Less than twenty-four hours after a buoyant public reception for “Robert Rauschenberg: a Retrospective”, jointly presented on 12 February by Houston’s top three art museums, Harris County constables carted away fifteen works from the Menil Collection segment of the show—seized as a lien against $5.5 million in damages awarded to Austin-based art advisor Alfred Kren and his associate Carolyn Craft of the Austin Art Consortium.
Confiscated works included Rauschenberg’s infamous “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953), as well as “Pail for Ganymede” (1959), “Mother of God” (around 1950) and “Scanning” (1963). Museum staff were given about six hours to crate the art for removal to a county storage vault. Constables “chose carefully,” said Menil Collection spokesman Bill Thompson. “They knew what they were supposed to take...it was very civilised.”
According to papers provided by attorneys for Mr Kren and Ms Craft, the suit initially was filed against Rauschenberg, his business manager Darryl Pottorf and Swiss art dealer Jamileh Weber in April, 1997. Claiming breach of contract, Mr Kren and Ms Craft contended that they had been negotiating sale of some Rauschenberg works to Donald Hess, a Swiss collector and businessman, when Mr Pottorf told them to work with Mr Weber and split any commissions evenly. Mr Kren and Ms Craft claim they did not receive their full commission when Hess bought several Rauschenberg works, and that Rauschenberg and Mr Pottorf made defamatory statements about Mr Kren.
After ruling on 11 September that Rauschenberg owed Mr Kren and Ms Craft the money, the court on 9 January issued an order for any Rauschenberg property in Texas to be seized “without delay.” However, attorneys for Mr Kren and Ms Craft did not deliver the order to constables until the morning of the opening, said assistant chief constable J.C. Mosier. Constables arrived at the museum hours later. “Austin Art Consortium and Alfred Kren did everything they could to avoid what’s happening,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Taube said in a prepared statement. “Rauschenberg created the problem by ignoring the problem.”
But Theodore Kheel, Rauschenberg’s lawyer, told the New York Times the seizures were “a pressure device to force a settlement. This is a default judgment, and the key word here is default. They never properly served Rauschenberg. We have never had a hearing. All we are seeking is our day in court.” Rauschenberg is now challenging the original ruling in favour of Mr Kren and Ms Craft.
It was at first feared that the confiscated works would be auctioned from the Harris County courthouse steps. One of the departing constables confided to Menil director Paul Winkler, “We’ll send you an invitation. You sometimes can pick up some real bargains.”
In a bizarre twist, Rauschenberg’s attorney in Houston, Neal Manne, claimed the works were confiscated improperly because they do not actually belong to the artist but are in fact owned by a Florida corporation called Untitled Press, Inc. of which Rauschenberg is a shareholder.
In the meantime, the Rauschenbergs have been put back on view at the Menil for the duration of the show because the court ruled the museum had a contractual right to show the work “in good faith.”