The market for Salvador Dalí’s sculptures remains plagued by misinformation, unauthorized editions, ownership disputes, and some outright fraud. Questionable works are still flooding the market
For years it has rankled the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation that many travelers to Barcelona first encountered Dalí’s works at Museo Dalí Escultor (Dalí Sculptor Museum), a commercial exhibition of memorabilia and late bronzes in the city’s tourist district. In June, the foundation won a three-year court battle with Museo Dalí Escultor when a Barcelona court agreed that the space’s owner was misusing the Dalí “brand” and deliberately misleading consumers into thinking it was an official museum. The decision is under appeal, but the foundation has petitioned the court to close the exhibition in the meantime. Joan Manuel Sevillano Campalans, the foundation’s managing director, believes that he now has a precedent for demanding changes in the marketing tactics of other actors in the market who are improperly exploiting the copyrights, trademarks, or images of Salvador Dalí.
It was a rare victory for the foundation in its attempts to police a murky backwater of the Dalí oeuvre: the production and sale of sculptures that were commissioned late in the artist’s life and continue to be cast and sold long after his death, in 1989. Since a 2008 article in ARTnews first described the burgeoning industry in Dalí sculpture multiples, the foundation has been employing legal actions and moral suasion in an effort to slow the spread of the works. Among other actions, it has been in a legal battle with another Dalí exhibition, in Berlin, over its marketing tactics for several years. Its scant progress so far shows how difficult it is for even a well-heeled foundation to gain control of a major artist’s legacy.
A lengthy ARTnews investigation reveals that the market for late Dalí sculptures remains plagued by misinformation, unauthorized editions, ownership disputes, and some outright fraud. The sculptures also continue to flood the auction market— including, recently, at Sotheby’s, which, along with Christie’s, had for two years virtually stopped selling Dalí sculptures.
Meanwhile, questionable new sculptures continue to emerge. Dalí expert Nicolas Descharnes, whose father, Robert, was a Dalí confidant, scholar, and business manager from 1985 through 2004, says he often sees previously unknown “Dalí” sculptures on eBay and at auction. An example is Shoes with a Body Shape, a work in copper attributed to Dalí that sold for $9,408 at Shanghai Hosane Auction Co. last December. “I’ve never heard of it, never seen a drawing” on which the work might be based, Descharnes says.
It is unclear where the new sculptures are coming from, but knockoffs of existing Dalí bronzes are readily available on the Internet. Yongheng Craft Manufacturer, a foundry in Baoding, near Beijing, markets versions of some of the Dalí bronzes produced by Beniamino Levi, one of the major European purveyors of Dalí sculptures, at prices ranging from $1,200 to $4,000, depending on size and number ordered. Posing as a potential buyer, this writer queried the foundry by e-mail about buying an edition of a Dalí bronze, 123 cm (about four feet) tall, that appears to be virtually identical to the Space Venus sculpture Levi produces. A sales representative e-mailed back, writing that there would be no problem producing an edition of 25, numbered 1–25, plus three numbered artist’s proofs. The price: $1,600 per bronze, including shipping to Philadelphia, with delivery promised within 30 days of receipt of a deposit. The sales representative even wired a photo of the “Dalí” signature the foundry uses.
Asked if the foundry had a license to produce Dalí sculptures, the representative answered in an e-mail, “I am sorry that we don’t have it. We are only a factory to make the sculptures or crafts according to our customer’s request. As long as they offer us the pictures, we can make it accordingly.”
It is uncertain whether any of these sculptures have been sold, but there is a huge financial incentive for unscrupulous operators to try to pass off knockoffs as originals. A four-foot-tall artist’s proof of Space Venus, dated 1977–84 and produced by Levi, sold for $141,790 at Hong Kong’s Est-Ouest Auctions Co. in November 2010. Sevillano said he was unaware of the Chinese knockoffs. Levi, through his Barcelona lawyer, also said he was unaware of them but would make “appropriate decisions” when he knew more.
Levi is one of about ten mainly European publishers who continue to produce more than 100 different Dalí sculptures among them. The works are mostly bronzes, ranging from small pieces, a foot or two tall, sold for a few thousand dollars in editions as large as 10,000, to monumental versions, 12 feet or taller, of the same works, priced at $1 million-plus, and usually sold in editions of 12. All the producers say that they have contracts with Dalí or his representatives to produce the sculptures. It is difficult, however, for collectors or scholars to judge how involved Dalí was in their creation, how much of the money paid for them went to the artist, and if the publishers have respected announced edition sizes. Rights for many of the sculptures were obtained from Dalí’s wife, Gala, when she was in decline (she died in June 1982) or from Dalí when he was depressed after her death and around the time he was badly burned in a fire on August 30, 1984. The highly profitable monumental versions of the sculptures were often created after Dalí’s death, so many of them could not have been approved by him.
Scholars question the artistic significance of the late bronzes. “Most of them are derived from the paintings, and the quality of the execution isn’t very exciting,” says Jean- Hubert Martin, explaining why he didn’t include any late bronzes in a major Dalí exhibition now at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. They were also omitted from a 2010 show of Dalí’s late work at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Guest curator Elliott H. King, assistant professor of art history at Washington and Lee University, says, “I don’t have a big problem with them if they are accurately represented as being based on Dalí’s designs or images from his other works. But that’s a gray area that concerns many scholars. They often aren’t made by Dalí or even really signed by him. There isn’t the direct connection with the artist you get with paintings and drawings.”
Spain has given the Figueres-based Dalí Foundation responsibility for preserving the legacy of Dalí, who bequeathed everything to the Spanish state. The foundation is mainly funded by revenues from a Dalí museum and jewelry exhibition, the artist’s house, and the castle he gave Gala, which continue to do well despite the country’s financial crisis. Combined attendance was up seven percent last year from 2010, to 1.4 million, while profits rose 12.1 percent, to $6.1 million.
The foundation doesn’t mind the late sculptures being sold but wants publishers to be clear about the works’ origins—for example, by giving an exact casting date and acknowledging when the sculptures are derived from paintings and drawings. However, the foundation is usually forced to base its legal arguments on its right to control the use of Dalí’s name, image, and other elements of his “brand.” With Levi, for instance, Sevillano says the foundation has been raising issues about the “exploitation” of the contracts and the “transparency” and “rigor” with which the sculptures are presented. Levi, through his New York lawyer, Lawrence Fox, of the firm McDermott, Will & Emery, denies being contacted by the foundation about these issues and says he already provides information about the sculptures in catalogues and certificates accompanying each piece sold.
So far, the foundation has not challenged the contracts under which the sculptures are produced because Dalí, Gala, or their representatives clearly signed many of them. ARTnews uncovered a trove of the contracts at the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C., and Levi then authorized Fox to show ARTnews additional documents supporting his rights to produce Dalí sculptures.
The documents show that the aging Dalí and his wife were willing to sell rights to virtually anything, including Dalí’s signature, to fund their lavish lifestyle, usually for one-time payments in cash and sometimes artist’s proofs of the sculptures created. The couple’s business managers, meanwhile, sold additional rights after the artist’s death. Hundreds of artist’s proofs of the late bronzes given to Dalí and his representatives as partial payment under the contracts, potentially worth millions if sold, remain unaccounted for. Sevillano says the Dalí Foundation has a few in storage, but he says he doesn’t know what happened to the rest.
Now in his 80s, Levi started out as an art gallery owner in Milan but switched his focus to Dalí after meeting the artist in the late 1970s. He and his American-born wife, Roberta, are now based in Switzerland. Levi claims the right to produce 29 Dalí sculptures in multiple sizes and patinas. He operates permanent commercial Dalí exhibition spaces in Paris, London, and Venice, and has marketed sculptures in dozens of temporary exhibits around the globe. Smaller versions (11 to 37 inches tall) of the Levi sculptures are sold in editions of 350 plus 35 artist’s proofs. “Monumental” and medium-size “museum” versions of the same sculptures are usually produced in editions of 12 or fewer, including artist’s proofs, and hors de commerce (not for commercial sale) versions. The bronzes were first cast in either 1980 or 1984, according to Levi’s catalogue. Levi says he has copyrighted all 29 of the sculptures, as well as 19 two- dimensional images and two of Dalí’s signatures.
The rights to Levi’s first six sculptures came directly from Dalí. He mainly purchased his other Dalí rights from Enrique Sabater, Dalí’s business manager from 1972 to early 1981. According to documents shown to ARTnews by Fox, Sabater offered Levi rights to “about 30” sculptures in October 1984; Levi eventually purchased 23 of them. The documents indicate that Dalí had created gouaches and maquettes from which the sculptures were derived, and was already having initial bronzes cast at European foundries. In the mid-1990s, after Dalí’s death, Levi also purchased international copyrights and the right to make monumental versions of most of his sculptures from Sabater and Demart, a company Robert Descharnes set up in 1985 and ran until 2004, when he lost control over it after a long legal battle with the foundation. The contracts with Demart require Levi to pay a 12 percent royalty on each sculpture sold. (Sources say terms under which these royalties are paid remain a bone of contention with the foundation, which has owned Demart since 1994.) Contracts with Dalart, Sabater’s company, require Levi to make large payments—including $150,000 and $370,000, respectively, under two contracts signed in 1994 and 1996—plus dozens of artist’s proofs.
Sabater is now semi-retired but still regularly organizes shows of Dalí art and memorabilia, often from his own collection and often with Levi. For instance, he curated an exhibition of original Dalí drawings and paintings that accompanied a 2010–11 show of Levi’s Dalí sculptures in the interior walkways of New York’s Time Warner Center.
In 2008, Sabater told ARTnews that he had quit Dalí’s employ in early 1981, partly because he didn’t approve of contracts Gala was signing on the artist’s behalf. However, supporting documents to Levi’s contracts indicate that Sabater had purchased broad rights to a number of images from Gala in New York on August 23, 1980. Included in the deal are rights to one of Dalí’s many signatures. There is also a general authorization signed by Dalí in Spain on September 10, 1980.
The contracts give Sabater the right to produce a variety of products from the images, from “Gala perfume” to bronzes, ceramics, graphics, pillows, tapestries, and bas reliefs. Dalart had resold some of the ancillary rights before it made its agreement with Levi, and it is unclear which of these products were made and by whom. It is also unclear how much Sabater paid Gala and Dalí for all these rights, but according to Ian Gibson’s 1998 biography, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí, the couple routinely shortchanged themselves by insisting on one-time cash payments while leaving more lucrative long-term rights to Sabater and others.
Even when questionable sculptures have been suppressed, they sometimes reappear. On December 7, for instance, the auction house Nagel Auktionen in Stuttgart, Germany, sold Surrealist Angel, a 1984 bronze that had been seized by German tax authorities, for $66,930. The 250 cm (98.4 inch) version Nagel sold had twice been declared by German courts in the early 1990s to be “unauthorized” and unlawful to sell. “We are very aware of the problematic situation with Dalí sculptures and prints,” says Uwe Jourdan, Nagel’s CEO. “We keep that in mind. But no one to this day has proved that this sculpture is a fake.” John Heinz, a retired management consultant based in Brussels, whose rights to the Angel sculptures are recognized by the foundation, disagrees. He terms the sculpture Nagel sold a “proven fake.”
A failed prosecution is behind the difference of opinion. In 2009, the state prosecutor in Mannheim launched a criminal fraud case against Peter Frauenfeld, a notary, for allegedly issuing certificates of authenticity and selling two of the banned sculptures in 2003 and 2004 (Frauenfeld strenuously denied doing anything wrong). Key witnesses failed to come through for the prosecution—notably Robert Descharnes, now 86 and in fragile health, who was deposed on videotape in France only to say he no longer remembered details of the sculpture’s history. The frustrated prosecutor issued a press release saying he couldn’t justify spending more money on the case and dropped the charges. A German police source says a new prosecutor now must decide whether to launch a new case. The Dalí Foundation, meanwhile, says it has filed a civil suit against Frauenfeld, who didn’t respond to requests for comment.
After the 2008 ARTnews article appeared, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s virtually stopped selling Dalí sculptures; the two auction houses gaveled down just four Dalí sculptures combined worldwide in all of 2009 and 2010, at an average price of $170,000, according to Artprice.com, a French company that monitors art auction results. That compares with 40 in 2006 (average price: $20,526) and 37 in 2007 (average price $34,492), Artprice says.
Lately, however, sales have picked up, particularly at Sotheby’s. Last November, for instance, Sotheby’s New York sold three of Levi’s small-scale Dalí bronze multiples: three-foot-tall versions of Space Elephant and Alice in Wonderland and an 18-inch version of Horse Saddled with Time, which fetched between $27,000 and $32,500. Also sold, for $8,500, was a 9.1-inch silver version of The Anthropomorphic Cabinet, which is produced by Magnus Bromander, a Swedish gallery owner.
Neither Sotheby’s nor Christie’s would comment on their policies regarding Dalí sculptures, but both depend heavily on the Descharnes when deciding which ones to sell. Sotheby’s issued a statement about the recent sales saying that “each of those pieces was authenticated in person by Robert or Nicolas Descharnes, the recognized experts in this field who have access to comprehensive artist’s archives and have published reliable literature on the artist.” Nicolas Descharnes says he may have seen the sculptures during a trip to New York but that he and his father refuse to authenticate Dalí sculpture multiples. Instead they refer anyone who inquires about them to their book, Dalí: The Hard and The Soft, which was first published in 2003 and is the main reference work on Dalí sculptures.
Most auction houses will sell only Dalí sculptures cited in the Descharnes book, even though it is incomplete and increasingly out of date. The foundation has been debating for years whether to start work on a catalogue raisonné of the sculptures but still hasn’t reached a decision. “If the foundation is worried about what is going on in the market, they should publish an authoritative book about the sculptures,” says Francis Briest, cochairman of the French auction house Artcurial. “The foundation has done nothing.”
Sevillano would like producers of the sculptures to sign new, restrictive contracts directly with the foundation. Heinz has done so, but most of the others have balked.
The main owners of the rights to one of the most important groups of late Dalí sculptures, the so-called Clot Collection, have decided to work together. They now plan to jointly issue the 50-plus works, which are based on small wax maquettes made by Dalí for Isidro Clot, a Madrid gallery owner, in the 1970s, in three sizes, including “monumental.” The partners hope the foundation will eventually certify their sculptures, but they don’t intend to negotiate new contracts. “There’s no real need for us to work with the Dalí Foundation, but we have big plans for the future and we prefer to maintain good relations with them,” says Juan Quirós, a Spanish count who is one of the partners.
Leonardo Benatov, who heads France’s Valsuani foundry, had been renegotiating his contracts, but recently changed his mind. “The foundation’s terms were too restrictive,” says Jean-François Marchi, Benatov’s longtime lawyer. “Every time there was a problem in the negotiations, it was the foundation that decided, not the two sides.”
Sevillano counters that Benatov objected to the terms only after “over one-and-a-half years” of negotiations. “The supposed ‘restrictiveness’ in this case does not differ from other negotiations undertaken by the foundation with third parties or potential licensees,” he says. Benatov has revived a legal action against the foundation in Corsica and is now “back at war with the foundation,” Marchi says. He’s far from alone.
Thane Peterson is a writer living in rural Pennsylvania. Additional reporting by George Stolz and Charles Rump.