Reputation Management in the Art World – a vital commodity

UHNW art collectors, dealers and advisors are prominent individuals whose lives depend on their good standing, integrity and professionalism. We learn more from our Expert Guest, Pandora Mather-Lees of Art On Superyachts.

Pandora Mather-Lees, Founder of ArtOnSuperyachts.com

Pandora Mather-Lees, Founder of ArtOnSuperyachts.com

Reputation management is as important in the art world as it is anywhere as subscribers to The Art Newspaper or artnet News will be well aware. UHNW art collectors, dealers and advisors are prominent individuals whose lives and livelihood can be dependent on their good standing, integrity and professionalism. Despite the desire for privacy, inevitably they attract press attention whether good or bad.  When it is misleading or simply untrue, sensational news causes distress and damage to the individual, organisation and family, so in this article we look to understand how the art world can respond from a legal perspective and who might be affected.  

Many people suffering from bad Press are unsure whether they have a case and at what point, if at all, they should enlist legal expertise as they become the subject of fake news, lies or an impending story about to break?

Taylor Hampton Solicitors, a London based law firm, is expert in this field and acts for celebrities and high-profile figures. It also has an art law department being a founding member of London’s The Art Due Diligence Group. Managing Partner Daniel Taylor has shared his knowledge at art, luxury and family office related seminars as well as leading the way on ground-breaking cases in defamation and privacy involving the UK Press over the past decade. 

For example, one such case involved art world figure and writer Sarah Thornton who pursued The Daily Telegraph over a review of her book Seven Days in the Art World. In a landmark case which changed the law on defamation, Dr Thornton successfully sued critic Lynn Barber for damages over a malicious and defamatory review in the newspaper. 

For dealers, collectors and art world professionals to understand the work that firms such as Taylor Hampton do, it is helpful to understand that for a comment to be defamatory, it must be published to a third party and lower the reputation of the individual in the eyes of right thinking people. 

It is Slander if it is the spoken word and Libel if in writing.  According to Daniel Taylor, The Defamation Act 2013 restricted cases of Defamation to where serious damage has been  caused to the individual’s reputation and in the case of companies, there is the requirement that the defamatory publication has also  caused serious financial loss.  

As with other areas of law, reputation management requires careful conduct and management of each case according to the circumstances surrounding the publication. Defamation law, like many laws, can have grey areas where interpretation, context and presentation of facts are critical. It is vital to present the evidence so as to ensure serious harm can be proved and obtain the best outcome for the client. The redress for a defamatory article will  typically require an undertaking not to repeat, an apology, damages, costs and a Statement in Open Court. 

There are many cases in the art world globally where high profile individuals with reputations to protect have come into the courtroom – and many more quietly settled behind the scenes.

An interesting case in the US involved Gerald Peters and his eponymous gallery which sold a Frank Tenny Johnson painting The Sun and The Rain. A Reno gallery questioned the work’s authenticity. Peters claimed his own reputation had been damaged as a result and took the case to court.  

Whilst one can indeed sympathise with Peters, a recognised dealer of many years, it was ultimately decided that his own character was not maligned as a direct result of having a painting in his possession questioned. This result has not yet been tested in the UK courts and given that every situation in the art world is unique, it will be interesting to see how similar matters play out in the future, given that legal recourse in the art world is on the rise.

Reputations are important for artists too. Those who command high sums for their works and who are frequently in the public eye may have previously got off lightly with ‘bad behaviour’ because artists are accepted as ‘outsiders’ and part of an avant garde or quirky community.  Today however, political correctness dictates a different perspective.  The case of artist celebrity Rolf Harris, convicted for sex assaults, is one example of how an artist’s reputation of years was destroyed in seconds with a corresponding knock-on effect to his prices and desirability.

So too, can galleries’ reputations be burned by dint of employee actions as in the Knoedler Gallery scandal in New York where many parties including a director of Sotheby’s took to the courtroom to recover damages for having been sold forged paintings. Again, many of the actions were settled out of court, but not all and the art world was scandalised by each sensational revelation laying bare how seasoned collectors had been misled.  

The gallery’s longstanding name and position within the art world’s elite embodied trust and heritage being associated with the legendary Armand Hammer; the case led to its reputation being destroyed in a matter of months.

Celebrities today are often keen art collectors at the highest level and can unwittingly be caught up in publicity involving ownership of fine art.  A few years ago Alec Baldwin sued the Mary Boon gallery for passing off a Bleckner painting, Sea and Mirror, as the original version. Steve Martin unknowingly purchased a Heinrich Campendonk forgery by Wolfgang Beltracchi and Leonardo di Caprio who innocently accepted brand name paintings as a gift from the now exposed Malaysian fraudster Jho Low.

Notwithstanding the reputations of artists, galleries, dealers and collectors, the artworks themselves can become ‘burned’ in certain circumstances such as over exposure during the sale process, involvement in a crime or when someone questions their authenticity. In these cases, they rarely if ever regain their original value.

So, for an art world player who finds themselves in such uncomfortable and challenging circumstances, what do they do? 

According to Daniel Taylor the first step is to move rapidly and to gather the factual matrix with the client. The publisher or impending publisher should be notified as soon as possible that the case is in the hands of defamation experts and be informed what is false and defamatory, or indeed might be a misuse of private information. 

If already published, demands can be made for the immediate removal of the offending article. This can increasingly be in an online environment and indeed cases on social media and internet sites, especially ‘review’ sites have substantially increased and are worryingly pervasive.  

Taylor Hampton’s team is well versed in how to flush out the origins of sources of information which can be infuriatingly elusive. They are also familiar with the legal channels and inner workings of the newspapers. Once the request to remove the offending material has been complied with, an apology in print should follow and erasure of the history of the material by technical experts online, crucially in all depths and far corners of the internet. 

The legal team will pursue the perpetrator for an immediate promise in writing (an undertaking) not to repeat – anywhere, any media in perpetuity – so as to lock down the offending news. Then it is a question of claiming damages and the legal costs. Damages are a sensitive and specialist part of the legal team’s work. They would be calculated by determining the level of ‘harm’ the victim has suffered whilst taking into account the latest case law and legislation which informs that judgement.

One of the biggest worries for an art world player is whether to respond to press enquiries or suffer the ubiquitous “was not available for comment” which can potentially be damaging too and does not allow the victim the opportunity to state their case in a clear and factual manner. Daniel Taylor always advises that one should take the opportunity to rebut any false allegations, but always to do so guided by legal advice and of course, following a sound analysis of the facts.

Our cultural repertoire includes many aphorisms and quotes about reputation and how ruthlessly it can be destroyed in seconds. It represents a valuable currency in individual and brand equity yet is elusive to measure and hard to maintain in today’s fast-paced, information-hungry media environment. 

Reputation management in the art world matters, because it is a small world and you have to maintain ‘good standing’ in the eyes of those that matter in order to function. Soaring prices, the rise of super brands, globalisation and new investors have all played their part in raising the stakes in this €65bn industry. 

It is vitally important for anyone working and transacting in the art market to use all available tools to shore up their position up-front. This means addressing the softer skills such as public relations and developing a positive media presence as well as taking court action where appropriate. 

Author Bio

Pandora Mather-Lees

Pandora Mather-Lees is an Oxford-educated art historian with a background in art publishing, having over 20 years’ experience in the commercial art sector with galleries, museums, auctions houses and art related platforms.

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