Tales of Two Cities AT LARGE IN LONDON & PARIS by Adrian Dannatt

Belleville is the currently modish Parisian arrondisement where, as in the East Village of yore, it remains possible to cruise the latest cultural objets while feeling actual physical menace from the locals, what one might term the “proletariat art threat.” And astroll there not too long ago what should I spy through a window but the umistakeable visage of Christian Leigh, the notorious curator who went missing after the Venice Biennale of 1993, presumably taking the money with him and leaving artworks marooned behind [see writer Alexi Worth’s summary, here].

Entering in bafflement the premises of Castillo/ Corrales, a collective-run gallery on rue Julien Lacroix, I discovered an entire exhibition, dubbed “Notorious (Christian Leigh),” lovingly if not obsessively assembled: ephemera, texts, publications, photographs and more, tracing the bizarre career of this individual who, gallery director Francois Piron admitted he was amazed to discover, more people did not seem to know today.

From his fame as a teenage couturier under the name Kristian Leigh, when he supposedly dressed Meryl Streep for the Oscars, to his bankruptcy and disappearance from the fashion business and his reappearance in the contemporary art world as the hottest international curator on the block, all was documented. All, including his mysterious vanishing, yet again, after the ’93 biennale, leaving behind a trail of debts, accusations and missing artworks, only to emerge once again this year as a fully fledged filmmaker.

Here on display was my own profile on the man from the Sunday Times Magazine, one which he had roundly denounced, accusing me of every sort of treachery, but which according to Piron he now claims to have written entirely by himself! As Leigh, like myself, apparently lives between Paris and London, this exhibition is an appropriate reminder of one of the art world’s most consistently intriguing characters.

And the very next morning — ping — came an email inviting me to the U.S. premiere of CS Leigh’s A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris, which “takes viewers into the mind of one of the world’s most renowned fashion designers,” a film that was being hosted during New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Will wonders never cease?

*     *     *

The huge crowds at “The Steins Collect” show at the Grand Palais were as committed to admiring the avant-garde art that Gertrude and her kin collected as to disparaging the avant-garde literature she created. Indeed, the section of the exhibition that included her own writings, and recordings of her performances, was filled with snorting, complaining, mocking philistines, the very same punters who oohed and aahed over her Matisses in the next room.

Without a doubt this was an audience that would be as dismissive of today’s avant-garde as their grandparents had been of Pablo Picasso. Which made all the more relevant the label on one, truly weird-shit bit of Picabia, his painting Pa of 1932. For here, among labels that spoke of institutions and private collections, was a picture that Stein had owned from 1934 until her death in 1946, and now bears the simple revelation, “Collection Mike Kelley, Los Angeles.” A historical link — occluded, I understand, at the Metropolitan Museum — all the more poignant for his passing.

Indeed, everyone in the art world seems to have been dying recently if not simultaneously. In May 2010 I spotted a set of amusing life-study academic drawings done by Louise Bourgeois as a student, up for sale at Christie’s Paris, and was literally bidding on them, unsuccessfully, at the very hour when she died over in New York aged 98.

Likewise I had just spotted a delicious small painting by Dorothea Tanning at the very same Christie’s Paris, and was again bidding, unsuccessfully once more, against its temptingly low estimate of just €1,500 (selling for €6,000 at the hammer), when she too dropped dead over in Manhattan, aged 101. Grandes Dames beware the lethal powers of the art merchants of Avenue Matignon!

So fair warning Carmen Herrera (b. 1915), you could be next! The Lisson Gallery’s first major solo show devoted to the Cuban artist’s work makes much of the fact that she is now all of nearly 97 and still hard at it, not to mention that she only sold her first painting, ever, aged 89. While Lisson’s impeccably frosty saleslady revealed that none of her early work is available for us ordinary folks, “it is reserved strictly for major institutions only,” paintings made in the last 20 years can be purchased, at a price, starting at $100,000.

As Nicholas Logsdail put it with infectious enthusiasm, “There’s just nothing wrong with her work, nothing, it absolutely reeks of authenticity, it positively reeks of the stuff!”

Equally ancient and elegant is painter Rose Hilton (b. 1931), widow of the artist Roger, now enjoying her own fame and fortune. A tremendously attractive and well-preserved woman, on being asked what she fancied as a present for her forthcoming 80th birthday, she cast her eye around and lit upon a handsome young man half her age, not only a collector of her late husband’s work but also a relative of the equally late Freddie Mercury. “I think that’s what I fancy for my birthday.”

And her wish was her command, as she squired the young man about London town for the next few celebratory months asetting all tongues awag.

*     *     *

The extremely grand opening of Eykyn Maclean’s first-ever space in London, bang opposite Sotheby’s on St. George Street, was devoted to Twombly ultra-doodles from the revered collection of Sonnabend elle-même. And grand it was, with the most powerful dealers and curators out in force, from Sir Nick Serota to the infamously tanned and coiffed veteran art dealer Martin Summers and a smattering of those impossibly rich, rich-looking people that only London seems to still generate, all gurgling admiration of the great Cy.

The only vociferous and brave voice of dissent came from Lord Anthony Crichton-Stuart, former head of Old Master paintings at Christie’s and now running Noortman’s in London. “What is this stuff, can anyone explain? I have a background in classical and ancient civilization, I know all the references to every myth, Greek and Roman legend mentioned in these titles, but nobody here will explain to me any connection with the art.”

Ivor Braka certainly didn’t elucidate as he left the party to a chorus of amused reverence, “Ah, the ‘tastemaker’ is no longer in the building.” Braka, as London’s most powerful private dealer, has garnered this new nickname due to a recent Christie’s sale of his decorative knickknacks, for which he was embarrassingly termed a ‘tastemaker’ in its title.

Naturally everyone was keen to discover exactly what this infamous figure might deem worthy of “deaccessioning,” and there was indeed one revelation, proof that even the most infallible merchant can sometimes get it wrong. For Braka was amongst the feeding-frenzy that fell for Thérèse Oulton, a British painter whose fame and fortune imploded with the arrival of the YBAs, the supposedly “most-important artist of her generation” whose generation was, overnight, extinguished once and for all by Hirst et al.

Once on the cover of every magazine, in every important collection and gallery, even nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987, Oulton now stands as a sort of folkloric warning of the follies of fashion, a figurehead worthy of Bunyan. Braka’s painting was from July 1988, the very month Hirst’s “Freeze” show opened, the very month her fate was sealed, and sold for a solid £1,188, surely a fraction of its purchase price.

*     *     *

Andrew Strauss quite literally grew up with Sotheby’s, not only having worked there his entire life running the Paris branch, but also as son of the legendary Michel Strauss, founder of the firm’s Impressionist and modern department, not to mention great-grandson of Impressionist collector Jules Strauss. And as a member of the hautest Haute Juiverie, his family tree including everyone from De Gunzbourg to Deutsch de la Meurthe and even Sir Isaiah Berlin, his intimate 50th birthday party at his own Hôtel Particulier was naturally slightly grand.

Le tout was certainly here, from cousin Cyrille de Gunzbourg, long-time dealer to the Parisian elite, to Number One antique-expert Nicolas Kugel, notorious Dada connoiseur Marc Dachy, auctionner Cyrille Cohen and even young Olivier Berggruen, the art historian with the greatest personal family art history. But best of all was the surprise appearance of not just one but two of the art world’s most famous identical twins, the Herring brothers, perhaps the most important, and certainly most discreet, international private dealers.

Yes, John and Paul Herring were both here, almost never seen together let alone snapped as a pair, and though usually extremely tight-lipped they were for once willing to let slip the occasional tit-bit, not least concerning the excellence of the exhibition of the private collection of Ronald Lauder (largely formed by themselves), currently at the Neue Galerie in New York, on view till Apr. 2, 2012.

Paul was also smart enough to suggest that now was the time, if ever, to buy some seriously major Old Masters in Britain, “their government has to spend everything they have on buying the Duke of Sutherland Titians and can’t save anything else.” He also explained how they plan to give away their celebrated private collection through the American Friends of the Israel Museum and have already handed over a few works from their Upper East Side townhouse. He also had a word of advice for any private dealer planning to do an art fair, “we only did it once, back in 1994, and of course we sold not a single work and gained not a single new client, but we got amazing press coverage and my mother-in-law was so very impressed that in the end it was worth the $25,000."

The Herring twins even left the party with their own specially inscribed doggie bag of leftovers, the only guests to take the remains of the feast away with them into the Paris night!

ADRIAN DANNATT is a Paris-based critic and writer.

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What Should We Expect From an Exchange Tailor-Made for Wall Street Investors?

Last week, the CEO of the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) said that the firm’s digital asset platform, Bakkt, is expected to launch later in 2019. It is time to look deeper into the project, and see what it can bring to the crypto industry.

What is Bakkt exactly?

Bakkt (pronounced “backed,” referring to “asset-backed securities”) is a digital assets platform created by ICE, the Atlanta-based operator of 23 major international exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), which is by far the world’s largest exchange, trading nearly 1.5 billion shares a day.

It was first announced on Aug. 3, 2018, when ICE revealed its plans to create a platform “that enables consumers and institutions to buy, sell, store and spend digital assets on a seamless global network” via a press release. Essentially, the company intends to form a federally regulated market for Bitcoin (BTC) with a focus on institutional investment, as Kelly Loeffler, ICE’s head of digital assets, who is also CEO of Bakkt, explained:

“Bakkt is designed to serve as a scalable on-ramp for institutional, merchant, and consumer participation in digital assets by promoting greater efficiency, security, and utility. […] We are collaborating to build an open platform that helps unlock the transformative potential of digital assets across global markets and commerce.”

The list of Bakkt’s investment partners famously includes Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Starbucks, along with an array of Wall Street players such as Fortress Investment Group (FIG), Eagle Seven, Susquehanna International Group (SIG), Galaxy Digital, Horizons Ventures and Pantera Capital.

The concept of Bakkt was being developed for five years, as its both co-founders, Loeffler and her husband Jeff Sprecher, who is also the founder, chairman and CEO of ICE, told Fortune magazine. “The factory” that powers the platform was being prepared “in the strictest secrecy” for 14 months prior to the August announcement, they added.

It should not be surprising that Bakkt is entering the market during the bear’s reign, given that Loeffler believes that BTC’s price should not be its only metric:

“Notably, 2018 was the most active year for crypto in its brief ten-year history. This was evidenced by rising investment in distributed ledger technology and digital assets, as well as by blockchain network metrics such as daily bitcoin transaction value and active addresses. Yet, these milestones tend to be overshadowed by the more narrow focus on bitcoin’s price, which has been seen by some, as a proxy for the potential of the technology.”

Eyal Shani, who is a blockchain researcher at a consulting group Aykesubir, agrees with that statement:

“The value of Bitcoin or any other currency is far from being the most important measure to the health of the ecosystem.”

According to Shani, the arrival of a fully centralized marketplace would barely make any contribution to the long-term health of the market, although the project should indeed be appealing to Wall Street investors, especially the ones who are already familiar with cryptocurrencies:

“Institutional investors who are strongly considering crypto would probably feel more comfortable with investing via Bakkt or other major banks. However, the entrance of ICE to this market will not change the volatility of the coin markets. At the end of the day, investing in digital currencies is investing in the likelihood the nodes and use will still be there in the long term, and no one knows how to answer that nowadays.”

Prashanth Swaminathan, founder and CEO of XDAT, a recently launched Malta-based crypto exchange, believes that Bakkt’s arrival will bring more confidence into the crypto space due to its mainstream appeal. However, he also doubts that it will turn out to be a game changer in the long run:

“Institutional investors will still be wary of the space until they see regulations coming in. Therefore, I don’t expect a massive influx of institutional investment just yet. Institutional investors also need to see returns, and the best metric to gauge such returns is mass adoption (or demand-supply), as wider adoption implies less concentration of Bitcoin in fewer wallets hence lower volatility, and more likelihood of tangible utility for crypto with users using them for transactions.”

“The real game changer in the industry will be mass retail adoption rather than institutional investors’ adoption.”

Here are the main features that Bakkt has announced:

Physical Bitcoin futures

Bakkt plans to debut physical BTC futures contracts on its platform. In short, futures represent an agreement to buy or sell an asset on a specific future date at a specific price — and hence represent a risk management tool that might be particularly important in volatile markets such as crypto. It is not an entirely new concept for virtual currencies, however — BTC futures have been traded on two major United States regulated exchanges, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), since December 2017.

However, both CME and CBOE’s offers are settled in cash, while the new ICE-backed platform aims to launch physical one-day BTC futures contracts. Essentially, that means that when the contracts expire on Bakkt, customers will receive BTC tokens as opposed to cash. As Loeffler told the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s great to have cash-settled, but there’s a need for physical delivery.”

Swaminathan argues that such offering would be “ideal” for dealing with BTC’s infamous volatility:

“This is ideal for price stability in a nascent asset class such as Bitcoin. Both physical and cash delivery can co-exist as we have in other commodities such as oil and it shows improving maturity in the market.”

Nevertheless, Swaminathan told Cointelegraph it is important to note that, technically, Bakkt’s clients will not own their BTC and that the platform gets the ability to withhold a significant proportion of the circulating supply in its custody:

“The short term impact of this could be a price surge due to lower supply in wider market, but in the long term it could be a negative as you will want bitcoin to be more widely adopted and show its utility in payments and transactions.”

Shani finds the physical delivery of the futures to be particularly useful for the development of BTC-based economies:

“In that case businesses and individuals living both in the Bitcoin and non-Bitcoin economies could actually hedge their risk and get actual Bitcoin they need for their daily expenses. Without this ability, the futures would most likely be another tools in speculators financial games. At the same time, while I’m not aware of the exact numbers, it seems that even with traditional financial instruments, we usually see very little use of the right to exercise it.”

One-day futures contracts imply that trades are performed in a single day. Thus, according to Bakkt’s plan, BTC futures would be sold throughout the trading day. Once the market closes, the ICE clearing house — which is an intermediary between the buyer and the seller — arranges to transfer the cash from the buyer’s to the seller’s bank account, while the BTC tokens are moved to the Bakkt digital warehouse, where they can be picked up by the buyer. If the assets or money are not delivered, the clearing house covers the costs.

The whole process of the futures trading is overseen by the U.S. Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). More specifically, the agency controls trading, clearing and safe storage of assets. The CFTC also approves and monitors the exchange’s rules in regard to those areas.

Safe storage

On top of strict Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC) policies that are essential for the CFTC’s approval, Bakkt allegedly bolsters a robust storage system. As Loeffler told Fortune, it is one of the main criteria to attract large financial institutions:

“A qualified warehouse is the difference between institutional investors’ getting in or staying out.”

To prevent security breaches — which remain one of the most feared problems for cryptocurrency exchanges — Bakkt plans to store the private keys offline in its reportedly heavily guarded “warehouse,” which essentially resembles cold wallets. According to Fortune, the platform will utilize double-key security, where the clients access their funds using the private key while the warehouse releases them using a public key — just like with safety deposit boxes at brick-and-mortar banks, which require both keys to be unlocked.

Microsoft’s Azure and off-blockchain transactions

As for the technical part of the operation, Bakkt is reportedly based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service, which works through Microsoft-controlled data centers — and is hence centralized.

To deal with BTC’s notorious scalability issue, Bakkt will reportedly use a technology akin to the Lightning Network and build a system that largely operates outside of blockchain.

“Our system would operate on a layer above the blockchain, and we’d keep our own omnibus ledger apart from the blockchain,” Loeffler explained to Fortune.

In other words, transactions would be send within one ecosystem and won’t heavily rely on blockchain, which can normally perform only seven transactions per second.

Retail payments (potential plan for the future)

Besides establishing a platform for institutional investors who are still hesitant to enter the crypto market, Bakkt’s founders — Loeffler and Sprecher — also hope to make BTC payments more common, as they told Fortune. That could push BTC adoption within the retail payments industry as well, where banks and credit card issuers take their cut for each transaction.

That idea could be picked by both Microsoft and Starbucks, two major backers of Bakkt. While the IT giant represents a large base of retailers, handling their operations through the aforementioned Azure technology, Starbucks seems to have plans to accept BTC for its lattes in the future, as Maria Smith, vice president of partnerships and payments for Starbucks, stated in the original press release:

“As the flagship retailer, Starbucks will play a pivotal role in developing practical, trusted, and regulated applications for consumers to convert their digital assets into U.S. dollars for use at Starbucks.”

The project has been delayed several times, as regulators are taking their time

Bakkt’s launch has been postponed several times now, which can hardly surprise the crypto community, who are used to various differals regularly announced by major industry participants, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Ethereum (ETH) developers.

First, the digital assets platform was expected to open as early as November 2018. Then, the project’s launch was rescheduled to Jan. 24, 2019. Currently, Bakkt is estimated to go live in “early 2019.” The main reason for the delay is the CFTC’s approval, which is still pending.

According to a Wall Street Journal article published on Dec. 20, the CFTC “is currently reviewing ICE’s business plan.” After that, the watchdog’s commissioners are expected to vote on whether to approve the project “early in 2019.” Then, the public will reportedly be asked to weigh in with comments during the next 30 days.

As per Bakkt’s Medium entry published on Dec. 31, their team has made “great progress” in terms of negotiations with the agency, and currently awaits the regulatory green light. More specifically, Loeffler wrote:

“To that end, our team has been working closely with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission [CFTC] for the better part of 2018. At an industry level, regulatory approval for physically delivered and warehoused bitcoin will establish and amplify the voice of U.S. authorities as the digital asset market evolves globally. We have filed our applications and the timing for approval is now based on the regulatory review process.”

Swaminathan is not surprised with the slow progress. He told Cointegraph:

“It was always going to take a while to launch a new and nascent product which splits opinion. The most recent stumbling block has been Bakkt’s request for exemption from CFTC to custody bitcoin on behalf of its clients, as typically CFTC requires custody through trusted third-party intermediaries such as banks. The recent US Government shutdown has not helped either.”

However, Bakkt continues to attract more investment and to expand, as to not waste time. Most recently, the ICE’s platform announced that it was going to acquire “certain assets” of Rosenthal Collins Group (RCG), a Chicago-based independent futures brokerage. The transactions are expected to be closed this month and will allow Bakkt to contribute to its regulatory operations by “bringing more choice and control to buyers and sellers.”

Prior to that, Bakkt had reported on the results of its first round of funding. According to the company, it raised $182.5 million from 12 partners and investors, including BCG, CMT Digital, Eagle Seven, Galaxy Digital, Goldfinch Partners, Alan Howard, Horizons Ventures, ICE, Microsoft’s venture capital arm, M12, Pantera Capital, PayU, the fintech arm of Naspers and Protocol Ventures.

Further, during an earnings call on Feb. 7, Scott Hill, ICE’s chief financial officer, declared that they were going to spend $20 million to $25 million for Bakkt’s estimated expenses for the 2019 fiscal year:

“And finally, our investment in Bakkt will generate $20 million to $25 million of expense based upon the run rate in the first quarter. We will update you on progress at Bakkt and the level of investment as we move through the year.”

When asked about the expected returns or revenue growth from the investments, Sprecher, who was also present during the call, labelled the crypto platform as a “moonshot bet” for ICE:

“So it’s a bit of a moonshot bet and it’s been organized in a manner that is very different than the way ICE typically does businesses. […] They’re well along in building out an infrastructure that I think you’ll see launch later this year.”

Sprecher added that Bakkt exists independently from ICE, as it has its own offices, management team and infrastructure. He also noted that the platform will be launched later in 2019.

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