The Gallery Matador

Javier Peres slept on the flight from Berlin last Wednesday night and hit the tarmac running. He dropped by the Tribeca Grand hotel to check in, splashed some water on his bearded face, then grabbed a cab to Terence Koh’s art opening at a private residence uptown. Sometime around sunrise, he crashed. He woke up the following evening around 8 p.m. and went to the Phillips de Pury auction, where he attempted to buy back a piece of Mr. Koh’s work—a wall installation of 12 bronze hands and forearms covered in black patina, wax and oil. A bidding war ensued between Mr. Peres and the Soho-based collector Henry Buhl. When Mr. Buhl raised his paddle to indicate $122,500—a number slightly higher than the estimated value—Mr. Peres dropped out.

 

IN THE PAST few years Mr. Peres, 36, has emerged on the art scene as a powerful, and controversial, dealer and gallerist whose brightest star is Mr. Koh. He has galleries in L.A. and Berlin, and represents a small but influential bevy of artists—a majority of whom live in New York. So when he’s in town, his nights are full. After the Phillips de Pury auction, he’d arranged to meet Dan Colen, another artist he represents, at Mr. Colen’s Tribeca studio sometime after midnight, which left a few hours for dinner and drinks with two lady friends at Craftsteak on 10th Avenue.

“I would never invest money in art, not as an investment,” said Mr. Peres, who sat upright on the edge of the booth, a black ball cap with white pinstripes atop his cherubic face. He ordered another round of vodka ginger ales. “I mean, it’s a pain in the ass to maintain, it’s a lot of responsibility, super fragile, and it’s hard to move around. It’s not a good investment.

“That’s why what is happening in the art business now, in addition to the global financial situation, is all these people thought it was a good investment,” he continued. “They thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get my dick sucked, and I’ll go to parties and I’ll make money from it!’ Like, no! There are much better ways to make money. You could make much more money off prostitution, you could money-launder, you could traffic drugs—there are a lot more things you could make a lot more money off.”

Mr. Peres grew up in Cuba and comes from an old wealthy Spanish family. His paternal grandparents, Josefa and Mario, made it their business to buy as much art as they could afford, and he estimates the family collection—which includes works by Picasso, Goya, El Greco and many modern artists—is worth close to half a billion dollars. The art resides in a trust that prevents it from ever being sold; Mr. Peres’ brother manages the collection. “My older brother has an amazing collection that he inherited and he’s just like, ‘Fuck!’” said Mr. Peres.

Mr. Peres’ tastes run to the extreme. His artist Dash Snow’s work has infamously included covers of the New York Post covered with his own semen; in 2007, Terence Koh’s solo installation at Art Basel consisted of glass cases containing gold-plated pieces of what he claimed was his own excrement; they sold for a total of $500,000.

In his role as merchant, Mr. Peres says his priority has been to help finance his artists’ projects, and then set prices to ensure that pieces wind up in the right hands, in other words clients who will respect the work, as opposed to just selling to whoever shows up with the most cash. But, he added, “we’ve been looking at the books a little bit more lately. Whereas before we didn’t look at them at all: It was just spend, spend, spend.”

It is a business model that has brought some of his artists, such as the notorious Mr. Snow, as well as Messrs. Colen and Koh, tremendous success at astonishing speed. That tight-knit group of hard-living, experimental artists reside within a 10-block radius in the Lower East Side, which Mr. Peres refers to as the “New, New School.” In the words of Mr. Colen, who has a show at the Gagosian Gallery in London later this month, “It’s a really nice community. And we wouldn’t even exist without [Javier].”

Mr. Peres has never had the desire to actually live in that community, and divides his time between Los Angeles and Berlin. But he keeps a full-time office in New York; he sweeps through town every six weeks or so, meets with his artists, goes to restaurants, maybe throws a few parties. He was recently banned from staying at the Rivington Hotel because of some damage to the room. Mr. Peres also poured some water on a bald security guard’s head.

“I was like, ‘Well, you’re the one with the shaved head. I don’t have a shiny bald head.’” He laughed. He added that he was not attracted to men with bald heads.

“New York has everything for everybody, even for somebody like me who doesn’t need to be here,” he said.

The Gallery Matador