Art Dealer Learns Lesson: Never Buy Art ‘Sight Unseen’

Time has not been kind to the artwork that once held sway during the go-go art market of the 1980’s, as the following cautionary tale involving the purchase of a limited set of Eric Fischl prints made in 1989 shows.

Compared to many other contemporary artists, Mr. Fischl has had a fairly charmed career. One of the few realist painters of his generation, his oversize paintings of zaftig women and hairy men wearing too few clothes for their own good have a recognizable idiom that’s crucial in the marketing of an artist’s work: Simply put, a Fischl looks like a Fischl. He’s already had a retrospective of his paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He had a successful show of new paintings last year at Mary Boone Gallery. In January, he will exhibit his sculptures at the uptown Gagosian Gallery, continuing to expand his oeuvre. And at the auction house Christie’s on Nov. 18, a Fischl painting from 1986 was sold for $123,500. “Not bad for a midcareer artist,” said Mary Boone, who has been Mr. Fischl’s primary dealer since 1982.

However, Mr. Fischl’s work has not been immune to the dramatic drops in price that have scared all but the bravest from investing in the contemporary art market. In the December issue of Art & Auction magazine, Richard Polsky, an art dealer who also puts out an annual journal called The Art Market Guide , writes about how some dealers lost money investing in a limited set of Fischl paintings. In recounting his own experience, Mr. Polsky told The Observer that he purchased three sets of Fischl prints in 1989 for $24,000 each-a wholesale price for a set of four prints which was offered to dealers, who were then expected to add a commission to it. The untitled color aquatint prints, which depicted a range of Mr. Fischl’s trademark beach scenes, were bought by Mr. Polsky and other dealers “sight unseen” from Parasol Press in New York. In all, 100 sets were sold.

In an interview, Mr. Polsky said that he agreed to buy three sets of the prints because the market for Fischls was hot at that time; a Fischl print entitled Year of the Drowned Dog had sold at auction for $71,500, he noted. “You started to think, if one of the four prints is good, you are going to make a lot of money,” he said. But when the prints finally arrived from Parasol Press, Mr. Polsky was not happy with what he’d bought. “They were all bad,” he said. He learned a lesson that day, he added: “Rule No. 1 of the art business is that you don’t buy things sight unseen.”

To buttress his claim about the poor quality of the artwork, Mr. Polsky noted in his article that in 1996 a complete set of four prints from the edition of 100 was sold at Christie’s for $3,680. Mr. Polsky actually made money in his deal by selling his three sets shortly after acquiring them. But he said that he lost several clients as a result of his investment and does not accept the blame for his own faulty judgment in buying the prints without seeing them first. “I blame the artist,” he said. “Nobody knew that they [the prints] would turn out so bad. He really did a sloppy job.”

“What did he do, buy it sight unseen?” asked Mr. Fischl when told about Mr. Polsky’s experience. Informed that that was indeed the case, he responded: “It seems like it is his problem if he buys something sight unseen.” Mr. Fischl was also perturbed by Mr. Polsky’s willingness to put the onus on the artist. “Does he think that I personally went out and tried to screw the shit out of everybody in the world?” he asked. “The artists weren’t the ones creating the market or manipulating it. Why take it out on the artists? I always try to make the best thing I can make.”

Robert Feldman, owner of Parasol Press, admitted that the Fischls were sold to dealers sight unseen, but he said that was not uncommon in the 80’s. Mr. Feldman was not surprised to learn that the prints had failed to hang onto their original value.

“The easiest explanation is supply and demand,” Mr. Feldman said. “The demand disappeared, and the demand was speculators. So it was left to go to whatever the natural market for the print would be. Which is somewhere in a couple of thousand [dollars] per print.”

Ms. Boone was a bit more sympathetic to Mr. Polsky’s story. “That’s terrible,” she said when told of the drop in price. She pointed out that Mr. Feldman was the one who sold the series, but concurred with his view of the market. “The fact is, everything is not what it was worth in 1989,” Ms. Boone said. “The print market and drawing market were inflated just like the primary market for paintings only because there was such a demand and there was a small amount of work and that filtered down.” The prints “were published at the peak of the market, and the market has corrected itself,” she added.

Naming several recent auction sales, Ms. Boone pointed out that Mr. Fischl has a resale market for his earlier work, which is not always the case for living artists. “Eric’s last show was extremely successful,” she said. “He probably has the strongest market of any artist of his generation.”

For his part, Mr. Fischl said that he, too, was sorry if art dealers lost money on the prints. But, he pointed out, “I don’t make the market. I profit from it when it is profitable, and I lose money when it is not, like everybody else.”

Dirty Words and Andy Warhol

The Andy Warhol Foundation has published a paper titled Indecency: The Ongoing American Debate Over Sex, Children, Free Speech, and Dirty Words , by Marjorie Heins, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arts Censorship Project. According to Archibald Gillies, the foundation’s president, the paper is part of an ongoing series of papers published by the foundation on issues pertaining to freedom of expression.

“The papers are occasional,” Mr. Gillies explained. “When a paper that we have become aware of seems to be pertinent or timely and we think it should have a wider circulation, we reproduce it in a simpler form and send it out to a mailing list of about a thousand.”

When it was pointed out that Ms. Heins’ paper seems to deal with issues that correspond directly to Andy Warhol’s artwork, Mr. Gillies was slightly taken aback. “There is no connection,” he said, between the paper and Warhol’s use of, well, sex, children, dirty words, free speech in his art. “The issue, as you know, has been front and center for about the last 10 years … The foundation really doesn’t try consciously to interpret Andy Warhol through its program. That would be an impossibility.”

Mr. Gillies acknowledged that a person could think that the foundation was tackling one of the thornier contemporary culture issues with regard to the late Pop artist’s oeuvre . “Of course, Warhol did deal with that subject matter from time to time, although the great majority of his work does not. But, yeah, there’s nudity,” he said. “Sure. But this paper was not meant to be interpreted that way.”

Art Dealer Learns Lesson: Never Buy Art ‘Sight Unseen’