An Auction House Morality Tale

H8-ART-MKT-PLATE-compressedKenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator and writer. His writing has appeared in books on architect Zaha Hadid and artists Vito Acconci and Paul Thek, and he is a contributor to the British edition of GQ. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Some years ago, I was asked by an in-law with a formidable art collection to sell a work that was beyond the scope of the emerging contemporary fare I was used to flogging at the time. It would be no easy task. The market for Impressionist and Modern art is an altogether different animal from contemporary art, with its own particular set of rules and regulations. There are issues of condition, provenance, establishing continuous ownership (WWII concerns), a different language of art terms, different clientele. Every subset of the art market has its own list of do’s and don’ts that must be religiously adhered to, lest one be branded a heretic and forever ostracized for a breach; in some ways, it’s not unlike the mafia.

I was sitting with this in-law in his office when he fielded a phone call. He looked  less than amused when he hung up. “What have you been doing with my painting?” he asked me accusingly. He had just been informed by a certain specialist at a certain auction house that I was “burning” his work, art market parlance for overexposing and thereby damaging the prospects of selling a piece. (In fact, every time you press send on an email containing a jpeg you can be said to be culpable—they replicate quicker than viruses. I’ve referred before in my writing to those who deal in them, the jpeg jockeys.)

While I was sheepishly defending my marketing prowess to my in-law, my mobile rang. It was the very same auction house professional who had just called him, asking me to dine the following week. Welcome to the art world, where duplicity and hypocrisy exist in herculean proportions.

Of course I accepted. The market is too small to alienate your enemies. And I used the invite to buttress my position vis a vis my in-law, that I was doing no wrong. As it turned out, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into—the learning curve was steeper than I thought.

Jump ahead seven years to this past summer, when my beloved in-law unexpectedly passed away. We had seamlessly worked together for decades by then—yes, I finally moved that painting—and to date I have never met another person with such an unquestioning, abiding love for all things art.

Before I departed the hospital on the day of his death, my phone lit up with condolences; however, these were not from family members who couldn’t be there to commiserate, but from auction houses. We’ve all heard of the three D’s that bring parties to the auction block—Death, Debt, Divorce—but this was too much. Was there an obit hotline operated among art dealers? Was it like the desperate measures employed to find a freed up rent controlled apartment in New York?

And that’s when things really started to get really interesting, in the most macabre and cynical fashion.

First I was notified by a dear friend who used to work at one of the major auction houses telling me that I had become the center of numerous board meetings where executives had been strategizing how to get to the works I had been appointed by the estate to disseminate. My friend wanted to know if I would meet with the very person who had front-stabbed me in the past to discuss the works I was knee-deep in trying to sell. I laughed out loud.

Next up in the effort to win me over—i.e., to make a grab for the art I was entrusted to deal in—was to set up a meal with the house’s UK chairman. But before I could even reply (and why not, I am always up for a free lunch), I discovered through a third party the beginnings of what would amount to a pattern of dispiriting, nearly scandalous episodes, each one worse and less believable than the last, adding up to the mother of all auction house morality tales, a sordid story of unfettered avariciousness and ruthless subterfuge.

It’s worth pausing here to say that this is the most difficult, or perhaps I should say delicate, piece I’ve ever undertaken to write. I have worked, am working and (one hopes) will continue to work with all of the parties involved. How to write about what transpired without alienating  them more than I already have?

To make matters worse, or at the very least more dramatic, I wrote this on BA Flight 207 non-stop London to Miami for Miami Basel, surrounded on all sides by some of the protagonists. At one point I had to obscure my computer screen.

Back to our story. In today’s overheated, headline-making art market, everyone and his grandmother wants to be an art dealer, but nothing prepared me for what came next: unbeknownst to me, the auction house CEO flew abroad to meet a former employee of my in-law’s for a meeting to discuss the collection and what to do with it. (I believe she is presently pursuing a career in art advising.)

Now, I’m fairly high-strung to begin with, but this was getting clinical. I called my closest associate at the blameworthy house and told her they were “barking up the wrong tree.” Keeping my response that clean and controlled was less than easy.

But that was only the start of the machinations auction houses will go to these days when they are under so much pressure to generate business and appease dissident shareholders.  From there, they got creative—and I must admit to being impressed.

En route to the memorial of my deceased family member, I got a message from the daughter of a close family friend, calling to report some unsettling news: she had been offered an outright bounty to hand over the works I had been appointed to sell. After she told them to f-off, that she wouldn’t sell up her friends, she told me through another source that this auction house was about to launch an end-run around my back and go after my sister and brother in-law to achieve their thwarted goals. It was like a case of corporate espionage, with me as the target. Who’d have thought?

I wasted no time in replying that I was in serious discussions with clients to sell the works. Though many live or die via the auction houses, I take my risk buying art but not in selling it, preferring to go the route of private treaty.

My swift reply to the offending house was: “If you start going after other members of my family now, after the bumbling, misguided and oblique attempts thus far, you will come up against the same brick wall. Good luck.”

But these people are not an easy lot to keep at bay, especially when the wolves (competitors and shareholders) are huffing and puffing and trying blow their house down. So here is where we are now: it seems they’ve set upon one more line of attack to get to me: an emerging market approach. The head of Asia coincidentally summoned me to (another) lunch. And, like I said, I am not one to turn down free grub, so stay tuned.

I’d thought other professions were bleak and cutthroat before I settled on art. With mega big bucks fueling the market now, the culture of art business (including museums like Detroit getting into it) has inexorably changed. The Goldman Sachs-ization of the world continues. Returning from a school-run with my kids recently I spied a partial license plate with the word: ART. As I pulled alongside the car with a crumpled business card in hand readied to launch into the window, the remainder of the registration came into view: H8. Though my own passion for art is undaunted even after such a wretched experience, I might apply for the vanity plate: H8 ART MKT.