USA

The mystery of MoCA China’s fleeing founder

Jeffrey du Vallier d’Aragon Aranita abandoned ship for Hawaii, leaving a string of debts behind him

new york. The founder of the short-lived Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) China in Hong Kong left the country soon after the museum opened last autumn, leaving behind massive debts, several sources confirm. Jeffrey du Vallier d’Aragon Aranita, a realist painter, registered the non-profit in 2007 and announced plans to establish a network of non-profit MoCAs throughout China that would share collections and programming. Art experts at the time were sceptical that he could secure private funding for even one museum, but on 3 October 2008 MoCA China opened in a 7,500 sq. ft second-floor space in a shopping mall in Hong Kong’s commercial Causeway Bay district. After three months and three shows, MoCA ran out of money and the space closed on 19 January 2009. Szewan Leung, a Hong Kong art consultant who served as artistic director of MoCA China, says that weeks after the inauguration Mr Aranita fled to Hawaii, ostensibly to receive medical treatment, leaving debts of more than HK$2m ($258,000) that he has refused to settle and has since broken off contact with his creditors.

Ms Leung, who says she was romantically involved with Mr Aranita until they separated in May 2008, says that as the only legal partner in the organisation she was left to deal with the creditors. The largest is MoCA’s former landlord G.O.D., the company that operates the Delay No Mall shopping centre, with whom Mr Aranita signed a lease “with his personal guarantee”, says Ms Leung. Benjamin Lau, a representative of the company, says that after a rent-free period MoCA paid no rent. “We had no choice but to terminate their lease as Jeffrey had left town without responding to our payment demands,” he says, adding that the outstanding amount is “below HK$1m [$129,000]”. “We have filed legal proceedings against MoCA China in the district court in Hong Kong and in April the court ruled a judgment in our favour,” he says, but declined to provide further details.

There were other debts, as well. MoCA raised funds through auctions of donated and partly donated works of art, but in some cases did not make good on promises to pay artists a percentage of the proceeds. “Paying all the suppliers and artists was the last mission I wanted to finish before I quit. Unfortunately some of them didn’t get the money before I left,” says Ms Leung. She claims that Mr Aranita owes her HK$410,000 ($53,000) in unpaid salary and that he has asked her not to contact him anymore. Travis Ng, a portfolio manager for AXA Wealth Management, says that he rented Mr Aranita an apartment for three years. He says that his former tenant failed to pay rent “sometimes up to half a year”. He agreed to accept two of Mr Aranita’s paintings in lieu of past due rent for June to November 2008, but Mr Aranita left the country without delivering the works of art and then fell out of touch. Mr Ng does not plan to press charges.

When he left Hong Kong in late October, Mr Aranita claimed to have suffered a stroke and needed to undergo surgery in the US. On his Facebook page last year he posted references to having undergone heart surgery in Hawaii and treatment in a hospital in Washington, DC, but his accounts could not be confirmed. Recent online entries indicate that by January Mr Aranita had commenced an extended world tour that included Madrid, Moscow, Paris, Tahiti, and cities in Italy, China, Nepal, Jordan, Israel and Japan. His latest posts are from O’ahu, Hawaii, where he reports building a garden and painting studio and enjoying body surfing with his teenage daughter. The Art Newspaper contacted Mr Aranita by email, but when asked about MoCA China he ended the correspondence.

An Internet search found self-published biographical information on Facebook and Saatchi Online (which apparently informed a 2006 profile in the Financial Times). According to those sources, Jeffrey du Vallier d'Aragon Aranita was born in 1954 in French Polynesia, orphaned at the age of three, and raised by his grandmother—a blind village shaman—in Japan where he spent eight years as a novitiate Zen monk acquiring artistic skills copying ancient paintings and woodblock prints. After returning to Tahiti to live with his wealthy French grandfather, he became a pearl fisherman, then at 17 stowed away on a freighter to Hawaii. He studied architecture at the University of Hawaii and took summer workshops in photography with Ansel Adams and Minor White, later studied at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York, then worked as an academic in the US, a reporter covering the drug trade in Latin America and a private banker. He also claims to have an IQ of 143 and to have met Elvis.

Mr Aranita reportedly inherited a family estate in Nice, but moved to Hong Kong in the late 1990s to be near the family of his late wife, who died in 2000 from multiple sclerosis. As the Financial Times notes, “Adulthood has not stopped him from slipping into various guises as smoothly as an otter gliding into water.” Ms Leung could not confirm details of her former partner’s past, other than that he indeed taught at the college level. She is not certain if Mr Aranita’s financial malfeasance was premeditated. “He seems to be a very nice and sincere person so he got all of us off guard,” she says. “I don’t think most of us will get our money back.”

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