NEW YORK—On March 29, Miami real estate developer and art collector Craig Robins filed a lawsuit against dealer David Zwirner and David Zwirner Gallery, New York, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging breach of contract and fraud. According to Robins’s suit, Zwirner refused to honor an oral agreement to sell him three recent works by South African–born artist Marlene Dumas from “Against the Wall,” an exhibition at the gallery (on view through April 24). Robins seeks over $3million in compensatory damages and more than $5million in punitive damages. Zwirner has filed documents with the court asserting that there was no such agreement between the gallery and the collector, and that the lawsuit is “an exercise of pure ego, and the case has no merit.”
At the center of the lawsuit is Robins’s assertion that Dumas has put him on a “blacklist,” and that her dealer, David Zwirner, is to blame. Over the years Robins reportedly has collected about 30 paintings by the artist, who currently lives in Amsterdam and whose work was the subject of a major solo show last year at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
According to his suit, in December 2004 Robins sold a Dumas painting from his collection, Reinhardt’s Daughter, 1994, through Zwirner and asked the dealer to keep the sale confidential. Zwirner claimed in his statement that he did not inform anyone about the sale until it was completed, and that he and Robins had never agreed to keep the sale of the work confidential. Also according to Zwirner’s statement, the painting was sold for $925,000. Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, purchased the work with the intent to resell it to a private Swiss collector; soon thereafter, according to his statement, Zwirner informed Dumas’s studio, which maintains the artist’s archive, of the sale of the work, adding that the new owner “would be willing to loan it to important exhibitions if necessary.”
Robins alleges that Dumas’s disapproval of a collector putting her work up for resale led her to place him on a “blacklist” prohibiting anyone dealing in the artist’s work on the primary market from selling to Robins. Robins’s lawyer, Aaron Richard Golub, claimed to ARTnewsletter that Zwirner “snitched on a confidentiality agreement,” and alleges in the complaint that the dealer “always intended to inform Dumas of the sale, using that as a way to ingratiate himself with the artist.” Until 2008, Dumas was represented in the United States by the Jack Tilton Gallery, New York, but then switched to David Zwirner. Zwirner “simply sold Craig Robins down the river,” Golub said.
According to his lawsuit, Robins learned within a matter of weeks that Zwirner had informed Dumas of the sale, and threatened legal action, but the dealer agreed that when Zwirner exhibited works by the artist, Robins would have “first choice, after museums, to purchase one or more” of the works. The claim also alleges that Zwirner, “in consideration of not commencing an action,” promised Robins would again have access to Dumas’s work on the primary market and that he would be removed from the blacklist. Robins claims that he informed Zwirner he wanted to buy three oils on linen—Figure in a Landscape, 2010; Under Construction, 2009, and Wall Weeping, 2009—from the current show, but was ignored.
Zwirner disputes Robins’s account. “I never promised or stated to Mr. Robins that I would sell him a painting by Marlene Dumas,” he writes in his statement to the district court. “Additionally, I never promised or stated to Mr. Robins that I would give him first pick or a right of first refusal after museums for any works by Dumas from any show of her art.” And the existence of a blacklist is itself in dispute. Zwirner’s statement to the court refers to it as the “so-called ‘blacklist.’” Golub told ARTnewsletter, “We have graphic proof of a blacklist, and we will bring it out at trial.” However, Frank Demaegd, owner of Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, Belgium, which has represented Dumas in Europe since 1991 and which has sold Robins “two or three” paintings over the years, claimed that Dumas has never directed him not to sell to Robins or to anyone else.