Saudi prince buys Yayoi Kusama's pumpkin installation

Yayoi Kusama's All The Eternal Love I Have For The Pumpkins is on show at the Institute of Contemporary Art until Jan 31.
Yayoi Kusama's All The Eternal Love I Have For The Pumpkins is on show at the Institute of Contemporary Art until Jan 31.PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, MIAMI/ INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • Ever since a Saudi prince paid US$450 million (S$613 million) for a Da Vinci painting two years ago, the art world has been trying to figure out what else will end up in the desert kingdom.

One answer is now on display at a Miami museum, which lists the Collection of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula as the lender of a work by global art phenom Yayoi Kusama.

Kusama's immersive work, All The Eternal Love I Have For The Pumpkins, is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art until Jan 31, according to the museum's website.

The 2016 installation includes a "mesmerising array of Kusama's signature spotted pumpkins within a mirror-lined room illuminated with LED lighting".

The Saudis bought the Kusama about six months ago, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be named.

"We are pleased to bring a work that has been popular with museum audiences around the world to our Miami community for the first time," Mr Tommy Pace, the museum's deputy director, said in a statement. The museum notes that the exhibition is supported by the Inigo Philbrick Gallery.

The problem is that somebody else says he owns it. German art investment firm Fine Art Partners sued Mr Philbrick and his gallery last month alleging breach of contract and seeking the return of US$14 million of art he bought on its behalf, including the pumpkin room.

Mr Philbrick and the firm were partners in buying, marketing and selling art from at least 2015, according to the suit, which was filed last month in state court in Miami-Dade County and reported by Artnews.

Fine Art Partners bought the Kusama work for US$3.3 million in 2017 through Mr Philbrick, who was authorised to store, market and resell it for the target price of US$5 million.

It was picked up from Phillips auction house in New York and insured by Mr Philbrick for US$4.6 million, according to court filings.

That is where the Saudis come into the picture. An agreement with the Institute of Contemporary Art, dated Sept 11, states that the installation is on loan to the museum from an entity called MVCA in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and lists Collection of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula as the lender's name for labels and publications.

The commission is a Saudi government entity that oversees development in Al-Ula, an archaeologically rich region in the northwest.

Turning the kingdom into a cultural destination is part of a high-profile agenda outlined by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It is unclear whether Fine Art Partners was aware of the sale of the Kusama work to the Saudis. An e-mail message Mr Philbrick sent to Mr Daniel Tumpel, a principal of the firm, the same day as the loan agreement, did not mention the sale, according to court papers.

What Mr Philbrick's e-mail does address, at some length, is a remarkably frank set of plans to use a museum exhibit for a marketing blitz. He describes "a national PR campaign, which should bring us into contact with a number of potential buyers".

"The installation will remain on view as planned through Jan 31," the museum's Mr Pace said in a statement. "The work is on loan to the museum from a private collection. We were not aware of the dispute when the exhibition was planned, but it appears to be an issue between the previous owners."

As for the exhibit, the museum's website says it is the first time one of Kusama's "infinity mirror rooms" is on view in Miami.

Visitors will have to pay US$15 for a timed ticket to contemplate the myriad of pumpkins for about a minute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2019, with the headline 'Saudi prince buys Yayoi Kusama's pumpkin installation'. Print Edition | Subscribe