On Art Markets, Art Collecting, And “Flipping”: Bert Kreuk Responds

Bert Kreuk

Rarely does an art collector find himself at the center of global gossip, or suddenly discover controversy about his collection spilled across the Internet and the press. But that’s exactly what happened to Dutch collector Bert Kreuk, who woke recently to find his name scrawled in the headlines: Artnet.com’s Alexander Forbes described him as an “art flipper,” Artforum deemed him “controversial,” and on his popular Twitter feed, Belgian collector Alain Servais called him “toxic.” (The tweet, which also referred to Kreuk as an “art flipper,” subsequently found its way into Forbes’ Artnet story.)

At issue: Kreuk’s $1.2 million lawsuit against Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, who failed to deliver an artwork Kreuk commissioned for an exhibition of works from his collection at the Hague Gemeentemuseum last year.  (Kreuk came under fire as well after the exhibition, when he sold several of the works at Sotheby’s: many accused him of using the museum to add value to the art – a claim Kreuk vigorously denies.)

The situation, however, as well as its handling in the press, raises questions beyond the Vo lawsuit itself.  What does it mean to be a so-called “art flipper”? At what point can a collector reasonably divest from his collection without being accused of “flipping” the work: a year later? Five years? Does it really even matter? Even Servais himself acknowledges in the July issue of  ARTnews that he plans to sell a Frank Stella and a Gerhard Richter from his own collection.

The truth about art collecting is: tastes change. New artists emerge.  In the absence of infinite capital, sometimes you makes choices, selling works you no longer find as exciting in order to afford the ones you do – works that fit better with an organically growing collection.  Friends of mine, for instance, recently divested most of their collection, selling (among others), a Van Dongen and a Metzinger, and acquiring (among others) a Fontana, two Plensas, an Albers, and a Balkenhol.

Art collections – like most collections – are living things. They grow, evolve, morph into new collections; change rooms, change homes, and, on occasion, change owners. As Kreuk himself said when I interviewed him for Sotheby’s, “I am a very active buyer, which means that I have to constantly refine and update the collection, otherwise it gets unfocused. Selling is part of refining.”

But there’s another part of this story, and it was actually the main reason I wanted to address it myself: the sloppiness with which the press – and that includes the art press – has handled it. Neither the initial coverage by Holland’s RTL News nor Alexander Forbes’ summary of that report included statements from Kreuk or Vo.  In fact, Kreuk told me, no one even contacted him for confirmation – a simple matter of basic fact-checking.  (RTL did, he says, amend the original piece online after he complained to them, adding statements from his attorney.)

And so I contacted Mr. Kreuk, who sat down to speak with me again, this time about the allegations of “art flipping” and the situation with Danh Vo – and to talk a bit about what art collecting is really all about.

Abigail R. Esman: I was a bit surprised by the Artnet story, as perhaps you were as well. It seems to be about your lawsuit against Vo, but somehow it then turned into a name-calling game, attacking you as a collector — or in the article’s terms, “art-flipper.” I’m not sure how those two things are connected. Was there a part of the story that somehow wasn’t covered there? Has Vo accused you of “flipping” art?

Bert Kreuk: Of course he did, and so did others with little knowledge of my collection. It is too easy to label somebody as an art-flipper by ignoring the facts or not knowing how he or she is managing the collection; every collector manages his or her collection differently.

Yet I also think it is weird that Danh Vo is using the sale of some part of my collection at Sotheby’s in November 2013 to justify non-compliance to an agreement which was made 11 months before that!

ARE: What exactly was the agreement, and what happened when you asked Danh Vo to make good on it?

BK: First of all,  a decision to sue an artist is not lightly taken.  As a collector you will never win the sympathy contest with this. This is the first time in 20 years that I sue an artist in court, but I simply cannot accept the flagrant breech of an agreement.

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 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.

Yet just before the opening, and after having made all arrangements for five days of installation, Vo decided not to show up. So just one day before the opening, I had to completely rearrange the space. I can only speculate on the reasons, but a similar installation was shown and sold in the show at Kurimanzuttu in Mexico shortly after my exhibition.  To my mind, he should have been forthright if timing was an issue or if he had any problems with his gallery schedule or even if he had reached the conclusion that he now could sell it for more in Mexico. Whatever the reason, at least stay communicating. I could then have given the space to another artist and we would not be in the position we are in now.

ARE: How do you explain the amount of the suit, though – over $1 million? The work you purchased was only $350,000.

BK: In the last 12 months I have donated works, financed exhibitions and contributed to non-profit organizations, far in access of the amount in question. So it is not about the money, but about the principle of abiding by an agreement. That applies to collectors as well as to artists. 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.

In fact, in the interim, 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.  The remaining demand is simply for executing of the agreement from the Gemeentemuseum show – that is, delivery of that artwork —  or if for some reason he is not able,  then for me to be able to acquire a similar work on the secondary market. I want to make clear that the claim is a reflection of the value in the secondary market and has zero to do with profit losses.

ARE: To set the story straight, can you explain the chronology of events from when you decided to create the Gemeentemuseum exhibition and when you first contacted Sotheby’s about selling the works in that exhibition?

BK: During the almost two years of preparation that went into the exhibition “Transforming The Known,” I did extensive research into all of the  artists in the collection — not only for the exhibition narrative, but also in relation to other works in my collection. It was a great educational  journey. This additional knowledge taught me that some works were not, perhaps, the best examples of an artist’s work, , or were no longer relevant to the collection.  Plus, during the time it took to create the exhibition I had already added another 200 works of art, and the collection had started to get unfocused.

Meantime, Sotheby’s and I began discussing the possibility of doing something similar for S2.  The final decision for that, though, was not taken until after the Gemeentemuseum show.

I know that many have accused me of using the exhibition in the Hague  to increase the value or get an institutional seal of approval. But frankly, if that had been the case I would have shown my emerging collection in New York not The Hague. Most of the artists have never even been shown in the Netherlands before.  The fact is, in the end, you have good art and bad art. Bad art does not become good by showing it in a museum.

ARE: Much of the discussion here seems to be about whether you are a “bona fide collector” (whatever that is) or someone who is using art as a commodity, with a focus on money and value.  Where would you say you fall here?  Do you live with and enjoy your collection, and try to be involved in the art world itself, or is it, indeed, mostly an investment project for you as a businessman?

BK: Honestly, I couldn’t care less whether I am seen as a “bona fide collector,” especially by those who base their opinions on preconceived notions. Of course art has become an asset class: that reality is also reflected in the prices and I do not see any problem with that. Ironically, those in the art world who do object to this notion often profit from it at the same time.

Besides, almost every collector sells.. The difference is that I am open about it.  I do try to honor relationships by offering works back to the galleries that sold them, but sometimes they’re just not interested.    But buying and selling around 5000 works of art in the past 20 years has enabled me to build a great collection of about 800 works of the highest quality, from the Impressionist period up to the present.

That quality is the result of my way of collecting: I first and foremost buy art because I like to live with it. But yes, of course I look to the price next; it should have benchmark and make sense.  I constantly navigate between price and principle and ask myself for instance; do I buy one word painting by Christopher Wool, or 10 others on the list?

When you are such an active collector like I am, you cannot avoid the fact that you buy works that may later no longer seem relevant to the collection. It is a matter of constant refining, choices, education, evaluation and selection. Contemporary art is made every day, so as a collector I am continuously making choices.  And since I do not have a museum, I cannot collect all of the artists in my collection in depth. In the end, it is all and only about my vision for the collection.

ADDENDUM: The editors of RTL contacted me with the following update:

For the record: the fact checking for the initial coverage by RTL Nieuws was done with documents and a confirmation of Vo’s sollicitor. Mr Kreuk’s sollicitor was also asked for a statement, but didn’t return calls. Only after publication, she did. Her remarks were then added. A complaint of Kreuk was not made. The next week, Kreuk himself contacted us with new information on the case. This resulted in a follow up on the story.

In the updated story, which can be found here (in Dutch), Kreuk observes: “A collection like mine is the result of conscious, careful planning. I’ve sold works in order to make room for Vo’s work. Because he failed to deliver, I now have a gap in my collection.”

Additional update, September 11

I confess I had no idea that this was going to become such a he said, she said situation; but below is a response from Vo’s galleries to this article, which deserves, too, to be aired. Mr. Kreuk denies the statement, however.

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.

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.