In an article about art fairs in Vanity Fair a few years ago, you wrote, “The dealer’s only edge is the vanity of wealth.”
What I mean is that rich people are confident and often overconfident. This is good for the dealers but good for the collector, too. You always trust your gut. That’s who you are. You see something you like at an art fair, you buy it for cash. Paying things out poisons your relationship to the work. It erodes your trust in your gut. So you negotiate for it, you scream about it, and you buy it. You don’t wait around to see if everybody else likes it, that’s just going to raise the prices. The best thing about collectors in Las Vegas is those dudes don’t care what you like. In Beverly Hills people call all their friends. If you hesitate, if you start to distrust your own taste, you start depending on dealers and art advisors. You’re giving away your power to choose and your power to get good prices. Also, you may be no good at choosing and you should learn that fast.
So what else do you plan to do, besides a creative writing textbook based on statistics?
Well, I look at all these art websites. They tell you how to buy things and give you a bunch of prices. They forget to tell you that art dealing is dealing, not retail. Every price comes out of a deal, so I feel like their numbers need some explanation. So, my friend Joe Tabet and I want to start a limited subscription newsletter called “The Hard Part,” which is selling art. We want to educate collectors about buying spontaneously, and how you sell if it turns out that you hate it. This sounds ominous but it’s all about liquidity. It’s all about collectors reclaiming their power. Writing “buy” contracts is a part of it. They explain the gallery’s obligation with regard to the art they’ve just sold you. Things that were standard in my days as an art dealer in New York are no longer standard. You can’t just take a work back and trade it for something of equal value without a contractual obligation. As a dealer, I always wanted to do that, because I figured if I sold it once I could sell it again. But the art world has changed so radically. Joe, by the way, is an investment banker in Chicago and he has oodles of wonks to churn out numbers, algorithms and curves. He can find out how many times your grandmother was indicted.
What’s the main change in the art world, to your mind?
The main change, which people haven’t noticed, is that there’s no middle class anymore—there’s a courtier class, that would be you and me. We’re intellectual headwaiters to very rich people. As a consequence, compared to the disposable income of contemporary collectors, art is cheaper than it ever has been. A purchase that would mean a lot to a nice couple on the West Side would be nothing to these people. Also collectors don’t understand the geometry of price elevation in art, especially in historical art. That means they flip the art too soon, which screws up the market. That means they don’t take care of it. That means it doesn’t matter to them, period. I always wanted to sell artworks for enough money that the collector would walk by it and think, “$40,000!—and look at it!” I always hoped that there would be some kind of transubstantiation from money-value to art-value. Anyway, the general principle is, you buy what you love and you can sell what you love. Every time you take advice, you become somebody’s minion. Most of the rich people I know have 10 brokers. They don’t trust just one guy. So, you can ask 20 people what you should buy. Or, you buy what you love.
So a lot of collections are the product of an advisor’s or dealer’s taste?
Yes, certainly, and also, most of the good collectors I know have a penchant. Steve Wynn loves painterly paintings, and that goes from Titian to Pollock. He likes wet paint. My friend [Fontainebleau Resorts CEO] Glenn Schaeffer collects Minimalist art, so when the curve on Sol LeWitt dropped compared to his contemporaries, he bought. I think that’s how you gain power. You want notoriety so you get the offers. You want power so you get the deal.
How about auctions? If you’re interested in numbers and statistics you must also be looking at auction prices…
I do, of course. I even auction things. Good art sells although the business model is sublimely bogus. Lately there’s been a fashion for covert chandelier bidding, in which five collectors who own the work of a certain artist throw in $50,000 each and bid a work by that artist up to a higher price. They bid against one another to get it up to the price they have collectively assembled. This raises the price of what they already have. Then they sell it. So, you can’t take the auction market too seriously. I have a very good, longtime friend who didn’t become a famous artist until he was in his forties. That means for 20 years he was selling art cheap. Now his art is very expensive. Now everybody who bought the cheap art is dumping it on the market and he is competing against himself. Remember when Charles Saatchi bought all those Bruce Naumans? Then he dumped them all on the auction market. Bruce ended up with a warehouse full of his own work because he was out there competing against his own work that had a better provenance. If you don’t know how to read the curves, the price means nothing. Take two equal rising curves. One means the artist is moving up. The other means people are dumping the work as fast as they can. It helps to be able to distinguish one curve from the other.
As you mentioned, two artists that you wrote a lot about and counted as friends died recently, Ken Price and John Chamberlain. What happens to an artist’s work on the market when they die, in your experience?
There are rules that apply to artists who die, like Ken Price. When Ken was really sick, Matthew Marks just stopped selling his work. I got five calls from vultures in Santa Fe who wanted to buy mine. My principle, which I don’t always observe, is that if an artist dies, you don’t sell if for four years. Because when an artist dies, everybody who bought the work because the artist had some connection to them dumps it. When Bobby Rauschenberg died, everybody in Naples, Florida, who bought one because Bob lived right down the coast, dumped it. You get all this postmortem trash in the market.