last year's prices, to someone who's unloading his freshly bought work. And we all know that Mr. Kreuk is not naive.

[Note: like everybody else who doesn't work for him or his auction house, I contacted Kreuk for comment, and have not heard back. If he cares to, I'll assume he'll chime in with a response after I post.]
[Other note: I kept repeating Danh Vo so many times because the fact that his family and given names were inverted upon his arrival in Denmark is meaningful to him and his work, and ultimately, his dealers refer to him in print as Danh Vo, not Danh, or Vo. Also, it's pronounced Yahn Vo. That's what you get for reading this far.]

Update: I have heard back from Mr. Kreuk, who said he'll be in touch about my "inaccuracies" and "presumptions." [Update update: So far, though, nothing. I guess my inaccuracies are not so many or so pressing after all. He has since responded to this gallery/artist statement via Ms. Esman. It is available in full at ArtInfo, or as a PDF here.] Meanwhile, Marian Goodman Gallery has published the following statement:

It has come to our attention that an untrue story is circulating about Danh Vo. We feel these unfounded accusations urgently need to be addressed. Please find here a statement from Mr. Vo.

Cordially, Marian Goodman


Statement from Danh Vo

Danh Vo and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi confirm their involvement in legal proceedings with Bert Kreuk.

Danh Vo participated in Kreuk's exhibition "Transforming the Known", at the Hague's Gemeentemuseum. Contrary to Kreuk's claim, a work was delivered by Danh Vo for the exhibition 'Transforming the Known' and displayed as part of the show.

The work was provided to the Gemeentemuseum under a signed loan agreement between Danh Vo and the Gemeentemuseum only. After the exhibition closed, Kreuk took it upon himself to intercept the Museum loan and block the return of Vo's work from the Gemeentemuseum, by taking out an injunction that prevented the work from being transported back to Danh Vo. 12 months on, Danh Vo is still waiting for his artwork to be rightfully returned to him.

Contrary to Kreuk's claim, no sale of an artwork was conducted either by Danh Vo or Galerie Bortolozzi for this exhibition.

When requested by the courts to do so, Kreuk has been repeatedly unable to produce any proof indicating the existence of a purchase contract with Vo or Galerie Bortolozzi for the work that Kreuk claims. As there is no purchase agreement with Kreuk with regard to the claimed artwork, Danh Vo and Galerie Bortolozzi are confident that they will prevail in the legal proceedings.

Please note: If this Statement is to be published, it must be published in its entirety.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: September 11, 2014.

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