It was November 2012, and Bert Kreuk, a Dutch collector, needed more art. He already had a janky Jeff Koons egg, a blotty Christopher Wool, and a fiery two-story Dale Chihuly. But the Gemeentemuseum, the municipal museum for The Hague in the Netherlands, was putting on a show of Kreuk’s art collection, and Kreuk needed major pieces. He wanted some work by Danh Vo, a Vietnamese Danish artist based in Berlin. What started as a pitch from an ambitious collector to acquire work from a young artist by showcasing it in a famous museum quickly became mired in legal entanglements, with the parties suing each other in a Rotterdam court over a $350,000 installation and $1 million in lost profits. The following is a reconstruction of Kreuk and Vo’s fateful encounters, beginning in 2012, drawn entirely from the evidence and witness statements—much of which has been overlooked—cited by the court in making its ruling.
Before he met Kreuk, Vo was already one of the hardest-working artists in the business. He had six solo museum shows in 2012, plus two biennials and a triennial, with 13 more museum shows (five solo) coming in 2013. By the end of November his participation in Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale had not yet been announced, but his receipt of the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize had. Vo’s just-closed show at Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria featured the other kind of major Vos, the ones that didn’t involve remaking the Statue of Liberty at scale (We the People, 2011–13). Titled “Vo, Danh” (amazingly, Vietnamese for “No Name”), it included personally trenchant artifacts, like his refugee father’s Rolex and the transmission from the family Mercedes, and seductively on-brand art commodities: gold-leaf-on-used-cardboard depictions of whiskey and Coke, Lady Liberty shopping bags, and American flags. That’s the kind of major Vo Kreuk wanted.
Fortunately, Kreuk had bought ahead of the surge. He already owned two gold-and-cardboard letters from Vo’s fast-moving 2011 “Alphabet” series: B (for Bert?), M (for Minor?). On November 29 he e-mailed Isabella Bortolozzi, owner of an eponymous Berlin gallery and one of Vo’s seven dealers: “Anyway it would be so great to add major pieces to the collection,” Kreuk wrote. “Please find enclosed the spaces I am getting for the exhibition…. If I can have a major piece I will give it a prominent space in space 31,” a gallery in the Gemeentemuseum.
The museum’s director, Benno Tempel, and its chief curator, Hans Janssen, had invited Kreuk to curate a show of his own collection. The press materials for the exhibition laid on thick Kreuk’s “passion for collecting” and claimed that his story was “a true American dream.” The show, meanwhile, gave Kreuk the added juice to acquire or commission work from Vo, to get some of those major pieces. Kreuk invited Bortolozzi and Vo to visit the museum and discuss the exhibition, which was scheduled to open in June 2013.
On January 8, 2013, the dealer took the artist to The Hague for what she called a “first visit with an exploratory nature.” Kreuk’s uncle/partner/art adviser, Theo Schols, picked them up at the airport. They met Tempel and Janssen, toured Kreuk and Schols’s art-filled house, and then went out to dinner. “Kreuk and Vo did not know each other,” Bortolozzi said, “nor did we know the museum and the people there.” Schols called the evening encounter a “meet and greet.”
“In the evening we had already discussed the budget,” Kreuk said, adding that Vo had agreed to make a new work, which Kreuk would acquire at a price of $350,000. (Kreuk also recalled inquiring about the kind of work Vo would make, mentioning in particular Vo’s flags.) According to Schols, at the end of a group boat ride the artist was enthusiastic, saying, “I’m going to really make something beautiful.”
Vo referred in court documents to this interaction as “flirting.” “If you are meeting a collector of course there is always the possibility that it comes to a purchase,” Vo said, but “there was no mention of details of an agreement.”
At the museum the next morning, the group visited the galleries. Instead of space 31, Vo asked about putting a work in the light-filled staircase; Janssen told him it was taken. Tempel said Vo then inquired about a bigger, sky-lit gallery, gallery 38. (Vo denies ever having been interested in that space.) Kreuk said Vo said that he liked it because the light would make gold shimmer. Kreuk was glad; Vo was the only artist to choose his own space, and Kreuk had a clear vision for it: with the letter works he already owned on one wall, he just needed to fill three more walls with Vos.
Janssen, the chief curator, wasn’t sitting near enough to Vo and Kreuk at dinner to hear any conversations about budgets or prices. But when talk turned to installations in gallery 38 the next day, he was sure: “There was a ‘yes,’ and a line, ‘We will do it,’ ” and “talk about very concrete amounts…. Between whom the exchange took place, I cannot say exactly, but if you would insist, I would gamble [on it having been between] Schols and Bortolozzi.”
But were they discussing a price or a budget? $350,000 was the outside figure, said Janssen, because the museum has no budget to cover even transportation. “The $350,000 had to be sufficient to create a room-filling installation,” Janssen said. “By this I mean work on three walls” or else “the whole area involved with” the work. He also said that Kreuk’s offer to pay $350,000 of his own money for this purpose was “very generous. He stated that budget, not me. The production budget must be seen as a kind of contract.”
Schols said Kreuk told him that he’d come up with the figure of $350,000 by multiplying $125,000, the 2012 price of a wall-filling cardboard Vo work, times three, and then giving himself a discount.
Bortolozzi and Vo left the museum happy and looking forward to a proposal, according to Schols, who said Vo was “jumping around with joy, as it were.” Both Bortolozzi and Vo said no prices were ever discussed, and no agreements finalized. Schols drove them to the train station where he said he confirmed the arrangement with the dealer.
Three days later Kreuk e-mailed Bortolozzi to thank her for the visit and to remind her “that it would be great if Danh could make me an American flag cardboard box.” She replied, saying thanks for the hospitality and “I am sure that Danh will produce a great work for the show.” He would wait and see, Kreuk answered, but it would be great if it could be “something special, even if it was the American flag gold leaf box.” Two weeks later Bortolozzi forwarded the thread to Vo.
Kreuk checked in in February. In March he and Bortolozzi were e-mailing to close a deal on a letter from a second “Alphabet” series, L (for Let me bring up the flag one more time: “If he wants to do an American flag and Budweiser boxes on the other three walls I am OK with that,” he wrote. “Just to give you an idea, these were really nice in the show at Marian Goodman Gallery” in New York).
Then, in April, Vo’s father suffered an aneurysm, and his production for the show was called into question. Bortolozzi told Kreuk she’d do what she could to make sure Vo’s work “had a presence in the show.” “Please help me out here,” Kreuk pleaded. “Let him sell me boxes for the three walls… (I understand that maybe he cannot do something special.)”
The Gemeentemuseum booked a hotel room for Vo in June, but Bortolozzi said he couldn’t come and he couldn’t make a new work. In addition to the three letters, Vo would loan a fourth, easy-to-install work to the museum. A Dutch TV crew was shooting a puff piece when Kreuk and Janssen opened Vo’s package, so they had to act like the floppy, toaster-size box was just what they’d been waiting for as they set it forlornly on the floor.
In September 2013 the show closed and Vo asked the museum to return his box. A senior museum official encouraged Kreuk to “seize” it instead, and that’s when the lawsuits started.
Kreuk filed a claim against Vo and Bortolozzi for the installation he didn’t get, and Vo filed a counterclaim to get his box back. In January 2014 Kreuk curated his collection again—this time into a 29-piece selling show at Sotheby’s London. In an interview with Sotheby’s to promote that show, Kreuk said, “Selling is a part of refining.” The sale included two works created for the Gemeentemuseum show: a copper box by Walead Beshty and a fire-hose flag by Theaster Gates. Also up for grabs was Vo’s Alphabet (B).
In June 2014 the Rotterdam civil judge ruled that during their visit to The Hague Bortolozzi and Vo had in fact agreed to make Kreuk $350,000 worth of art. In July 2015 the judge reaffirmed that ruling and ordered Vo to make Kreuk a “large” and “impressive” art installation or face escalating monetary penalties. Kreuk has since sold his other two Vo “Alphabets,” for a total of $740,000, and has rejected one proposal for a installation from Vo in which the artist would have his father write out a quotation from the film The Exorcist—a frequent reference in Vo’s work, including his 2015 installation in the Danish Pavilion in Venice—on a wall in the Gemeentemuseum: “SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS, YOU FAGGOT.” In the meantime, Vo has split from Bortolozzi and has retained his own attorney to continue an appeal.
The foregoing account, though possibly maddening, should not be considered definitive.
UPDATE 9/25/15, 6:12 p.m.: An original version of this post misidentified Marian Goodman gallery in New York as being in London, and has been updated.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “The Power of Kreuk Compels You!.”