Odd Nerdrum is one of Norway’s most internationally known contemporary artists but now he faces heavy fines and a prison term for alleged tax evasion. He’s had to appear in court in Oslo this week, where prosecutors suggested his financing has been as creative as his paintings.
Nerdrum himself admitted in court on Tuesday that he kept nearly USD 1 million in cash in a safe deposit box at an Austrian bank, and that he “wasn’t very good” with numbers or accounting requirements. He denies he’s guilty of tax evasion, though, calling the charges against him “nonsense.”
The artist, whose works have been compared to those of Rembrandt and collected by the likes of rock star David Bowie, claims he set the money aside as a sort of “crisis fund” to cover possible compensation claims after some of the paint on works he’d created in the late 1980s literally seemed to melt when subjected to heat. Nerdrum claims he’d used a special mixture of oils and paint in an effort to recreate the style of the old masters, but his customers complained when their artworks later showed signs of trickling paint.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Nerdrum called the problem “a great shame and downturn for me.” In an effort to save his reputation, he painted several of the works again but other customers wanted their money back. That’s why he set aside cash, he claimed, to pay eventual claims.
Norwegian tax authorities have charged him with failing to report the cash on his Norwegian tax returns, part of more than NOK 14 million worth of allegedly undeclared income and personal fortune accumulated through sales of his paintings between 1998 and 2002. In addition to as much as USD 900,000 (NOK 5 million) in cash that he placed in the Austrian bank box, prosecutors claim the other NOK 9 million is based on checks and bank account statements acquired by the tax authorities with the help of tax authorities in the US, where Nerdrum has long had a large customer base.
Nerdrum was indicted earlier this year and faces a fine as high as NOK 8 million and a prison term of up to one year.
The artist moved from Norway to Iceland in 2002, reportedly now lives in France and has boycotted Norwegian media for years. He still refused to be photographed this week and testified in court on Tuesday that he felt the Norwegian state has been trying to destroy him, with the tax claims against him “pushing me towards suicide.” He had trouble answering the prosecutor’s questions about sales and deposits, saying “I’m not so good with numbers. Do you know much about Venetian turpentine? No, but I don’t expect that either.”
Nerdrum’s defense attorney Tor Erling Staff told the court that Nerdrum suffers from Tourettes Syndrome. Nerdrum claims he has mastered its physical afflictions but that his head is affected by the neurological condition.
Exhibit of support
Although tax evasion charges are taken seriously in Norway, Nerdrum has his supporters and sympathizers including around 30 friends and former pupils who have mounted a special exhibit of their best works to hail the influence Nerdrum has had on Norwegian art.
“We want to show what he has meant for a group of young artists,” Irena Jovic, project leader for the exhibit at Tjuvholmen in Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. She noted that Nerdrum has allowed many young artists to work with him over the years for no fees.
“He has had a lot of bad publicity for many years and now we want to do something nice for him,” Jovic said. “After Munch, there is no Norwegian painter who has been such a good ambassador overseas. It’s a paradox that he’s scolded at home in Norway.”
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