James de Candole of Candole Partners -
Last year’s exhibition of Ivan Lendl’s collection of Alfons Mucha posters was one of the most successful art exhibitions the Czech Republic has ever seen. But for local taxpayers, it may yet turn out to have been just another scam.
On March 21, bne revealed that the former tennis champion Ivan Lendl had secretly sold his collection of original Mucha posters for a reputed $3.5m. For over a year, Czech billboard entrepreneur called Richard Fuxa had been insisting that he was merely managing the collection on behalf of Lendl. But on April 15, he admitted to local newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes that he had in fact bought the collection from Lendl - although when and for how much he was unwilling to say. “The agreement between us was that the collection would become mine. I did not want to draw unnecessary public attention to this, and so I said that the Fuxa Foundation had acquired the right to dispose of the collection,” Fuxa was quoted as saying.
The news will come as a surprise to the tens of thousands of visitors that flocked to last year’s exhibition of the posters in Prague. Until today, the public had been led to believe that Lendl, a national sporting hero, still owned the collection that bears his name. Dozens of glowing articles in the local and foreign press reinforced this belief.
But what about the City of Prague, which provided the building in which the exhibition was held, and the two public companies, CEZ and Prazske sluzby, that sponsored it? Would such large amounts of taxpayer money have been spent on supporting the exhibition if it had been widely known that the owner, far from being one of the country’s most famous sporting sons, was actually just a local businessman with close ties to local politicians and the managers of firms they appoint? Given the appalling track record of corruption in Prague City Hall, the answer is probably "Yes".
Fuxa’s claim now to own the collection raises more questions than it answers. When exactly did the collection change hands? Why did Fuxa wait until now to come forward? Above all, who stumped up $3.5m to acquire the collection?
Fuxa implies that the collection has become the property of the Czech-registered Richard Fuxa Foundation. The foundation was established in early 2013. If it had been registered a year later, the owner could have placed the collection under the care of a trust fund, without having to reveal his identity. But the collection entered the Czech Republic in the first half of last year, before the advantage of anonymity afforded by the newly introduced concept of the trust fund became available under Czech law.
The foundation has five statutory representatives: Richard Fuxa himself, who part owns the billboard firm behind the marketing of Mucha-related merchandise; Karel Srp, the former artistic director of the City of Prague Gallery; Jan Trestik, the former director of the Central Bohemian Gallery, convicted in 2012 of having attempted illegally to export a Picasso painting; Karel Novacek, the retired world class tennis player who now works in the private banking division of UniCredit Czech Republic; and Novacek’s colleague, Marina Votrubova, who helps UniCredit’s clients invest in art.
Marina Votrubova is the so-called "revizor" of the foundation, a one-man supervisory board responsible for ensuring that the accounts are in order and that the foundation operates in accordance with the law.
The statutes of the foundation state that a full supervisory board must be created if the property of the foundation is valued at more than $250,000. The foundation has no supervisory board. So either it is breaking the law, or it does not own the collection.
If the foundation does not own the collection, then who does? The answer is likely to be a shell company acting on behalf of secret beneficial owners, a traditional method to thwart investigations into suspected related-party transactions involving public institutions.
There is no public evidence to prove that the owners of the collection are related to Prague’s municipal politicians or to the senior management of sponsoring firms owned by the state and the city. But nor is there any public evidence to show they are not. Richard Fuxa’s statements in today’s newspapers prove nothing.
Artworks are no less immune to criminal fraud than municipal trams, the tickets required to ride them, the recycling of municipal rubbish, and even spent nuclear fuel dumps. All are examples of criminal investigations now underway into the business dealings of the institutions that were behind last year's Lendl Mucha exhibition.
True, it was perhaps the most successful exhibitions of its kind in the history of the Czech Republic. But as far as taxpayers and the sponsors’ shareholders are concerned, it may yet turn out to have been just another local scam.
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