Stanford's reverse Midas touch: A tale of art, gold and greed

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File this one under "unexpected consequences of a financial scandal." Or, to turn a phrase, "life is stranger than art."

When the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles needed $3.3 million in gold bullion for an installation, they went to Stanford Coin & Bullion. Yes, Stanford, as in alleged Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford. Performance artist Chris Burden's proposed installation at Gagosian, One Ton/One Kilo, was to feature a pile of 100 solid gold bars. There aren't many companies that can provide gold in that quantity, and Stanford's company seemed like a natural choice.

The deal was quickly negotiated. Gagosian wired the $3.3 million to Stanford, who passed it on to the Dillon Gage Group, an unrelated company that contracted to deliver the bullion. That, however, is where the purchase hit a snag: following Stanford's recent investigation on charges of fraud, his assets have been frozen.

Dillon Gage, uncomfortable about potentially defying a court order, has refused to transfer the gold until Stanford's assets are released or a judge orders the company to do so. Unfortunately, the freeze on Stanford's assets is in effect until March 12 and, unless a court rules otherwise, Gagosian will not be able to get the gold until that date. The gallery has argued its transaction was "a straightforward spot purchase of a tangible commodity," not "the type of transaction involved in the alleged 'Ponzi' scheme," and thus should not be subject to the asset freeze.

While a Dallas judge deliberates over whether to release the bars, Gagosian has announced that it is postponing the show until further notice. Adding injury to insult, the bullion was borrowed from a Rhode Island bank at 6% interest for the length of the show. There is no word on how the court's order has affected this arrangement.

The irony of this situation is pretty clear: if America's recent economic woes have demonstrated anything, it's that few, if any, items have intrinsic value. Every stock, every commodity, everything that can be bought and sold, is subject to the whims of the marketplace.

A few years ago, gold seemed sluggish, while art promised quick, impressive returns. However, as former billionaires are ravaging their collections to pay skyrocketing legal bills, art is poised to drop precipitously, and gold is selling for record amounts.

According to Gagosian's press release, Burden's work was intended to explore "the literal and figurative aspects of weights and measures, as well as in the layers of meaning embedded in the known hierarchy of materials."

Translated from artist-speak to English: Burden probably wanted to show the multiple ways that gold influences the world. With Stanford under investigation, Dillon keeping a stranglehold on the gold bars, and Gagosian stuck without a show, it seems like he has accomplished his goal.

As Gawker recently suggested, maybe the ultimate answer is for the gallery to open a new exhibit: a room that is completely empty, save for a letter from the government, artfully arranged on the floor.

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