The West Coast–based art dealer Richard Polsky has a memoir out this week called I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon), that provides a vivid and detailed portrait of the booming high-end art market as it existed until the economy went to pieces last fall. The book tells the story of the author’s long quest to track down an Andy Warhol Fright Wig painting on behalf of a collector who desperately wants one on his wall. Along the way, Mr. Polsky dishes on the habits, tics and business practices of dealers, gallerists, collectors and auction house personnel, in what amounts to something of a post-mortem on a madhouse that has closed its doors and ceased operations.
In the following Q&A, Mr. Polsky explains how the economic downturn has affected the art market, and discusses his predictions for the upcoming November sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
Your book describes the art market at its height, before the economy burst. In the epilogue, which I gather you wrote afterwards, you say you couldn’t even bring yourself to fly to New York for the November 2008 auctions.
It would have been too painful. Andy Rose [a collector] was on the phone with me during one of the sales and he goes, with his Boston accent, ‘Richard, you’re not gonna believe this—no one is bidding!’ During the boom these auctions would go on for an hour and a half, almost two hours, because there were so many items and so much action. This sale was over in less than an hour. There were one, two bidders on each item. There was panic. You get your best steals when people are panicked, but it’s hard to pull the trigger when the world is falling apart.
So are a lot of people trying to unload their collections, then?
No, people aren’t as desperate as we thought they’d be. They’re holding off. No one consigned great stuff last year because they knew what was going on. If you have to sell, you grin and bear it, that’s what happens. But if you don’t have to sell, you don’t sell right now. And what we learned is that the people who really collect the best of the best have really deep pockets. I know a guy named Don Fisher a little bit, who owns the Gap. He’s a billionaire, and maybe his collection’s worth less now and maybe Gap stock is down, but he’s someone who’s not going to miss any meals. He doesn’t need to sell anything—even if he was going to prune his collection a little and get rid of a few things, he’s gonna say, ‘Eh, I’ll wait a year or two, what do I care?’ The people I know who are big collectors, they’re bummed out because their real estate is worth less, and their stock portfolios are down, and their art’s worth less, but it doesn’t affect their lifestyle. That’s how wealthy these people are.
What are the auction houses looking for?
Anything they can get. They’re desperate. They’re looking for the names that they know sell in good times and bad—the conservative things like Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder. That stuff always sells if it’s good quality.
How do they find that stuff?
The auction houses are smart—they know where everything is. They’re on it. They’re always calling collectors and saying, ‘Hey, would you consider selling your Warhol Soup Can? This is gonna be an exceptional sale for Warhol material.’ They don’t do this anymore but a year ago, they’d say, ‘And we’ll guarantee you 10 million.”
They don’t offer guarantees anymore, right?
No. Unless there’s just no choice and it’s a slam dunk. They will again but not for now.
Aren’t there people who see this moment as an opportunity to buy a bunch of great art for relatively low prices?
Yeah, the contrarians. They’re thinking, ‘Hm, maybe it’s not a bad time to buy, now that the excess has been flushed out of the system.’ Who they are, I don’t know. But I guarantee come November the auction personnel will say, ‘Huh, who is that who dropped five mil? We didn’t know about him, but we do now!’ And next time they’re going to get the red-carpet treatment. There are always surprises, but a down market generally doesn’t attract new buyers.
So as an art dealer who helps collectors buy and sell, are you just getting fewer phone calls?
Yeah, everyone is. There’s less action for everybody. I’m doing deals, but they’re small. They’re just little things here and there. It’s not what it was, so it comes down to keeping your overhead down. As a dealer you just gotta be cool—it’s not a time to be taking out expensive ads in the art magazines.
At what point will you find out what the auction houses will be offering in November?
It depends on how involved you really are. I can call them right now and find stuff out, because I do enough business and they know me. But basically the public doesn’t find out till a month before the sale.
Have you made those calls already?
No, I need to wait a little. You’ve gotta give them a little time, let the dust settle. It’s like asking a favor, and you don’t want to ask too many favors. But if I have a vested interest in something I might call up and say, ‘What’s my competition on this? What’re you hearing?’ And depending on how much they like me at that moment, they’ll tell me.
Are there people coming into your business right now?
I can’t imagine anyone’s coming into this right now. But they’ll start, if November does O.K. There are always young people—children of rich people who like the lifestyle and want to be part of it. There’ll be some new dealers. But, no, it’s not a hot profession right now.
Are people going to work for auction houses?
No, they’ve fired a lot of people. The people who are left are the cream of the crop, and they’re happy to have their jobs. They’re not hiring. They might in a few years, but not now.
What will it take for you to be encouraged by the results this coming November, for you to think, ‘O.K., things are turning around’?
All I want to see is an improvement over last May. If I see that, it’ll create positive momentum and everyone will leave the auction and go out to dinner afterwards and say to each other, ‘Hey, things are getting better!’ It starts feeding on itself, even if anyone who’s a veteran of this will be rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah.’
But you’ll play along, right?
Of course. It’s in my best interest! Everyone does. The illusion always becomes reality. If enough people walk out of there saying things are improving, sure enough they will improve.