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New York Museums Seek Dismissal of $100 Million Lawsuit

Five New York museums argued in federal court on Friday, April 27 that a lawsuit accusing them of manipulating the contemporary art market has no merit. Filed by American artist Robert Cenedella, who was the subject of the 2016 documentary Art Bastard, in February, the complaint alleges that the institutions are part of a “corporate museum cartel” that conspires to only promote a select group of artists—mainly those whose works are already in their collections. Cenedella is seeking $100 million in damages.

The defendants—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the New Museum—claimed that Cenedella’s theory is “implausible” and are asking the court for a dismissal with prejudice, meaning that Cenedella would not be able to refile the suit.

While Cenedella’s lawyer, Robert J. Hantman, told Law 360 that the artist, who is also a professor at the Art Students League of New York, is attempting “to level the playing field and foster legitimacy and transparency to the art world,” the museums believe that he is merely a disgruntled provocateur who is “disappointed” that his works have not entered their collections. They added that this grievance “has nothing to do with the law, let alone the antitrust laws, which are intended to protect competition.”

The institutions also denied his claims that they are working with five top New York galleries—Gagosian Gallery, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace Gallery, and Marian Goodman Gallery—to drive up prices for the artists they represent. The case was partially prompted by an article written by Julia Halperin and published in the Art Newspaper in 2015. The piece said that between 2007 and 2013 there was a major overlap between top galleries’ rosters and the museums’ programming.  

The brief concluded that Cenedella’s argument is only valid if the museums benefit when the market prices for artists whose works they own increase. Instead, the museums claim that artificially inflating the market would potentially deter collectors from purchasing the pieces and donating them to the institutions.

The seventy-seven-year-old artist, a former student of the German artist George Grosz, is known for his satirical works that range from images of Santa Claus nailed to a crucifix to the painting Fin del Mundo (End of the World), which depicts a vision of President Donald Trump’s America.