Could this be the moment we’ve all been anticipating? The art world equivalent of Toto drawing back the curtain to reveal the grey-haired little man pulling the Wizard of Oz’s levers? In the US, a seemingly unremarkable quibble over an unpaid auction bill has resulted in a much larger and portentous altercation over whether or not auction houses should be compelled to reveal their vendors.
The case is covered in detail by Terry Ingram in an article published on the Australian Art Sales Digest, and the implications are quite gob-smacking. It all came about because a buyer decided he no longer wished to cough up the cash to pay for a purchase he made at auction in Chester, New York. The saleroom, William J. Jenack, took the dealer to court and a ruling was made in Jenack’s favour and the buyer was ordered to pay the amount outstanding. But In a wickedly ingenious move, the buyer successfully appealed on the grounds that Jenack did not have the documents required to compel payment, namely a legally recognised contract that must, by definition, include the names of the seller and the buyer.
In an industry that thrives and survives thanks to the veils of secrecy that shroud transactions, this is an extraordinary finding. Any wonder that Christie’s is now fighting cheek-by-jowl with Jenack in an attempt to overturn the ruling. I’m sure it wouldn’t take too long for the biggest players to work out how to get around it, but if vendors’ identities were forcibly revealed to the market, it would certainly make practices like ramping and money-laundering more complicated.
Not to worry. This is all in its infancy, legally-speaking, and I have no doubt that, just like the good Wizard of Oz, Sotheby’s, Christie’s et al have a magical balloon stored out the back for use in such emergencies.