Monday, October 05, 2015

Broken records

The long legal tussle between artist Stephen Bambury and art dealer Andrew Jensen has run its course. It's been an important case. It asked the court to consider the relationship between artists and dealers that are usually (given that there are few solid contractual agreements) conducted in a pretty fluid state. The way art is bought and sold in New Zealand can be complex with closely negotiated deals on prices, time payment, part-payments, packaging of works, exchanges, etc etc. Given that throughout their professional education artists learn diddly squat about how to run even the smallest business, it's not surprising that many artists end up with incomplete records and a sketchy idea of what’s in their various dealers' stock rooms or indeed who ends up owning their work.

This is the context in which Bambury questioned missing payments on sales made by Jensen’s gallery and Jensen, in the way of these things, counter-sued. Now the High Court has found in favour of the artist, awarding him over $100,000 plus interest accumulated over the years the complaint has been in dispute. Jensen’s counter-claims were put aside. Of course all this started with Jensen and Bambury working together very closely. Jensen was a believer in Bambury and Bambury a strong supporter of Jensen’s gallery with both benefiting. Unfortunately such friendships can also lead to the business practices associated with them being looser than usual. Dealings can get muddled via undocumented oral agreements, payments being used to offset other expenses, trade-ins and so forth.

Indeed the court found the Bambury-Jensen relationship to be so closely intertwined that the judge regarded it to be more like a partnership than a business relationship between two separate companies. As a result issues of trust were seen as less critical than they might be in business to business relationships. This maybe why some of Bambury’s more complex claims were dismissed. So, a much reduced pay-out based on the initial claim of around $700,000, but still significant. It will no doubt reverberate through the dealer gallery system and should be a wake-up call to artists look carefully at their own responsibility to keep track of their work and the money it brings them.