The Rise of the Art Pros

A show of the Robert and Ethel Scull collection at the Acquavella Gallery last spring included Willem de Kooning’s Police Register, a canvas David Geffen would decades later sell to Steven Cohen for, according to different reports, between $35 million and $60 million. Michael Findlay, the gallery director of Acquavella, told me during the show that collectors were approaching him, marveling at how cheaply-a few thousand dollars, often-Scull had bought the works.

“I tell them nobody else wanted it,’ he said.

Little chance of that these days. Last year featured zippety-doo-da auction prices-$104.3 million for Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man, one from an edition of 10, for instance-and as the new year begins, the art market is perceived as having largely survived the recession. Indeed, on its highest plateau, the art world may have even benefited from the global economic unraveling, with some of the well-heeled choosing to park their moola in art rather than in bundles of sliced derivatives.

So are art worldlings happy? Of course not. “A lot of people are worried,” a European consultant said. The success of recent sales can be diagnosed not as a sign of the health of the entire art-world organism, but as a nonchalant demonstration of a blunt fact of the New World Order: a cosmic gulf between the hugely rich and everybody else. The fallout is the rise of the professional collector.

I first heard the term “professional collector,” as if denoting a new breed, perhaps three or four years ago. Such trader/collectors, to small or large degrees, create positions in what they consider undervalued material, get together, bat the prices back and forth at auction, build up the value of their holdings (enabling them to buy more and better) and act like traders in any other commodity.

By and large, this is new. Indeed, it would be pretty easy to produce a conceptual history of art collecting that would depict collecting right now as having morphed far from its gloriously obsessive origins. Such a history would begin in a golden age in which the art acquirers had more elevated motives (assuming that you believe national, dynastic or personal glory to be elevated.) That history would dwell upon collectors on a mission, those who were capable of having as big an impact upon art history as artists.

A paradigmatic 20th-century example would be Peggy Guggenheim, gallery-hopping as the Wehrmacht advanced on Paris, with the perky motto of “A painting a day!” Or Guggenheim’s near contemporary, George Costakis, who had both Greek and Russian nationality and worked for the Greek embassy in Moscow. This unusual situation made it possible for him to buy the work of the great Russian avant-gardists who were then dwelling in the Stalinist shadow. It was his enthusiasm that saved some of these great artists from self-doubt due to lifelong neglect, and probably prevented some from destroying their work.

New York had the Sculls. Robert Scull, the son of a garment worker on the Lower East Side, first encountered art on a visit to the Met when he was 10. He married Ethel, a rich girl from the Upper West Side. And they began to collect. And support. They visited John Chamberlain, liked what they saw and gave him enough money to give up his putting-bread-on-the-table job as a hairdresser. They had Frank Stella stripe their living-room wall. And Bob Scull commissioned Andy Warhol to make his wife’s portrait. Warhol took Ethel in a taxi to the still un-gentrified Times Square and fed quarters into a snapshot machine until he had a hundred images to choose from. Ethel Scull 36 Times is the result. It was Warhol’s first commissioned portrait.

We should avoid the easy romance of the rearview mirror, of course. But it does seem worthwhile to wonder if there have been too-severe changes in the practice, or the very nature, of collecting. Collectors can have, of course, as many differently colored needs and desires as artists. But I found one basic distinction succinctly expressed in the Business section in last week’s Times by Andy Grove, the former capo of Intel. Mr. Grove was discussing Steve Jobs. “There are builders and traders,” he said. “Steve Jobs is a builder.”

Well, most art collectors will trade-that’s one of the pleasures of collecting, from childhood on-but several are effectively full-time slo-mo dealers. How many are there out there? I’ve heard figures of between 25 and 100. I’ve yet to hear of any of these “professional collectors” willfully maneuvering up the prices of what they know to be poor artists. But poor pieces, by good, widely traded artists, well, that’s another story.

Of course, you can tell the world that you think it’s a shame that artworks are traded like currency these days. And then you can listen to the artists laughing.

The Rise of the Art Pros