John Baldessari Estate Beleaguered by Lawsuits Over Damaged Art and Canceled Exhibition

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balance, the ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.

The estate of John Baldessari, a key Conceptual artist who died in 2020, is currently embroiled in two lawsuits.

In one, the estate accused its former gallery and an insurance company of having damaged artworks, some beyond repair. In the other, the estate was sued by a production company who claimed that a tense back-and-forth with Baldessari’s descendants ultimately led to the cancelation of a Gagosian gallery show.

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A lawyer for the estate declined to comment on both lawsuits, citing the fact that they were still pending.

‘A Total Loss’

In October of last year, the Baldessari Trust sued New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery, its former representative, and the insurance company AXA XL, claiming that it is owed $21 million after dozens of works were damaged.

The Baldessari estate’s suit, which was filed in the Supreme Court of New York, has more recently taken another turn, with Marian Goodman Gallery seeking to be indemnified by AXA. If the gallery is successful, it could mean that AXA will have to cover any costs the gallery would have to pay to the estate in connection with the suit.

Marian Goodman Gallery, which is currently preparing to move from Midtown to Tribeca, showed Baldessari’s work for roughly two decades, from the late ’90s until roughly around the time of his death. His estate is no longer listed on the gallery’s roster.

Representatives for Marian Goodman Gallery and AXA declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The suit claims that 55 works were damaged, but it does not note which ones or their individual values. (Baldessari’s auction record, set in 2007, stands at $4.4 million; most of the works by him that have been sold publicly went for less than $1 million.)

“Some are a total loss,” the suit reads. “All others require conservation and are diminished in value as a result of the damage.”

Later on, the suit clarifies how the works were allegedly harmed: “It is immediately apparent from simply looking at many of the works of art that they were grossly mishandled by [Marian Goodman Gallery], for example by evidently having been dropped, leaving large dents, broken corners, scratches, and cracks in the surface of the art itself and in the materials on which they were created. Some of the paintings that had evidently been dropped show that the board materials on which such paintings had been created are now split and have significant and obvious loss of paint in places. Others show mishandling evidenced by water damage, punctures, rips and tears in the art itself.”

“In addition to the art itself being seriously damaged,” the suit continues, “many of the frames on works of art similarly show mishandling with clear evidence that they were dropped (such as broken, split and dented corners, broken glass and plexiglass, etc.), or were scratched by sharp objects. The damage was necessarily caused by [Marian Goodman Gallery’s] own employees and/or by [Marian Goodman Gallery’s] failure to properly supervise other workers.”

The Baldessari estate alleges that when representatives for its current gallery, Sprüth Magers, went to pick up these works, some pieces were even contained in boxes that had “DAMAGED” stickers affixed to them.

In court filings, Marian Goodman Gallery and AXA denied the Baldessari estate’s claims. They are seeking to have the case dismissed. Marian Goodman Gallery attributed any alleged damage against these works to “negligence, carelessness, recklessness and/or intentional acts of third persons over whom Defendant had no control.”

According to the suit, the Baldessari estate went to retrieve his art from the gallery in 2020, after his passing, in order to appraise it in preparation for a tax filing. By that point, the gallery had “refused to cooperate and refused to communicate with the appraisers,” and the works were to be transferred to Sprüth Magers. The estate said it stopped consigning works to Marian Goodman Gallery that same year.

The Baldessari estate said it informed Marian Goodman Gallery of the damage in 2021 but, it alleged, neither that gallery nor AXA would cover conservation costs.

A Tussle with a Production Company

This past May, in the Southern District Court of New York, Beyer Projects, a New York–based art production company, sued the Baldessari estate, alleging that a “controversy” over the ownership of multiple artworks fabricated while the artist was alive moved Gagosian gallery to call off an exhibition planned to take place this year.

Beyer Projects, whose website claims it has also produced art for artists ranging from Anish Kapoor to Lawrence Weiner, said in the suit that its contracts with Baldessari established a 50-50 ownership structure by which it would recoup half the profits when a work sold. But the Baldessari Trust, Beyer Projects claims, is seeking full ownership and possession of unsold works.

Meanwhile, Beyer Projects claims in its suit that Baldessari’s descendants will not issue a certificate of authenticity for Pineapple (2019), a six-and-a-half-foot-tall sculpture of a fruit that allegedly went unsigned upon his passing. It also alleges something similar regarding Brain Fountain, a functioning fountain shaped like a brain that Baldessari conceived in 2011. Beyer Projects claims that the estate has requested materials related to the work “so that it can ultimately sell Brain Fountain itself and deny Beyer Projects its contractual share of the profits.”

Per the suit, Beyer Projects had begun discussing a Gagosian show of Baldessari works that it owned and co-owned. The show was eventually slated for May 2023 and was expected to “bring in millions of dollars—potentially as much as $10,000,000 or more,” according to the suit. But, “because of this cloud on ownership, however baseless, the Gagosian Gallery canceled their exhibition.”
Sprüth Magers, Beyer Projects says, now will not return two works the production company says it co-owns. The gallery has become involved in a “scheme” to cut the company out of dealings involving those pieces, it claims.

The Baldessari estate filed a motion to dismiss the case in which it said it had not breached the Beyer Projects contract. A lawyer for Beyer Projects did not respond to a request for comment.

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