25 January 2016

Recent auction in Utah

by Marc Masurovsky

An auction recently took place on January 14, 2016, at St. George, Utah, organized by Pine Valley Auctions. Among the lots being offered for sale were works by important 20th century artists such as Egon Schiele, Karel Appel, Serge Poliakof, Bernard Buffet, Sonia Delaunay, Sean Scully, Joan Miro, and Arshile Gorky. All of these works came from a single collection in the name of Michael P. Cornelius. None of the works came with a provenance. The only evidence of an owner or a possessor of these works came in the form of a white label pasted on the back of these works. Michael P. Cornelius, of Fine American Paints, at 110 7th Avenue, New York. The telephone number provided has a Santa Fe, NM, area code. Nowadays, that is less likely to shock since most people keep their cell phone numbers and resettle in remote communities choosing to keep those numbers. The telephone number is associated with a camera shop in downtown Santa Fe.

The question here is one of trust and diligence. If one wanted to contact Mr. Cornelius, where would one go?

Well, for one, the phone number that he provided was registered to someone else in Santa Fe.

Furthermore, there is no Fine American Paints on 7th Avenue in New York or anywhere for that matter in the continental United States. At the address provided on the label, all that one can find is Williams-Sonoma.

Finally, the pièce de résistance is Mr. Cornelius himself. He too does not seem to exist in a location that makes any sense and can be associated to the works being put on sale in St-George, UT.

There are numerous ways by which works of art can be laundered, resold for profit in remote locations like a small town in Utah which does not experience the presence of modern American and European art of a certain quality on a regular or even occasional basis. This comment is not meant to be patronizing but it is a statement of fact.

An equally serious question to ask about these works being sold with fictitious names, addresses and telephone numbers: are these works authentic? It's true that some buyers don't care whether what they buy is authentic or not because they like the look and feel of the works. After all, that is part of what makes art appealing and, like many works or objects of art endowed with an enthralling esthetic, these artistic pieces become expensive conversation pieces that convey instant status to their possessors.
Sonia Delaunay
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Bernard Buffet

Arshile Gorky
Nevertheless, keep in mind that these kinds of sales occur fairly regularly throughout the United States and across the globe. For those of you who are interested in investing tens of thousands of dollars into iconic names of the modern art world, please check the references of those who consign the works. Do your due diligence or you will be left with the equivalent of an automotive lemon.

Egon Schiele