10.06.10

The Art World's Joke on Naomi Campbell

Unbeknownst to the supermodel, a London gallery is selling a $100,000 leather portrait of her, titled Skin Deep, to raise money for a charity that campaigns against blood diamonds. Claire Howorth has new details on the surprising backstory.

Thursday night, London’s Scream Gallery will sell a portrait of Naomi Campbell to benefit a charity that campaigns against blood diamonds. The sale has every mark of a cunning publicity stunt, except for some possibly poor planning: Campbell, known for her fiery temper and an unfortunate affiliation with those conflict sparklers, is apparently unaware of the sale. Stranger still, artist Mark Evans originally created the leather etching for Campbell herself, to benefit her own charity. The backstory is a bizarre mix of art, celebrity, and the power of hype. 

This summer Campbell testified that she had received “dirty stones” from Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, but claimed not to know whether they were diamonds—which Taylor may have gotten from Sierra Leone rebels and traded for weapons. Global Witness, the charity that stands to reap the benefits on Thursday night, has been campaigning to end the trade of conflict diamonds since 1998, and helped galvanize the Kimberley Process, a diamond certification method.

Press releases widely touted Campbell’s name in conjunction with Thursday’s art event—an evening auction and display of the work of many artists. Skin Deep, the Campbell portrait, was originally advertised as an auction item, but upon further inquiry, publicists mysteriously downplayed it as an “exhibit only,” insisting that the auction information was a mistake. Later, both the press agent and gallery clarified with The Daily Beast that the portrait will still be for sale, if not on the block. Was it possible they suddenly feared hurtling Blackberries?

Mark Evans’ representative, Steve Hawthorne, said that Evans had given the piece, titled Skin Deep, to Campbell last winter to auction at Fashion for Relief. There, the portrait had contributed to an evening total of $2.2 million (Though a gallery representative did not comment on the specifics of that sale, the portrait is valued at around $100,000, and Evans’ larger works can fetch $500,000). The buyer? Scream Gallery, which represents Evans.

While such cyclical manipulation might not fly on Wall Street, it’s not unusual for galleries to support their own artists by driving up auction prices, either by bidding on or outright purchasing the art. “Hype the crap out of it, buy it cheap, and sell it high,” is the credo of some, according to a powerful New York dealer not involved in this sale, adding that, “Art is a totally unregulated market—it’s actually the last bastion of laissez-faire.”

Could the value have risen after Campbell’s appearance in the Taylor trial? “Yes. Yes. Absolutely,” said the New York dealer. Campbell, for her part, was in Europe and not available for comment, but her representative indicated that she was unaware of the situation. Evans knew little of the sale himself, as he was busy with an upcoming New York show as well as preparing for the production of the world’s most expensive wallpaper ($23,700 per square meter, for an anonymous Russian oligarch). He mentioned that Campbell had come to him through Tyson Beckford, a mutual friend, and that he was thrilled to have helped her in the original auction.

The amusing transaction history illustrates the whims of the secondary market, but does all this somehow make Skin Deep a "conflict portrait"? Not really; if anything, it’s a win-win-win-win situation. Evans’s stock continues to rise; the galleries get their due attention; Global Witness receives funding; and Campbell gets to piggyback a little image rehab from her possible dalliance with blood diamonds on another charity sale, even if she didn’t mean to.

Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at The Daily Beast.