The Enron of the Art World?

naves correggiochrist1v The Enron of the Art World?Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, a fixture of the Upper East Side for over 30 years, is one of the city’s premiere venues for art. The term “museum quality,” as it’s applied to commercial galleries, could have begun there. Superb exhibitions dedicated to Bernini, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Courbet, Turner and Stuart Davis, to name only a few, indicate clout and class that few galleries possess. For those who don’t feel the need to bracket High Art with scare quotes, Salander O’Reilly is the place to be.

That’s the case with its current exhibition, Masterpieces of Art: Five Centuries of Painting & Sculpture. The title isn’t hyperbole: A gallery show that includes significant pictures by Rubens, Correggio, Botticelli, El Greco, Titian and Parmigianino is a remarkable venture and a must-see. Lesser but nonetheless impressive talents like Federico Barocci, Simon Vouet and Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia’s father, provide necessary respite. The star attraction is Apollo the Lute Player (1596) by Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio.

But is it a Caravaggio? Salander-O’Reilly and its partner in mounting Masterpieces of Art, the London dealer Clovis Whitfield, claim it as the genuine article. Mr. Whitfield acquired the painting, then attributed to “Circle of Caravaggio,” at Sotheby’s for $110,000. A subsequent cleaning revealed that underneath a murky layer of varnish was an expertly contrived and brilliantly lit image. Should it prove to be a genuine Caravaggio, it would join two other versions of the same painting, one in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the other in the Wildenstein Collection. Many scholars believe it is a Caravaggio. Sotheby’s continues to demur, insisting on the uncertain “Circle of Caravaggio.” It’s on sale for $100 million.

 

THE CARAVAGGIO ATTRIBUTION IS the least of Salander-O’Reilly’s travails. Gallery owner Lawrence Salander has been hit with 15 lawsuits alleging financial improprieties. (William O’Reilly left the gallery years ago, but continues to lend his name to it.) The charges are credible enough that key members of the staff have left. No one is flat-out denying that trouble’s afoot. Anthony Doniger, a member of Salander’s legal team, admits the dealer is suffering (listen here for the pitter-patter of spin) “liquidity problems.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, Arthur Carter, former publisher of The Observer and a sculptor represented by the gallery, is among the litigants.)

Mr. Salander has, from all accounts, overextended himself to a degree few of us can comprehend. The landlord is seeking $1.7 million in back rent. Earl Davis, heir to the Stuart Davis estate, claims he’s owed $9 million for the sale of 73 works by his father. Roy Lennox, a senior manager at Caxton Associates, is seeking over $14 million in damages. A husband-and-wife team of collectors is suing for almost $4 million. In an act of comparative kindness, John McEnroe is asking for $325,000 due to Salander’s failure to double the price of an investment.

The story has received notable attention from Lindsay Pollock and Philip Boroff of Bloomberg News, the malicious wits at Gawker and, of all venues, Maine Antique Digest, which has been doggedly covering the story since last summer. (The paper of record­—you know, The New York Times—has been curiously silent.) The scenario that’s emerging is that of an ambitious dealer whose love of art clouded his ability to balance a checkbook. Mr. Lennox has dubbed the gallery’s dealings a “Ponzi scheme.” Shuffling funds in order to shuffle funds in order to pay off debts and then shuffle some more funds—well, you can see Mr. Lennox’s point.

 

EVEN THOSE TAKING HIM TO COURT consider Mr. Salander a sweet guy, but only a slew of verdicts will tell us if he’s a crook or not. Certainly, he isn’t the only member of the art world sweating bullets. A friend has long suggested that an Enron-like scandal has been in the offing for years—the art world is, after all, an industry that is almost entirely unregulated. Should the Salander situation deepen, the consequences for the art market could be huge. Skepticism about the reliability of dealers may send big money straight to auction houses, bypassing the gallery system. Lawsuits similar to those levied against Salander are, if not guaranteed, then not out of the question.

Anyone believing that Salander-O’Reilly is the only gallery built upon a house of cards believes wrong. The art world is almost constitutionally inclined to scandal—remember the Rothko affair?—and is prone to dubious financial doings. Prestige and money, or, rather, the promise of lots of it, doesn’t encourage good behavior. The shame about this brouhaha is that it may topple a top-notch gallery.

The irony is that Masterpieces of Art is based, in no small part, on market principles. Why spend millions of dollars on Damien Hirst, when you could spend, well, fewer millions on a time-tested Old Master? Comparing the monetary value of this artist to that master degrades art, but such is the tenor of our times. So, if we must be crass, let’s say that Correggio’s Head of Christ (1530), a picture that makes the word “masterpiece” seem lame, is the most “expensive” thing here. After which, we can relish the rest of the exhibition independent of the storms surrounding it.

Masterpieces of Art: Five Centuries of Painting and Sculpture is at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 22 East 71st Street, until Feb. 1.