Art dealers bring law suit against Venice Biennale artist for declaring hundreds of signed works inauthentic

Ibrahim Mahama, a young Ghanaian artist, is facing a law suit filed by two art dealers, Stefan Simchowitz and Jonathan Ellis King, who allege that by declaring hundreds of signed works inauthentic, Mahama breached a contract with them and potentially devalued works valued at $4.45 million.

Mahama created one of the largest installations at this year’s Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition held every two years which displays modern art from around the world. The piece was created by stretching and joining jute sacks, used to carry coal in his native Ghana, into a large patchwork-like creation. The piece symbolises Ghana’s weak economy which revolves around the production of cocoa, despite an availability of greater mineral wealth such as gold and diamonds.

Simchowitz first discovered Ibrahim Mahama in 2012 through pictures posted on the internet while he was still largely unknown, having only exhibited his work in Ghana. Stefan says he immediately realised the potential of Mahama’s art, lauding him as the next Oscar Murillo and later introducing him to fellow art dealer Ellis King.

The agreement that is subject of the lawsuit was made in October 2013. It provided that Simchowitz and Ellis King would each give Mahama £45,000 in exchange for a large number of jute sacks. The art dealers say they intented Mahama to use the money to set up a studio, where he would create works to be displayed and offered for sale at Ellis King’s gallery and in California. In addition to the monies paid to Mahama, Simchowitz and Ellis King also paid for the shipping for the jute sacks and also paid a fabricator $67,000 to stretch them into artworks, in a process overseen and approved by Mahama. The 294 finished works were then signed by Mahama in December 2014.

While his works were still on show in King’s gallery, the dealers claim that Mahama created a new series, similar to the art made for the dealers, of which 20 were sold to a collector in California, which Mahama said was to fund his display for the Venice Biennale.

Mahama then contacted Ellis King in January to tell him that he was ”disappointed” in the works created with Simchowitz and King’s assistance, that he did not want to be represented by King, and  asked for his name be removed from the gallery’s webpage.

In May, Mahama then declared that the works created through the arrangement with the dealers, some 294 pieces, were inauthentic. Simchowitz responded by filing a lawsuit against Mahama, reportedly saying that he was left with no choice. The suit claims that the dealers have lost out on a potential $4.45 million from the onward sale of the works, and also seeks a declaration that the installation at King’s gallery is owned by Simchowitz and King, not Mahama. It is alleged that Mahama did not actually use the money invested in him to build a studio, instead it is claimed that he ‘invested the money in a venture with his father’.

ArtNews reports that despite the case against Mahama, both dealers reasserted their support for the Ghanaian and would continue to support him if the issue could be resolved.

Read more about the case here.

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