Art collector, Museum of Modern Art trustee, and asset manager Steven Tananbaum is suing Jeff Koons and Gagosian Gallery, alleging that they failed to deliver three sculptures on which he has made payments totaling over $13 million since 2013.
The complaint, an exceptionally verbose legal document filed today in New York Supreme Court and first reported by Bloomberg, accuses Koons’s studio (Jeff Koons LLC) and Gagosian of knowingly deceiving collectors into paying millions in deposits and installments for technically complex sculptures whose projected delivery dates “are a sham from the outset.”
“Instead of manufacturing the sculptures by the initial estimated date of completion, Defendants manufacture false hope,” the suit, filed by Tananbaum’s attorney Aaron Richard Golub, states. “They breed a false sense of urgency to secure as many millions of dollars in deposits and payments as they can.” The complaint adds: “At heart, this interest-free loan system — unbeknownst to the collectors — is less about creating timeless works of art and more about creating an ouroboros by which Defendants maintain a never-depleting source of funds at the expense of eager and trusting collectors.”
The case revolves around three large-scale, stainless steel Koons sculptures — “Balloon Venus Hohlen Fels (Magenta)” (2013–15), “Eros” (2016–present), and “Diana” (2016–present) — with total purchase prices ranging from $6 million to $8.5 million, according to supporting documents. However, the lawsuit alleges that in each case Koons and Gagosian pushed back the original delivery dates of the sculptures for a variety of reasons, while demanding that the payment of installments continue according to the originally agreed-upon schedule.
The “Balloon Venus Hohlen Fels (Magenta)” sculpture, for instance, on which Tananbaum made his first, $1.6 million payment in January 2014, was originally estimated to be completed in December 2015, according to court documents. That estimate was subsequently pushed back to September 2016, and then subject to an unexplained delay of three to six months. Its projected completion date was then pushed back further, to June 2018; and in January of this year it was delayed yet again, to August 2019 — a total delay of three and a half years from the original projected completion timeline. To date, Tananbaum says he has made payments totaling $6.4 million on the sculpture. The lawsuit alleges that the ostensibly unexpected delays are in fact part of Koons’s system for financing his work and lifestyle.
“Behind the ostensible façade of Jeff Koons’ art world triumphs and record-breaking auction sales — illustrated by a never-ending parade of museum, art fair and art gallery exhibitions — lurks a well-oiled machine, more specifically an established, archaic System as old as the hills applied to the art world to exploit art collectors’ desire to own Jeff Koons sculptures,” the suit states. “The archaic System, once all of the obfuscations are stripped away, exposes a garden-variety, interest-free, fraudulent financial routine that harkens the name Ponzi. New money is used to pay old obligations, not to mention that the archaic System is one that oversold the artist’s capacity. Ponzi meets The Producers.”
The long production schedules for Koons’s elaborate and technically ambitious sculptures are infamous. The centerpiece of his 2014 Whitney Museum retrospective, “Play-Doh” (1994–2014), was bought in 1994 by Los Angeles-based collector Bill Bell long before it actually existed. Bell’s money partially funded multiple attempts at making the massive sculpture were undertaken over the two ensuing decades, eventually resulting in the towering, polychromatic pile seen at the Whitney.
However, Tananbaum’s lawsuit implies that the production process for “Play-Doh” has become the norm, and that Koons and his dealers are deliberately and indefinitely stringing collectors along while making it impossible for them to independently verify whether any progress is actually being made on the works for which they’re paying. The complaint alleges that this last point constitutes a violation of New York’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Law.
“Little do the collectors know that once the form contract is signed,” the suit states, “they are entering the Larry Gagosian-Jeff Koons opaque world where they will be blocked from finding out how they will get the sculptures they paid for or if the sculptures are in production while being besieged by a blizzard of installment payments.”
Tananbaum’s complaint seeks damages in excess of $90 million from Koons and Gagosian. Hyperallergic has contact Gagosian for comment but received no reply.
“When the curtain is pulled back, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ cannot help but spring to mind from Defendants’ naked, unadorned avarice and conspiratorial actions in connection with the sale of factory-manufactured industrial products called Jeff Koons sculptures,” the lawsuit reads.
Koons and his dealers are no strangers to litigation. A similar lawsuit over a delayed Koons, cited in Tananbaum’s complaint, was filed in 2013 against the artist’s other New York gallery, David Zwirner, over a two-year delay in the delivery of the sculpture “Gazing Ball (Centaur and Lapith Maiden).” In 2012, Koons’s sculpture “Popeye” was at the center of a flurry of lawsuits between Gagosian and billionaire collector Ron Perelman. Koons has also been accused (and convicted) of plagiarism, and once — infamously — filed a suit of his own seeking total control of all images of balloon animals.