Sculpture that Anthony Caro "Disowned" Fails to Sell at Auction

Fifty-three of the 70 paintings and sculpture in Bonhams March 9th sale in London of 20th Century British Art found buyers, but one lot that did not sell made the most news. Before the sale, sculptor Anthony Caro publicly disowned a 1976-77 steel sculpture titled "Lagoon" (estimated between £100,000 and £150,000), claiming the monumental piece had been intentionally damaged by its owner, the UK-based Peterborough Sculpture Trust, by welding five legs to the bottom of it and damaging its surface when it removed spray-painted graffiti. The sculpture did not receive one bid at the auction.

"They never took care of the sculpture," said Jill Capobianco, co-director of Annely Juda Fine Art in London, which represents Caro. "They never asked how it should be installed or cared for. It was meant to be an indoor sculpture, but they put it outside, sitting in water, where it deteriorated badly and was graffitied." She noted that Caro wants his sculptures to sit on the ground - "it is part of his philosophy that his works shouldn't be on pedestals" - but the Trust had five legs welded to the bottom of "Lagoon," a matter on which the artist was never consulted.

The Trust did ask Caro to restore the work in 2008, when it wanted to sell the piece, but the artist said that "the studio would restore it for free, but only if it were exhibited properly and that it not be put up for sale." Instead, she said, the Trust, which had purchased "Lagoon" directly from Caro in 1984 for £25,000, hired a restorer to remove the graffiti and then brought it to Bonhams for sale.

She criticized the auction house for "not representing the work properly," refusing to state in its catalogue that the five legs had been added by the Trust and that the still visible paint was graffiti and had not been part of the artist's design. "Acting as the artist's agent, we complained to Bonhams about this, but they said that the Peterborough Trust recalled things differently, so all the artist could do is publicly disown the sculpture."

A specialist in Bonhams' British art department, Chris Dawson, did not speculate on whether or not Caro's disowning "Lagoon" lessened collector interest, but he noted that the auctioneer had "no plans to include it an upcoming sale. My colleagues are negotiating with the consignors about what to do with it next." The sculpture was returned to the Trust.

It is rare that the owner of valuable and important artworks intentionally alter them, but it does happen. "People, by and large, are very careful with important works of art, because these things have value" said Gilbert Edelson, administrative vice-president of the Art Dealers Association of America. "If they don't like something, they sell rather than intentionally destroy it." Capobianco noted that England doesn't have a law that prohibits collectors from making alterations in artworks, or to penalize collectors who do, although the United States does - the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act. A key example of the problem that Congress was addressing in the law took place in 1960 when a collector sought to purchase a red-painted welded-steel sculpture by David Smith from a dealer. The collector liked the sculpture but not the color. To accommodate the buyer, the dealer sent the sculpture to a foundry where the paint was stripped off. The artist was furious and sought to buy his work back, but the collector refused, informing Smith that the work looked much better now. The artist publicly "disowned" the sculpture but had no legal recourse to enforce his claims. (VARA offers that as a right.)