Art World’s Secret Exposed: It’s All About Filthy Lucre

I Bought Andy Warhol, by Richard Polsky. Harry N. Abrams, 256 pages, $24.95.

This is a book about art that has virtually nothing to do with art. It’s really a primer about basic economics-supply and demand, the unassailable power of the marketplace, and greed and avarice, the twin engines that drive so much good old-fashioned American enterprise. The author, Richard Polsky, is an art-world veteran: Since 1984, he’s been both a gallery owner and a private dealer. His memoir of the highly loopy and irrational culture of collectors and dealers is a dishy debunking of some of the scene’s more prominent figures.

If I Bought Andy Warhol teaches us anything, it’s that the art world is really high school with money. There are the popular dealers who wield cultural and economic clout, and the mid-level dealers who covet the power of their more fortunate competitors; the collectors who bandy about six-figure sums as if they’re using Monopoly money and think of art as a shortcut to status and sophistication; and the artists themselves, eager participants in this silly and occasionally wildly remunerative game. Mr. Polsky is both amused and disgusted-and an active participant all the same. An Andy Warhol obsessive (“not liking at least some aspect of Warhol’s work is as perverse as not liking the sun”), he puts his passion to good use: His quest for a Warhol of his own wends through the book’s antic narrative like a Hitchcockian McGuffin. “I was mesmerized by Warhol himself and the life he led,” Mr. Polsky writes in his introduction. Owning a Warhol, he was sure, would “confer on me all the trappings of that life. I would join the elite group of people who recognized his brilliance and owned a small but glamorous part of it.”

But never forget the financial angle: After his death in 1987, the value of Warhol’s art shot into the stratosphere, which made his undervalued works a sound investment. As Mr. Polsky points out, Orange Marilyn , an early Warhol silkscreen originally bought by collector Leon Kraushar for $1,800 in 1964, was sold at auction in 1988 (to S.I. Newhouse Jr., no less) for $17.3 million-”per square inch the highest price ever paid for a work of contemporary art.”

Mr. Polsky’s book begins in the spring of 2002. In search of a small Warhol lobster painting for an exhibit, he called on Vincent Fremont, the cagey point man responsible for disposing of unsold Warhol paintings and sculptures. Mr. Fremont, like all the dealers featured in I Bought Andy Warhol , is described as a willful, patronizing eccentric, prone to evasive tactics and erratic behavior. When Mr. Polsky expressed interest in the painting, Mr. Fremont refused to sell it. (A few years earlier, Mr. Polsky had sold two Warhols he’d promised Mr. Fremont he would keep). After countless unreturned calls, Mr. Polsky took drastic measures, scouring Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco for a cheap rubber lobster with which to get Mr. Fremont’s attention. This cat-and-mouse game is typical of what Mr. Polsky had to go through to acquire art: instead of simple business transactions, juvenile courting rituals.

Most of I Bought Andy Warhol is a glittery art-world picaresque set in the go-go 80′s and sober 90′s. Mr. Polsky hopped frantically from San Francisco to New York to L.A. in an attempt to curry favor and maintain a healthy profit margin while the art market waxed and waned. The book’s cast of characters-canny opportunists who all want to believe they’re aesthetes-keep an eye on emerging trends and young artists in pursuit of the big score. The more prominent dealers, like the Warhol Factory’s Fred Hughes, calibrate inventory like pork-belly futures, releasing just enough art to create demand, but not enough to flood the market and depress prices. The trick is to make an artist desirable, but not too accessible. The quality of a specific work of art isn’t as crucial as the perception that it’s significant. When Dan Douke, an L.A. artist and Polsky client, nearly fooled Mr. Polsky with a fake Marilyn silkscreen, the entrepreneurial instinct kicked in: Why not, Mr. Douke suggested, sell a bunch of phony Marilyns signed Dan Douke? In the art world, that’s not theft, it’s postmodern appropriation.

The behavior of the dealers and artists in I Bought Andy Warhol is sometimes amusing, sometimes repugnant. They all carry on like petulant children, but no one cares much-as long as they get their cut. Mr. Polsky has lots of juicy material to work with in regards to influential L.A. dealer James Corcoran, an avid surfer whose idea of fun, apparently, is throwing dice to determine who’ll pick up a $300 lunch tab. A Corcoran Gallery party for Polsky client Chuck Arnoldi turned into a drunken food fight: “A chicken wing scored a direct hit on Marcia Weisman’s blond bouffant. Guests intent on self-preservation began hoisting up sections of white tablecloth to protect themselves from the crossfire.” Mr. Arnoldi chicken-winged an Ed Ruscha painting worth $65,000, prompting Mr. Ruscha himself to grimly warn Mr. Corcoran, “I sure hope you have insurance.”

The real star of this book is money: Six-figure sums striate the story like fine marble, and an appendix lists each artwork mentioned in the book and its current valuation. (Though “current,” in this company, lasts about a half a minute.)

Richard Polsky is occasionally a clunky stylist (“Like a drunken sailor waking up with a bad hangover, the art world woke up in early 1990 with a painful headache”), but his good humor and sense of sheer wonder at the lunacy of his chosen profession gives the book a lost-in-the-funhouse giddiness that will no doubt make it an essential Hamptons beach-bag accessory.

Marc Weingarten is writing a book about the journalism of the 60′s and 70′s.