The Back Room: Deconstructing Diego Cortez

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This week in the Back Room: lessons from a legendary impresario/ art thief, Lisa Yuskavage on mammary matters, the $100 million sale that wasn’t, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,680 words). 


Top of the Market

Dealing in Deception

The most revealing news item this week came, yet again, from Artnet’s own Katya Kazakina, who detailed the complicated history of artist, curator, and art advisor Diego Cortez in her Art Detective column.

The legendary downtown New York figure, who died in 2021, is best known for bringing Jean-Michel Basquiat to attention in a 1981 exhibition that he curated at P.S.1. Less known, or at least not publicly acknowledged before last week, was that he later stole works by Basquiat from his own close circle of friends when his financial situation deteriorated.

A closer look at the pathologies that drove Cortez to these deceptions is useful for a host of reasons, among them:

  • Setting the historical record straight
  • A reminder of the vulnerabilities inherent in doing business, and a squishy type of business at that, with friends.
  • Highlighting the red flags Cortez’s friends and clients identified, and why they were ignored

Three art-world notables spoke on the record to Art Detective about Cortez’s thefts:

  • Musician Arto Lindsay, who was swindled out of possession of his “nest egg,” a notebook gifted to him by the artist.
  • Leisa Stroud, daughter of Black figurative painter Dick Stroud. She was robbed of six drawings.
  • Artist and filmmaker Seth Tillett, who traced the history of the notebook Lindsay once owned.

Stephen Torton, who worked as Basquiat’s assistant and was a friend of Cortez, verified that their stories were consistent with Cortez’s character—his slipperiness was as widely acknowledged and frequently deployed as his charm.

Cortez’s thefts share a few attributes: they were non-consensual sales initially disguised as a favor to the victims, and they involved a promise of further remittance later that never came. Ringing any bells?

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

The depth of Cortez’s misdeeds became apparent in the wake of the FBI’s investigation into the Orlando Museum of Art’s fake Basquiat pieces, which the dealer authenticated in 2018 and 2019. Michael Barzman, a Los Angeles-based auctioneer, admitted to fabricating the works and passing them off as Basquiat’s with an as-yet-unidentified accomplice earlier this year. So, what drove Cortez to sign off on works other experts say were so clearly fake in the twilight of his life? It’s not entirely clear, but money was almost certainly involved.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that Cortez also did legitimate work and was apparently often generous. Cortez worked as an advisor to collectors including Gerald Fineberg and Michael Salke in the U.S. and the Benetton family in Italy. Salke said Cortez helped him build a “wonderful collection.”

But, Katya uncovered, Cortez also allegedly engaged in some practices that chime with previous art-dealing scandals, including charging fees on both ends without disclosing them to all parties and misusing clients’ funds. Meanwhile, he lived (in Lindsay’s words) a “princely life,” and he overextended himself financially in order to fund it—another trope that will sound familiar to anyone who has read about other dethroned phenoms, such as embattled advisor Lisa Schiff.


The Bottom Line

While Cortez’s treatment of friends and clients was inexcusable, even the aggrieved are not sure that he acted with malice. The compounding weight of financial pressures and his fading esteem likely led him to desperate acts, and selling Basquiats was perhaps the only highly remunerative thing he knew how to do.

The takeaways for buyers and sellers of art and observers of the art market are fairly simple, then. First, instincts and rumors have merit—listen to them, within reason. A “favor” is only a favor if you asked for it. And, above all, proceed with caution when doing business—especially unregulated art business—with friends.

[Read More


Paint Drippings

Wet Paint is on sabbatical this week, as our columnist pursues a longer investigation.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

Art Fairs

  • The inaugural edition of Art Mumbai—the city’s first major fair and only the second in India—is slated for November 16–19 at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse. (
  • The seventh edition of the Seattle Art Fair offered art at every price point and featured an installation by Jeffrey Gibson, who was newly appointed to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. (Artnet News)

Auction Houses

  • René Magritte’s painting of two apples wearing theatre masks is hitting the auction block at Sotheby’s in Paris this October, with an estimate of €10 million to €15 million ($11 million to $16.6 million). The sale of (1955) comes on the heels of the house’s record-setting sale of a Magritte work in 2022. ()

Galleries

  • Andrew da Conceicao, a founding director of the South Africa- and Netherlands-based Stevenson gallery, has died at 53. Along with Michael Stevenson and Kathy Grundlingh, da Conceicao founded the gallery in 2003 with the hopes of elevating African artists on a global stage. (ARTnews)
  • Sargent’s Daughters now reps New York-based artist Carlos Rosales-Silva, whose work will be featured in the gallery’s solo booth at The Armory Show in September; Seoul-based painter Yooyun Yang has joined the stable at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery, where she had her first solo exhibition in June; and the Brazilian artist Maxwell Alexandre, a former professional inline skater, is now exclusively represented by Galeria Millan in São Paulo. ()
  • Mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth is expanding yet again, this time with a new space dedicated solely to printed editions, set to open on 18th Street in Manhattan next month. The inaugural exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Editions will be a solo show of Louise Bourgeois, and will overlap with the IFPDA Print Fair. (Ocula)

Institutions

  • The New Museum has added three new members to its board of trustees: tech magnate Stephanie Horton, financier Douglas McNeely, and artist Nari Ward. ()
  • Hartwig Fischer is stepping down from his role as director of the British Museum, with no plans for a replacement yet announced; Benno Tempel has been named managing director of the Kröller-Müller Museum, which he joins from Kunstmuseum Den Haag; and Eva Respini left her role as chief curator of the ICA Boston to act as the deputy director and director of curatorial programs at Vancouver Art Gallery. (Artnet News, , Artnet News)
  • The Jewish Museum of London has permanently shuttered, citing financial problems due to the pandemic coupled with declining visitor rates. Meanwhile, the recently opened Itumbaha Museum in Nepal, which operates in partnership with the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, has sparked controversy due to allegedly looted relics in its collection. (, Artnet News)

Tech and Legal News

  • Lighthouse Immersive, the Toronto-based company behind the immersive art exhibition trend, has filed for Chapter 15 bankruptcy protection in Delaware. (Artnet News)
  • Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, was revealed to be the buyer of a Cryptopunk, a type of NFT. He paid 113.7 ETH (about $200,000). (Coindesk)
  • Armando Pereira, a co-founder of Sotheby’s owner Patrick Drahi’s embattled telecoms company Altice, is under house arrest in Portugal amid a massive corruption investigation. Altice has told investors and rating agencies that it may have been a victim of fraud, heightening scrutiny of Pereira, who sources said has long acted as Drahi’s “right hand man.” ()

“I’m Little Miss Underestimated. They think I just do the tits.”

Lisa Yuskavage on the perception of her work and its preoccupation with breasts, via the .


Work of the Week

Damien Hirst 

Damien Hirst, <i>For the Love of God</i> (2007). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2023.

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God (2007). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2023.

Date: 2007

Seller: White Cube

Price: $0

Selling at: White Cube

Sale date: 2007

It’s been a while since a certain diamond-encrusted skull occupied space in our brains. But, love it or hate it, Damien Hirst’s over-the-top platinum cast of a human skull covered by 8,601 diamonds is back. It is slated to go on view at the Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art (MUCA) in Munich as part of a major Hirst survey exhibition opening on October 26.

The skull caused quite a stir when Hirst created it in 2007 and the title itself, was reportedly the phrase the artist’s mother exclaimed upon hearing about the concept for the work. The artist once explained that his mother would often ask him, ‘‘For the love of God, what are you going to do next?’’

Some were stunned to hear that the work sold for £50 million (then $100 million) a few months after it was created and some found it even more surprising—and possibly a bit suspect—that the consortium of buyers at the time reportedly included Hirst himself. The sale was supposedly brokered by White Cube gallery. However, Hirst later admitted, in early 2022, that the sale never happened and that the pricey bauble had been sitting in a storage locker. At that time, we asked MUCA representatives who loaned them the skull.

The work will be on view at MUCA until January 28, 2024, as part of Hirst’s first solo exhibition in Germany, titled “The Weight of Things,” alongside over 40 works which will include installations, sculptures, and paintings, some of which have not been seen before.


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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