Bitter feuds in the art world: the eBay sale and what it might mean for the future

It was momentous in every way for two of the world’s wealthiest men — and it was different for them because of the skin color of the other man.

On Thursday, the men’s archenemy, who is white, outbid the man whose skin color puts him “with the masses” — black. That man, who is of mixed race, prevailed for a jaw-dropping $676 million. It wasn’t just an auction that made that figure. It was a small foundation that occurred in a high-profile divorce settlement and includes the art collection of an art world titan, a Sotheby’s sale that happened in a courthouse in one of the capital cities of another country.

It is the story of two collectors who could never understand why the other seemed to get all the press.

No doubt, it was a bitter divorce, which highlights a grinding problem that the art market has found itself in — and which has become a focus for art dealers, collectors and many others who have voiced a desire to address these patterns.

According to his divorce settlement, Olaf Thalmann, the painter and multibillionaire, is paying Diana Brinkley’s multimillion-dollar estate. Her collection of nearly 400 works, ranging from Renaissance Italian sculpture to abstracts from the early 20th century, was traded at auction for the highest bid.

Meanwhile, the photographer, who is white, is paid for his rights to the work.

There is no record of the price of any work in the collection that was sold. The source of that price could not be learned on Friday, and Sotheby’s had no comment on it.

The sale did not include a single sculpture from any European country; the art reportedly dates from The Renaissance and the Greek and Roman periods. But no matter where the art came from, Mr. Thalmann probably came away with more than his adversaries. It was said that he used to propose that they put the collected work on an iceberg off Iceland. There would be ice that cooled at the water’s surface and would melt slowly, just as a glacier melts. They imagined he might shave his heads and head into the water.

There is a side note to that story that made headlines.

From the moment he came out of his race as a Guatemalan-American and began to reside in New York, Mr. Thalmann has been an obsession for some black artists. On Friday, Jeffrey Deitch, the white founder of Deitch Projects, spoke at the Contemporary Arts Museum New York about the criticism he, as an outsider to New York galleries, faced for not including more pieces by African American artists. He said he would gladly boycott any space that does not have African-American art.

“It’s bullshit that if you look at anybody in the world who doesn’t look like you you won’t get an exhibition,” he said, according to Page Six.

And there is another question about New York galleries that comes into play because of the Thalmann art. Do they market mainly in Europe? How often do they show work from the United States? What seems at least possible, is that the auction may have contributed to a broader conversation that will spur work in the United States by people of African descent.

The silence has been made difficult by the existence of successful names that are Black and Israeli. In other words, if an Israeli star is successful, then most of his work is from Israel — even if the art is signed to someplace like Christie’s. But if a U.S. talent is equally successful and signed elsewhere, he sells at auction. Sometimes, those pieces sell for more than the Fabergé “Heidi” egg sold for.

It is possible the Thalmann work was so rare because of its rarity. One of the most impressive paintings was a 14th-century Camillo Calefo — “Ma No Ti Ambiente” — that was signed as an Old Master. Its black-and-white scene of dozens of Napoleonic soldiers, portrayed at night, was an original and unusual work of European artistic invention.

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