COMMENT: Where there's Mucha, there's money

By bne IntelliNews March 21, 2014

James de Candole in Prague -

The market for expensive artworks is notoriously opaque, and a scandal is brewing in the Czech Republic over who now owns the world's largest collection of Alfonse Mucha posters that was assembled by tennis star Ivan Lendl.

Affichomania, or the craze for posters, has made Jack Rennert a rich man. The son of Austrian parents who fled Nazi-controlled Austria in 1938, Wolfgang "Jacques/Jack" Rennert arrived in the US as a small boy soon after France was liberated in 1944. Today, he is the owner of Rennert's gallery in New York, and deals in vintage posters.

It was Rennert who built up the world's largest collection of original Alfonse Mucha posters for his client Ivan Lendl, the former number-one tennis player originally from the Czech Republic who now lives in the US. Whenever an original Mucha poster came onto the market, Rennert would procure it for Lendl.

But sources in the Czech art market believe Lendl secretly sold the collection last year for a reputed $3.5m to a local businessman fronting for an oligarch who is at the centre of several criminal investigations for fraud.

When asked directly who owns the Lendl-Mucha collection, Rennert evades the question, stating only that it is now "under the direction of the Fuxa Foundation in Prague". Likewise, Lendl is unwilling either to confirm or deny whether he still owns the collection that bears his name. All we know is that an obscure Czech businessman called Richard Fuxa now holds the legal right to exploit the posters for commercial ends.

Others like the painter's grandson, John Mucha, claim that the collection has been sold. "The question is not whether the collection has been sold. I can state categorically that it has. The question is who now owns it, and whether the new owner is reputable." That's something John Mucha is concerned about as president of the Mucha Foundation, a charity that works to preserve the artistic estate of Alfonse and his son, the writer, Jiri Mucha, who Lendl says inspired him to start his collection.

Poster boy

Uncertainty over who owns the collection today is feeding speculation that Fuxa is acting as cover for the true owners.

Fuxa runs and part owns a local outdoor advertising firm in Prague called BigBoard. According to Lendl, it was Fuxa who came up with the idea and the funds to bring the collection to Prague from Lendl's home in Connecticut, and to exhibit it in public for the first time.

In May 2013, the City of Prague staged an exhibition of the Lendl-Mucha collection in the Municipal House, an Art Nouveau building controlled by municipal politicians that houses a concert and exhibition hall. The exhibition was produced and promoted by Fuxa's BigBoard. Its main sponsor was CEZ, the country's state-owned power utility. CEZ's management is so intertwined with local politicians that some have rechristened this country the "CEZ Republic".

Surprisingly, the massive publicity drive behind the 2013 exhibition made no mention of the Mucha Foundation. The complete absence of the family foundation in the promotion of the exhibition is astonishing given that Lendl is one of its honorary patrons. "We only learnt that the collection had been sold after the event," says John Mucha.

The Prague exhibition has now ended, but the commercial exploitation of the Mucha brand by Fuxa has only just begun. As Rennert indicates, Fuxa has set up a Czech-registered foundation named after himself, the purpose of which is to promote the collection, both here and abroad. He has plans to take the collection on tour, with China and Japan rumoured to be early destinations. In addition to touring, BigBoard is mass marketing Mucha merchandise on its giant billboards lining Czech motorways.

There are those, such as Rennert and Fuxa, who want the world to believe that the collection is still owned by Lendl, and that the tennis star has merely relinquished to the Fuxa Foundation the commercial rights to exploit it. The website still lists it as the "Ivan Lendl: Alfons Mucha" collection, using the Czech spelling of the artist's first name. Then there are those, like Alfonse's grandson who insist that the collection has been sold. But it is impossible to find anyone who regards Richard Fuxa as the only or even the principal investor in the project.

In Prague at least, it is assumed that Fuxa is, as it were, a poster boy for a local oligarch called Martin Roman. For the last ten years Roman was running CEZ, the main sponsor of last year's exhibition, until he gave up his position in the company in October 2013. The Czech police are currently investigating four CEZ transactions that took place under Roman's leadership.

Rennert says, "I do not have the pleasure of knowing Mr Roman." Perhaps not, but Roman certainly has the pleasure of knowing the people behind the Fuxa Foundation, which now curates the collection that Rennert built and curated on Lendl's behalf until last year.

An oligarch's art curator

Local media report that Roman is a substantial hidden investor in BigBoard, 80% of which is owned by a Cypriot-registered firm called JOJ Media House, with the rest owned by Fuxa. Roman and Fuxa are established business partners in other projects: PORG (a private Czech school controlled by Roman) and Cteni pomaha (a charity he set up aimed at encouraging children to read) are heavily advertised on billboards owned by BigBoard.

There are other noteworthy connections between them. The Fuxa Foundation is administered by Karel Srp, the former artistic director of the City of Prague Gallery, who now curates the Lendl-Mucha collection on behalf of the foundation. Srp is described in Prague art market circles as "the curator of Roman's private art collection". He has recently become a member of the board of the Czech Visual Arts Foundation, the charitable body which runs the Manes exhibition hall, a landmark functionalist building that straddles the Vltava river. Roman has been attempting to take control of the foundation since 2010. In 2013, he offered it $5m in exchange for the right to nominate a majority of its board members. He was rebuffed.

Milan Bufka is another of Roman's "cultural ambassadors at large". Bufka also sits on the board of the foundation that runs the Manes exhibition hall. But the relationship between Bufka and Roman is built on something more solid than a mutual love of the visual arts. The relationship goes all the way back to 2002, when, as managing director of the sprawling state-owned engineering conglomerate Skoda Plzen, Roman was preparing the bankrupt business for sale.

Bufka was the state-appointed receiver working alongside Roman. And it was Bufka who helped determine the price at which Skoda Plzen would be bought by a murky Swiss-registered firm called Appian in 2003. The sale price was so favourable to Appian that the transaction forms part of a long-running criminal investigation by the Swiss authorities into suspected money laundering. Documents later leaked to a Czech newspaper purportedly showed that Roman retained close ties to the group long after leaving it to run CEZ.

Given Bufka's professional background as a bankruptcy receiver, it came as a surprise when, in 2008, he was chosen by the Prague city government to be the director of the City of Prague Gallery. Karel Srp, who you will recall is known locally as Roman's private art curator, had been appointed as the artistic director of the gallery a month earlier, and had enthusiastically endorsed Bufka's candidacy, despite his incongruous background. Both men were eventually removed from the leadership of the gallery in mid-2012, after the politicians close to Roman who had appointed Bufka and Srp in 2008 were replaced.

The Lendl-Mucha collection is sitting today in the City of Prague Gallery's depository. How long it will remain there depends upon whether it was imported into the Czech Republic, or whether it was declared as a visiting exhibition for customs purposes, in which case it will have to leave the country again soon.

It is to be noted that the key to unlocking the secret of who now owns the Lendl-Mucha collection is held by two men subject to the jurisdiction of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Rennert and Lendl both hold US citizenship. No reputable art dealer these days can risk handling a high value transaction without knowing the source of the funds. So it is safe to assume that Rennert, if indeed he did handle the sale on behalf of Lendl, is aware of who owns the collection today.

If, as many suspect, the collection has been sold to a Czech billboard business with murky ownership, then many will be appalled that a substantial part of the work of a Czech national hero and world class painter, rather than being bequeathed to the nation by another of its most famous sons, is now in unknown hands.

COMMENT: Where there's Mucha, there's money

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