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Jute Sack Artworks Are at the Center of Simchowitz Lawsuit Against Venice Biennale Artist

Installation view of 'Ibrahim Mahama: Civil Occupation' at Ellis King, Dublin, December 2014.COURTESY ELLIS KING

Installation view of ‘Ibrahim Mahama: Civil Occupation’ at Ellis King, Dublin, December 2014.

COURTESY ELLIS KING

Los Angeles dealer and artist agent Stefan Simchowitz and Dublin dealer Jonathan Ellis King have filed suit against the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, alleging that he breached a contract between them by, among other things, declaring hundreds of signed works inauthentic, potentially costing the dealers $4.45 million in work they own by him. The suit, which was filed in federal court in June but which seems to have gone unnoticed until now, sheds light on how the controversial Simchowitz conducts business with artists, some of whom he has helped propel to fame.

Mahama, 28, is responsible for one of the largest artworks in the current Venice Biennale, a sprawling tapestry-like installation made up of jute sacks used to transport coal in Ghana, where he lives. The youngest artist in Okwui Enwezor’s Biennale group exhibition “All the World’s Futures,” Mahama has recently been in two exhibitions at London’s Saatchi Gallery surveying art from Africa and Latin America. In an article published in February of this year in Los Angeles magazine, just a few months before the Biennale opened, Simchowitz was quoted trumpeting Mahama as his latest discovery, comparing him to Oscar Murillo, whose work Simchowitz acquired in large quantities early in the artist’s career and resold to clients. “Everybody keeps asking who will be the next Oscar Murillo,” he told Los Angeles. “Now I know. I discovered him on the Internet. He’s an African artist named Ibrahim Mahama. He will be massive and will congeal my eye. I’ve sold Ibrahim’s work to ten of my best collectors without telling them what they will be getting. I called it the Simchowitz Trust-Me Special. He is going to be huge.”

But things appear to have gone sour.

“I was really left with no choice,” Simchowitz said by telephone from Australia last week, when asked why he filed suit.

In May of this year, the dealers allege, Mahama sent them an email saying that 294 pieces that he had signed—works made by stretching portions of the jute sacks the artist uses for his installations so that the they resemble paintings—are not his work.

The civil suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on June 15, demands that the artist authenticate the works and seeks actual and punitive damages for the loss in value of the works in question. It also levies a number of other allegations against the artist.

“It’s quite incredible really. The whole thing is really shocking,” Ellis King said by telephone from Dublin.

Mahama did not respond to several requests for comment sent to his e-mail address listing in a summons associated with the suit and to the gallery that is currently showing his work, A Palazzo, in Brescia, Italy. It is not clear if he has retained legal counsel.

The suit describes how Simchowitz became aware of Mahama’s work at a time when the artist had not yet achieved international visibility. According to the complaint, in 2012, after Simchowitz discovered the artist’s work through images posted online, he contacted Mahama via Facebook. At the time, the suit says, Mahama had only shown in his native Ghana, where he had displayed large tapestries of the jute sacks in public spaces.

Later, Simchowitz introduced him to Ellis King, and in October 2013, the two men say in the court filing, they made an oral agreement with Mahama to each give him £45,000—a total of about $148,500—in exchange for a large amount of jute-sack material, divided into six lots, with the intention that the money would be used to help him build a studio.

In the complaint, the dealers say they made an agreement with the artist that those six lots of jute would be divided into two groups, as follows: Two of the lots would remain intact and be used to make an installation for a show at Ellis King’s gallery in Dublin. The other four would be divided up and used to make works in three sizes—108 by 54 inches, 96 by 48 inches, and 72 by 36 inches—mounted on stretchers and signed by the artist. According to the suit, Simchowitz and Ellis King paid for the shipping of the jute sacks to the U.K. last year and paid a fabricator $67,000 to stretch them into artworks. During that time, Mahama was on hand in London to “oversee and approve the stretching process.” On December 3 and 4 of last year, they say, he signed 294 such works at Ellis King’s gallery in Dublin.

The day after Mahama allegedly signed those works, his solo exhibition—the show of the large installation works—went on view at Ellis King’s eponymous gallery in Dublin where it was on view through January 10, 2015.

The two dealers have sold 27 of the stretched pieces to galleries and collectors, at an average of $16,700 apiece, a figure they use in the suit to value the 267 remaining works, which are in storage in Dublin and California, at $4.45 million. (In the suit, Simchowitz says that he has an additional 15 unsigned stretched works, and that there had been an understanding between him and the artist that they would be signed and authenticated.)

It was during the show at Ellis King, the suit alleges, that Mahama began to breach the oral agreement. While his exhibition was still on view there, he allegedly created a new series that, the dealers argue, is similar to the stretched works, and sold 20 of these to an unnamed collector in Los Angeles.

According to the suit, Mahama wrote to Ellis King in January and told him he was “disappointed” in the stretched works that Ellis King and Simchowitz had paid to create, and that he had sold his new stretched works to the California collector in part to help finance his large work for the Venice Biennale.

(According to a May 25 article in The Art Newspaper—“Who’s Bankrolling the Venice Biennale?”—the Venice piece was funded by A Palazzo Gallery in Brescia, which currently represents Mahama.)

In the same email, the suit continues, Mahama said he no longer wanted to be represented by Ellis King and asked that his name be removed from the gallery’s website. In a second letter, which the suit says was received in May, the artist indicated that none of the stretched works created through the arrangement with the dealers are authentic and claimed ownership of the two installation pieces shown at Ellis King. Mahama also stated that he owns the copyright for the two installation works and works created with the six lots of jute sacks. In addition, the suit reads, “Mahama admonished Plaintiffs not to display, sell or otherwise exploit that material, complaining that he had not agreed to the commercialization of his artworks.”

Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2014, which sold at Phillips in June for £12,500.COURTESY PHILLIPS

Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2014, which sold at Phillips in June for £12,500.

COURTESY PHILLIPS

(In fact, one of the stretched jute works, signed and dated 2014, went up for sale at Phillips in London two months ago with a provenance that traced it from the artist to Simchowitz to the London dealer Inigo Philbrick, who was the consignor. Estimated at £10,000 to £15,000, it sold for £12,500, or around $18,750 at the time. Neither the specialist at Phillips responsible for that sale nor the Phillips press representative contacted by ARTnews have returned requests for comment.)

Simchowitz says this is the first time he has ever filed a lawsuit. He has, however, in the past, alluded to legal action against artists whom he believed had not fulfilled their parts of the arrangements they made with him. Back in January, around the time of a New York Times Magazine profile of Simchowitz, Simchowitz posted on Facebook about the artist Torey Thornton: “He will be sued in court and he will loose [sic], no question…the behavior I have seen demonstrated consistently is disgusting.” Simchowitz told ARTnews that his issues with Thornton—on Facebook he said Thornton had not “delivered” and had “demonized” him—have since been resolved to his satisfaction.

The suit against Mahama also claims commercial disparagement, alleging that Mahama made disparaging statements about Simchowitz, beginning mid-January 2015 and going up through the time the suit was filed, with the intention of damaging the validity of the works in the dealer’s position as well as his professional standing.

Furthermore, Simchowitz and Ellis King allege in passing that Mahama did not actually use the money they paid him to build a studio, “but instead invested the money in a venture with his father.”

Asked what he would say to some who might feel the deal struck with Mahama was not entirely fair to the artist—Mahama taking home $150,000, the dealers getting nearly 300 works that they argue are worth $4.45 million—Simchowitz replied, “I say to them, quite simply, I’ve sent $150,000 to a Ghanaian man, who was 25 years old, who didn’t have a gallery, didn’t have a career, didn’t have a collector base. I’ve spent [money] stretching the work, I got him a gallery that put on a big show for him.”

The suit argues that “Mahama was not required to do very much pursuant to the Contract; rather all the work—importing the material, assembling and installing the fabric pieces, and cutting and stretching the fabric lots to create the Individual Works—was performed by individuals other than Mahama who were paid by Plaintiffs.”

Simchowitz says he is only asking for what he is due as part of a business arrangement with an artist, and views his early investments in unproven artists as even riskier than some other forms of entrepreneurship. “Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook founder, invested $60,000 buying servers for Mark Zuckerberg and made $6.5 billion, [with] the level of risk of investing in servers, which are an asset, with an entrepreneur who is at Harvard who is starting a tech company,” he said. “My potential is, maybe, if I’m lucky—and I’ve got to sell [the artworks]—maybe I can make $4 million. But in order to do that, I have to build a market.”

Asked to comment on the case, Peter R. Stern, a New York–based art lawyer who has no connection to the suit, called it “a glaring example of the commoditization of the art world.”

In an interview, David Steiner, a Los Angeles–based attorney for Simchowitz and Ellis King, called Mahama’s alleged decision to de-authenticate the works “an expensive proposition for my clients.” He declined to make available to ARTnews the emails exchanged between the parties, but said that he is optimistic that the case will be settled. (The suit also seeks a declaration that Simchowitz and Ellis King own the installation pieces shown at Ellis King’s gallery.)

The suit is particularly intriguing since it puts the dealers in the tricky position of trying to get the artist to comply with their wishes while hoping that the suit’s presentation of the artist’s previously stated views in the stretched works do not damage the value of the 267 pieces that they now own. Both dealers were quick to state their commitment to the artist.

“First off, I would like to say is that he is an amazing artist, and I have no doubt that he is going to have a great, great career,” Ellis King said.

“I love Ibrahim Mahama,” Simchowitz said. “Ibrahim could call me tomorrow and say, ‘Simco, you know what? I’m so sorry. I’m young. I’ve made a series of absolutely borderline-fatal decisions…I’m naive and I’m young,’ and I’d be like, ‘Ibrahim, it’s fine. I think you’re wonderful. You’re an amazing artist.’ And I would support him. I would invest in him.”

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