Culture Clash

Deputy constables raid the Menil, confiscate the works of famed artist Robert Rauschenberg and get set for a big old auction that has the local art scene gasping

Most of the time, Deputy Constable Sgt. J.C. Evans's job is to seize people's cars, jewelry or waterbeds. He doesn't usually deal with artwork worth millions of dollars, as he did last week when he oversaw the seizure of 15 works by Robert Rauschenberg from the Menil Collection, one of the hosts of a three-museum retrospective for the artist. Still, the constable is unimpressed with the furor, and he sure doesn't think much of the art. If the auction takes place, Evans insists it will proceed just like any other constable sale. Buyers will have to pay cash.

When a reporter points out that a single work on the list could bring $2 million, Evans shakes his head. "Nah," he says matter-of-factly, peering at the work's title. "Have you seen it? I mean, give me a break."

The recent legal ambush at the Menil Collection engendered a culture clash of sorts as Houston law enforcement penetrated the rarefied international art world. After a grueling week preparing for a Thursday night opening that attracted an estimated 2,200 people, Menil director Paul Winkler returned from a late Friday lunch to find a gun-toting Evans outside his office door. The sergeant, who had never been to the Menil before, reportedly asked Winkler if he were Walter Hopps, who along with Susan Davidson curated the retrospective. Hopps is known for cutting unorthodox capers such as stealing art to demonstrate the inadequacy of gallery security. Winkler's first thought, he is said to have joked later, was "Oh, no. What's Walter gotten us into now?"

When the constables began to round up the art, a cluster of anxious Menil employees begged to be allowed to crate the precious goods for them, to which the constables consented. And when the lawyers in charge set their sights on an early painting from Rauschenberg's gold series, that same cluster, as one, let out an anguished groan, insisting the piece was too fragile to be moved. The lawyers relented.

They could select only works from Rauschenberg's personal collection, and Davidson says some of what they took had great personal value for the artist. Among the works were photographs of Rauschenberg's former companion, artist Cy Twombly, and the Erased de Kooning Drawing, a seminal work from the early fifties in which Rauschenberg erased, then framed, a drawing by the revered artist Willem de Kooning. The seizure, many maintain, was designed to humiliate Texas-born Rauschenberg on the occasion of his homecoming. It was the action of someone who badly wanted attention. "[Plaintiff Alfred Kren] is acting like a suitor scorned," says one Friend of Bob, who asked not to be named.

Though Menil staffers say the constables were initially brusque, a sort of detente crept in as the seizure stretched well into the evening. The constables were, after all, just doing their job, and as they warmed up to the Menil employees, they explained the intricacies of confiscation -- staffers learned, for example, that constables are permitted to seize ten times the value of what's owed because most items fetch only a fraction of their value. In other words, the constables were entitled to take $55 million in Rauschenbergian booty, though what they did take was closer to what they thought they were owed.

The old adage that no publicity is bad publicity holds especially true in the art world, where a front-page scandal can reach more people than any number of educational outreach efforts. Last year, for example, the Museum of Fine Arts' membership increased by 10,000 people during the "Jewels of the Romanovs" exhibit, which made national news when Russian authorities in Washington, D.C. refused to let the jewels go on to Houston.

But this publicity was far more embarrassing, and the Menil quickly circled the wagons. The museum rebuffed a call from the New York Times (which came suspiciously soon after the seizure began, lending credence to the humiliation theory), and employees were instructed not to talk to the press. Though the news hit the Chronicle's front page on Saturday morning, at Rauschenberg's packed lecture that afternoon there was no hint that anything was awry.

Despite the museum's attempt to keep things quiet, speculation and rumor quickly circulated through the art world. Who was Alfred Kren? How could Robert Rauschenberg owe someone so much money? And if he did owe him so much money, how could the affair have gotten this far?

The story of how the works came to be seized provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the high-stakes art business. It begins in 1993 at a Napa Valley winery-cum-gallery, where Swiss businessman and mineral-water magnate Donald Hess displayed his contemporary art collection.

Hess had received a call from a German art dealer named Alfred Kren, and invited him to his winery to discuss Robert Rauschenberg. During their four-hour luncheon, Kren says that he was able to persuade Hess to look favorably on the work of Rauschenberg, an artist in whom the collector previously had little interest.

Still, Hess didn't take the bait. And despite many letters and faxes from Kren over the next couple of years, Hess never made a buy.

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