From oil cartels to world authorities on famous artists
ONOPOLISTIC POWER ALWAYS SEEMS TO LEAD TO ABUSE. One of the chief characteristics of monopoly is that the owner has sole control over something that is needed or wanted by other human beings. When there is competition the people who have merchandise are motivated to treat customers with care, giving the best possible service, quality and price, for fear of losing their business. But when fewer and fewer people or corporations control a product or service, they start to charge more, and give worse quality and service.
When finally only one source exists for a commodity or service, unless the individual with that kind of power has unusually strong character, the temptation to treat people like dirt becomes nearly irresistible. Like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, they are inclined to act like you should be grateful that they tolerate your very existence. And don't dare cough or look at them the wrong way or they will threaten to - or actually - deny you the product or service that you need.
I suppose I was a bit naïve, but I somehow thought that art scholars and experts would be above such behavior. That is, until I met Gail Levin. In case you don't know, she's considered the world expert on Edward Hopper. Our paths crossed because I'm an art collector, and a dealer I know brought me a painting by Hopper, which I decided to purchase subject to it being authenticated by the world expert. Many of you may not know this, but in the art world once a scholar has attained the mantle of world expert on an artist, they have the final word on whether or not any work is by that artist. Nobody else's opinion counts. Ten other art experts could be convinced that a work is by an artist, but if the accepted world authority says "no", then nobody will touch that painting, even if it really is legitimate.
This gives the world authority, in this case Gail Levin, monopolistic power and all that goes with it. Through a mutual friend, I was able to discover where to contact her, and the initial conversation was immediately overlaid by the abusive and peremptory tone she set.
"I don't want to do this any more," she croaked. "Everybody and his brother think they've discovered a Hopper, and I can't be bothered looking at items every time someone wants me to."
On the defensive, I gingerly explained that I myself had over 25 years of experience collecting and in scholarship, that I'd seen many of his works and that I was prepared to pay for her service just to look at the piece and render an opinion.
"I'm not in this for the money," she snapped. "I'm a dedicated art scholar and my time is much too important."
I told her that I or a friend would bring it to her wherever she was, to inconvenience her as little as possible.
"I don't even want to be speaking to you," she fired, and again said, "I don't care about or need your money. I know you're a businessman and think you can make people do whatever you want them to."
Walking on eggshells, I assured her that I felt it was my responsibility, and that of all scholars, not to let a work by an important artist go undiscovered.
"Don't tell me about my responsibilities."
"Look," she said, "I can't waste any more time. I have an ironclad method by which I will view your piece. There is no negotiation. You either do it exactly the way I say, or I will not view it or ever speak to you again."
"What do you want me to do?" I asked. "How much will it cost?"
"Your money is of no interest to me, and could never repay me for the aggravation of having to talk to you. However, if you want to go forward with this, my price is $2,000 payable in advance, to be accompanied with two black and white photographs and two 35 mm slides, both of which I get to keep whether the painting is real or not. After I receive your funds, I will then send you an agreement which you have to sign before I will view the work. If you don't sign the agreement, then I don't view the work and I keep the money anyway."
Aghast at such totally one-sided and manifestly unfair terms, I asked if she could please fax me the agreement first. Otherwise I would be paying for something without any idea what I had to agree to.
"Those are the terms," she said, "Take it or leave it; and frankly I hope you leave it, and me, alone. Furthermore, if the painting is not original I will not give you anything in writing."
I thought quickly: how could I agree to such abusive and egregious terms?
"If you will just fax me the agreement, then I can sign it and send it along with your money and the photos all at the same time and make it easier for you."
"I'm not talking to you any longer. Write me an email and let me know if you are going forward with this, and don't say anything about what it's for in the email. I have my email account with CUNY, and I never know what they might try to read."
"Do you really think they would read your mail?"
"I wouldn't put it past them. Look, I said you are not to say anything about this arrangement in your email. Just say whether you are doing what I demanded. Yes or no. That's it. Good bye," and she hung up the phone. I couldn'
t help but wonder what might be in such an email that she might be ashamed of, or perhaps whether she was breaking a rule or agreement with the City University of New York by the methods she was using or what she was charging.
That night my wife and I commiserated on how someone not interested in money would ask for $2,000 for just taking 5 minutes to look at a work of art. Mind you, I'
m not a novice in the art world and have a high reputation for a keen eye and being a scholar in my own right on other artists and periods from hers. She knew this when she was talking to me. It made no difference. So much for professional courtesy when you have monopolistic power, and are the type of person who enjoys abusing it.
I called her the next day after sending her an email, since I was not clear whether she had agreed to fax me the agreement. I couldn't get through to her, but gambled that if I left a message that I thought she had said that she would send it, and then gave my fax number, that she would indeed send it. I also emailed her reminding her to send the agreement, and left the message by voice mail twice.
Finally, two nights later after a third voice mail, the agreement came through by fax. When I received it I couldn't believe what I was reading. It basically gave her the right to not even give an opinion after taking my money; and, if she thought the work was indeed a Hopper, she did not have to tell anyone or give me a letter to that effect. In fact, I had to precisely agree not to tell anyone what she said without her prior written permission. In other words, I was giving her the power to blackmail me if she so desired by refusing to acknowledge it was a Hopper unless I did whatever she demanded next, which for all I knew would be insisting that I give her half ownership in the work. Furthermore I had to agree to pay for her attorney fees if she had to use an attorney for any reason due to looking at my painting, even if it was because she started a frivolous action against me or was grossly negligent or even malicious.
This was just too bizarre. I decided to take a gamble and fill out the details on the form without signing it, and hope that she would accept it the way it was with the $2,000 attached, along with the photos and the provenance and not notice the absence of my signature. I certainly couldn't agree to what was in that form she had sent and therefore could not sign it. I also could not get the work authenticated by any one else that would be accepted by the art world.
I sent it overnight Fedex and waited an extra day and then called again. I got her in the morning.
"You can send your friend," she barked. "But I don't want to have to talk to you again, so have him call for directions tomorrow late morning. Company is due. Goodbye." And she hung up the phone before I could say another word. I couldn't help but wonder what service she thought she owed me for the $2000 I had just sent.
Keep in mind that I did not know Gail Levin before this, and had never had any dealings with her. We had never met at a party or art gathering, and she had no reason to consider me an enemy or antagonist. Apparently, the fact that she had a service that I needed that only she could supply, and she knew that, was cause enough for her to feel justified in dispensing with all human civility, and common decency, treating me no better than an insect flying past her that she might swat at will.
As a businessman, I had on rare occasions seen arrogant self-important purchasing agents for large corporations treat people almost this miserably, but she managed by her words and actions to go even further than the worst I'd ever come across in the corporate world. This was truly the most severe, extreme example of blatant and wanton abuse of power that I had ever seen. Additionally, and let me make no bones about it, I am writing and publishing this because abuse of this sort deserves to be exposed for what it is, and Gail Levin is without a doubt one of the most despicable and miserable excuses for a human being that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. During these dealings, I repeatedly saw images of the movie of Scrooge run before my eyes, and his behavior towards people before he had been visited by the three ghosts.
It also struck me while thinking about this whole affair, that people without resources who owned or discovered a painting by Edward Hopper would never be able to meet her requirements, and authentic works might very well go "undiscovered." A poor person who made such a find would never be able to enjoy any benefit from their work or discovery. How could this possibly be an ethical technique and standard by an accepted world expert for any artist? If there are standards of conduct for scholars, I find it hard to believe that this would fall within those guidelines. And if no guidelines exist then they should be created to eliminate such conduct as unseemly and beneath the dignity of the profession.
Perhaps providence will supply us with an equivalent, and Miss Levin's soul may yet be saved by the spirits of Rembrandt, Raphael and Hopper himself who may perchance visit her in the wee hours of the morn before the next major opening she attends at the Met, Guggenheim or Whitney.