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Culture Clash

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.

Alfred Kren styles himself as a maverick, a scholarly freelancer unbound by institutional approaches to art. After owning galleries in Cologne and New York in the '80s, he and his girlfriend moved to Austin so that she could study art history at the University of Texas. There, in 1993, they started a museum consulting service called Austin Art Consortium. The consortium's largest project was a Rauschenberg exhibit, "Haywire," mounted at an art space in Munich, Germany, where Kren was born. As for the consortium's current projects, Kren is vague.

Kren's reputation as a businessman is less than spotless. Gert Berliner, a New York artist who has dealt with Kren, calls him "a pathological liar" and "a thief," adding that Kren always seemed to be in financial difficulty. Berliner says Kren had works by him and a friend in his New York gallery, and that after the gallery closed, neither saw their art again.

During a brief interview he granted the Press last week in his small office on Sixth Street in Austin, Kren said he met Rauschenberg in the mid-'80s. Over time, as one source close to the artist puts it, Kren "wormed his way in" to Rauschenberg's circle and sold a handful of Rauschenberg's works, some to German museums.

Kren maintains that he was not only "a colorful spot in Rauschenberg's entourage," but an important booster of Rauschenberg's career in Germany. Those who work for Rauschenberg, however, now say he was more trouble than he was worth. "There are a thousand other dealers who have done a thousand more things for Rauschenberg," says Rauschenberg agent Donald Saff.

Still, someone like Kren could make a living off of an artist as big as Rauschenberg. From 1993 to 1996, Kren claims to have earned $335,000 in commissions from sales of the artist's work. So when his relationship with the artist began to break down, he had a great deal to lose.

In 1995, just as Kren was helping organize "Haywire," Rauschenberg was mounting an exhibit at Jamileh Weber's gallery in Zurich. The night before the opening, Weber called a collector friend of hers -- Donald Hess -- and invited him to a private dinner with the artist. Hess and Rauschenberg had never met before, but as Hess recalls it, the two got along famously, and Hess expressed an interest in purchasing some sculptures.

"The surprising thing about it," says Hess, "is the next day I get a call from Alfred Kren. I hardly knew who he was anymore." Kren had been at the opening, where he learned about the dinner and immediately left the gallery to call the collector. Soon after, Kren came calling at the winery with four Rauschenbergs to peddle. Confused, Hess called Rauschenberg and asked him, "With whom should I deal?" Rauschenberg told him to deal with Weber, and Hess eventually purchased four works -- one of which was a piece that Kren had initially shown him. For that sale, Kren received $45,000, half of Weber's 20-percent commission. But Kren now says he was promised half the commission on all Weber's sales of Rauschenberg's work.

After his lightning-quick call to Hess, Kren quickly found himself persona non grata in the Rauschenberg camp. In an angry exchange of letters that began in January 1997, Rauschenberg's boyfriend, Darryl Pottorf, complained of Kren's endless faxes and phone calls, calling him "a real pain."

"You are a pro at using people," Pottorf wrote. "You are like a snake in my garden. I ... acknowledge its right to live and thrive, until the day I reach to pick a flower and get bitten."

Rauschenberg wrote a separate memo charging that Kren's endeavors to promote his art had become "an embarrassment and a disgrace."

Kren fired back a rebuttal, claiming that he was the one who had offered to share his commission with Weber, "just to make her feel good."

In his reply, Pottorf wrote, "You have been the worst of times for me in the 16 years with RR."

People in the Rauschenberg camp attribute problems with Kren to Rauschenberg's gentlemanly naivete. They say the artist was blind-sided by the seizure, and even more surprised by the $5.5 million amount. The commission that Kren claims he is owed on Hess's acquisitions amounts to less than $100,000. So where does the figure come from?  

The answer is that $5.5 million was a default judgment. Since Rauschenberg never showed up in court to defend himself, Kren came up with highly speculative figures (for example, he estimates that he's lost two commissions on the sale of Rauschenberg's work per year for the next ten years, totaling $1,400,000). All told, Kren claims damages of $1.8 million -- the rest of the $5.5 million is punitive.

Why didn't Rauschenberg show up in court? The answer to that question is far from clear. "This thing is very Bob," says Houston art dealer Fredericka Hunter. "It's almost pure, right? The thing has no merit and he won't pay any attention to it."

One reason for Rauschenberg's dismissal may be that he never thought the lawsuit's value would balloon as much as it did. In the original suit, filed in April 1997, Kren and the consortium allege only breach of contract. According to lawyers for Rauschenberg, they ignored the matter because Rauschenberg had already paid the commission he owed -- to Jamileh Weber.

Though Rauschenberg's lawyers maintain their client was never properly served, Kren's lawyers claim they attempted to serve process on the defendant with no results. The judge granted permission to simply serve process via first class mail. After Rauschenberg missed the deadline to respond in August, the plaintiffs amended their petition. This time, they alleged slander, libel, interference with business relationships (Pottorf's letters had been cc'd to several of Rauschenberg's associates) and asked for punitive damages.

"I'm not greedy," Kren says. "When something is wrong, we want to make it right."

Kren, 46, points out his wall of books to make the point that he's a scholar. As he ends his interview, he makes a last-ditch effort to prove that he is the aggrieved party, a loyal advocate who has been wrung out and discarded. "People keep calling and asking, 'How could this be?,' " he says. "I've been asking the same thing for a year and a half, 'How could this be?' "

Almost a week after the 15 Rauschenbergs had been seized, they were back on the walls of the Menil Collection by order of the court. Meanwhile, Rauschenberg has posted a $1,000,000 bond to postpone the sale of the work until the end of March, and has agreed to mediation of the dispute.

Kren said, "I am pleased that Mr. Rauschenberg has finally begun to appreciate the importance of this matter."

As for the city's museum directors, the seizure has made them jittery. Loans to museums are already in jeopardy: Last month a New York judge refused to allow the Museum of Modern Art to return two paintings by Egon Schiele to the Viennese museum that had lent them, because descendants of two Jewish families claimed the works had been taken from them by Nazis. The Menil Collection's good name has often helped persuade reluctant owners to lend works, and the museum claims its reputation has been devastated by the seizures.

As Menil attorney Bob Singleton said, rather histrionically, in the Houston Chronicle: "[The message is] Houston and Texas is not someplace to loan your art, because somebody is going to take it."

To which Constable Evans, for his part, offered a simple bit of wisdom: Perhaps it's the lenders who should be questioned, not the borrowers. "[Museums] normally keep a pretty straight business," he says, nonplused as ever. "They just happened to be doing business with somebody who wasn't keeping a straight business.


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