PRINT April 2003


Obtainment of one more object does not bring an end to the longing. Instead, it is the recurrence of the experience that explains the collector’s mental attitude. . . . Obtainment in whatever way—bought, found, or even acquired by scheming or tricky means or thievery—works like a mood regulator and provides the owner with a potential sense of success or triumph, and occasionally of grandeur, as is the case with the winner at the gaming table or the astute buyer in the auction room.
—Werner Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion (1994)

If the special status of art as a commodity whose dollar value is unrelated to its use value makes those who collect it a special breed, then collectors of contemporary art, the market for which is notoriously fickle, are a breed apart. Risk takers of this order, especially those uncushioned by family or business fortunes, are admired—albeit grudgingly—in the art world almost as much as artists themselves. “In the 1960s,” says dealer Michael Findlay, “collectors were thought of as saints for supporting contemporary art—but also as very clever for buying things for fifteen hundred dollars that were later worth millions.”

The signal event for that phenomenon was, of course, Sotheby’s 1973 auction of works from the collection of taxi-fleet entrepreneur Robert Scull, in which—at a time when one faction of the avant-garde was trying like hell to subvert the market by making deliberately uncollectible installations, performances, and Earthworks—two pieces by Robert Rauschenberg originally bought for a total of $3,400 sold for $175,000.

The art world of the early ’70s was a Woodstockian mud party of high-minded unprofessionalism. In reacting against the market savvy and graphic bounciness of Pop, as well as against the pseudo-blue-collar solemnity of Minimalism, ’70s work veered into, if not outright abjectness, at least déclassé materials—dirt, lint, rubber, broken glass, dust—and hyper-informal configurations. Their art, the artists hoped, would defy salability, repel the slim-suited bankers and their Mary Quant–clad girl-wives who just loved Lichtenstein prints, and cause “alternative spaces” to rush in and show the stuff precisely because it was so virtuously unattractive. Their wishes, for the most part, were granted. But the reverberations from the Scull auction would, in the next decade, almost completely subvert the ’70s art world’s well-wrought subversion. It proved—or perhaps “predicted” is a better term—that, eventually, any kind of art is resalable at a profit. Bottom line: One could make money off off-puttingly avant-garde art just as one could make money off pork-belly futures. And to ratchet up the possible rewards of buying the work of living artists (the wisdom quickly developed), better to buy the work of younger, lesser-known, or even unknown artists.

The nominally holier-than-the-market, touchy-feely ’70s eventually gave way to the gallery-gaudy, painting-is-back ’80s. To art dealer Tony Shafrazi, the difference between the ’80s and the preceding years was radical. “There was finally a new artistic genera- tion not so impacted by the war in Vietnam,” he says, “and there was no more fascist boot of Conceptual dogma.” Collector Ray Learsy, a current Whitney Museum board member, says, “You had in the ’80s a burst of figuration, the idea that real paint—which you could smell—communed with you in a direct way.” He speaks, of course, of the work of Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, David Salle, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, et al. (Joy in the boom in homegrown peppily painted pictures is not, however, universally applauded, especially in retrospect. Says one very major dealer on condition of anonymity: “My feeling is that the machine in New York which promotes local art was way out of control in the early 1980s. There was so little understanding about European art. The Whitney Museum was the center of the scene, and it’s a museum exclusively of American art. Curators didn’t travel to Europe that much. Slowly New York began to discover that Baselitz, Richter, Polke, and Kiefer were fully developed, powerful artists, and when you put them up against the likes of Scharf and Schnabel, the Americans didn’t compare all that well.” In other words, it was a kind of de facto protectionism, or an implied “Buy Local” sentiment, that helped to fuel the boom, at least for a time.)

The 1973 Scull auction was a bit of an anomaly, and it took a while for its implications of the investment viability of edgy contemporary art to sink in. By the end of the ’70s, however, investors were so optimistic about the contemporary-art market that Jeffrey Deitch was able to found the Art Advisory Service in the heretofore staid corridors of Citibank. Along with its titular function, the service would also help art collectors secure big loans (say, $5 million) with their art collections (worth, say, $10 million) as collateral. If banks could open themselves to art, why couldn’t an outpost of art, where money was, putatively, of secondary importance, open itself to an aggressively corporate mentality? In 1983, Detroit shopping-mall magnate (and now convicted felon) Alfred Taubman was officially deemed fustian enough by the British courts to buy the British auction house Sotheby’s, and he promised the bowler-and-umbrella set that he wouldn’t really change things. Raised eyebrows in Old Blighty somehow lowered, and Taubman was allowed to go through with the deal. For their part, the board of the Whitney—of which Taubman was then a member—didn’t even widen their eyes. As Taubman told the press in the halcyon year of 1988, “We discussed it, and they concluded that as far as they were concerned, it was not a conflict of interest”—on the grounds that Taubman was not actually on the Whitney’s acquisitions committee nor involved in Sotheby’s day-to-day operations. That bit of typical self-serving ’80s rationalization was preceded in 1980 by board Vice President Leonard Lauder’s wanting the Whitney to make a public-relations “splash” with a single art purchase. Director Thomas Armstrong put together a consortium of trustees and an anonymous donor, and came up with a cool million to buy Jasper Johns’s Three Flags, 1958. Johns, who was not the seller, remarked, “$1 million . . . has a rather neat sound, but it has nothing to do with painting,” a comment whose sentiment would ultimately be misplaced later in the decade.

Artists usually don’t make art to respond to the vagaries of the economic climate (Warhol notwithstanding). But there is a symbiosis, if not directly between art and money, at least between artists and money. As Asher Edelman, the transatlantic homme des affaires and collector puts it, “Artists in the ’80s had to be bigger than life. In the ’80s, artists thought that kind of thing should be a big part of what we saw. People in the art world heard and saw at the same time, so everything was like one big performance. [The 1980s] were about bigness—not just the size of the canvas, or the brushstroke, but the meal on the table, everything.” In other words, the art objects themselves were part of the attraction, but so was hanging out, traveling, visiting big white-cube galleries and artists’ not-so-grubby-these-days studios in a formerly bohemian scene gone safe and upscale.

The aesthetic result? Walker Art Center curator Richard Flood (who was director of Barbara Gladstone Gallery for most of the ’80s) says, “In sum, the biggest problem of the period was the they should talk) remarked in print about an anthology show of hot New York goods, “At second sight, the work, which comes festooned with breathlessly excited magazine articles and a clutch of labels—Neo-Geo, Neo-Futurism, Neo-Pop, Neo-Conceptualism, Smart Art and New Abstraction—appears a relatively simple series of jokes whose subject is recent art history.”

But that British critic’s opinion was decidedly in the minority. When British advertising kingpin Charles Saatchi opened his museumesque gallery in 1985, the reception was wildly enthusiastic. American collectors were some of the first people to hop on planes to see what he’d been buying, and they were inspired—if that’s the word—by it. They, too, were feeling that the younger artists were on a creative upswing, that they were, in Learsy’s words, “doing important work . . . bringing an additional element to the perception of art and what art meant.” And if some of the new work looked a little off-putting in its frantic ironic populism, collectors were determined to understand it. As Mera Rubell (who with husband Donald constituted one of the major collecting couples of the ’80s) told an interviewer in 1999, “Anything you can understand the minute you approach it is really not a problem worth understanding. What we realized is that what we actually hated was not so much the particular piece but the sense of inadequacy that it brought to us.” The prescient Rubells bought works from Keith Haring while he was still in art school, and, as Don remarked about the collection, “Some of this stuff has been bought for the price of a haircut or a pair of shoes.” Computer scientist Herbert Schorr and his wife, Lenore, had a similar jones for the paintings of the star-crossed Basquiat (who died at age twenty-eight in 1988, after a blindingly prolific—and profligate—canvas career of just seven years) and at one time owned twenty-five of them. Out in Los Angeles, TV producer Douglas Cramer—who had sold his original aggregation of California artists after a divorce—got back in the act, with Marcia Weisman as a kind of mentor. (Weisman was one of the most important collectors of the postwar LA scene, mixing blue-chip Abstract Expressionism with up-and-coming local art in her hillside home, which was the venue for social mixers of the same constituent parts.) By 1988, big-time Los Angeles collector (and now prime mover at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) Eli Broad could observe that the serious collecting cadres in LA were fivefold greater than in the ’60s and three times the number who had greeted the grand opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art only three years previous. To harness the exponentially increasing amount of “young money” around, museums everywhere started up junior collectors groups so that, at the height of the ’80s, the massed army of contemporary-art collectors included old-liners entranced by new art (like Jerry Elliott and Elaine Dannheisser); recently minted multi-millionaires who realized, like Broad, that “it’s stimulating to meet people outside the business world, who have a different way of looking at life,” and soon discovered the social-status possibilities of collecting; and the young investment bankers and arbitrageurs. If in the ’70s there were, say, a couple of dozen or so serious collectors of edgy contemporary art in New York, and perhaps a handful in each of LA, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, by the late ’80s New York had a hundred, and the other cities had at least a dozen apiece. All this money loose in the art world naturally created—at least for the artists and dealers with buzz—a seller’s market. Says Learsy: “All the barriers came down. . . . There was a real internationalization of the New York art world, [which had been] a kind of exclusively American playground until the ’80s. . . . At a given point, collecting became competitive, frenzied. To get access [to certain artists] you had to be early. If you were first, you established a kind of pedigree with artists.” Or, as dealer Angela Westwater says, “If Jerry Elliott had one, Elaine Dannheisser wanted one.”

In naked market terms there was, as dealer Michael Findlay unsentimentally puts it, “much more money around than good product.” Collectors were so flush that Mary Boone could tell an interviewer, “Although several of my artists are very prolific, making between twenty and twenty-five paintings each year, for many there is never enough work to go around.” One market expert recalls that a collector seeking a figurative Eric Fischl from Boone might be asked also to buy a painting by the certainly substantial but much less salable abstract artist Gary Stephan. Veteran collector Richard Brown Baker ruefully said in 1985 that the reason no work by (insert your own adjectival phrase here) Schnabel resided in his collection was that “By the time I’d heard of him, his paintings were already $80,000.’’ Peripatetic public/private dealer/memoirist Richard Polsky says he remembers non–fair dealers at a late-’80s Chicago Art Fair finagling setup passes so that they could get first peek at art objects being liberated from their crates. “We now live,” said cut-to-the-chase Boone in the mid-’80s, “in a highly inflationary time which makes people think they’re richer than they are.”

Those certainly sound like conditions conducive to bringing on great, convulsive attacks of greed—and they were. Coupled with the gargantuan amounts of disposable income wafting around among the upper classes, the newfound glamour of art (or, for more sophisticated rich people, the rediscovery of it) turned a lot of collectors into SoHo Sherman McCoys. Two oft-quoted aperçus of the time say it all. Boone again: “They buy art like lottery tickets.” And the immortal words of collector Eugene Schwartz: “[Art collecting is] the only socially commendable form of greed.” OK, maybe the situation wasn’t exactly Powerball in paint, but liquidity did step to the fore as one of the most—if not the most—desirable qualities in contemporary art being considered for purchase. Less scrupulous dealers recognized not so much a new opportunity as an old opportunity returned in an overheated economy at ten times its former potential: turning collectors—who might someday sell what they collect—into speculators who planned to sell the art they bought. (People who buy in order to resell generally buy more, and more frequently, meaning more transactions and more commissions for dealers.)

The auction houses were, however, doing their own re-revving up. In spite of the legendary bonanza of the Scull sale, auctions—except for occasional headlined dispersals of prominent collections—remained for the most part a kind of defensive device for dumping objects with cooling cachet or catching an unintended bargain on the sly. First, Taubman turned Sotheby’s into a de facto lending house (so much so that by 1988 the firm got 10 percent of its income from interest on loans). Loans were made on as much as half the hammer price at interest rates as high as 4 percent over prime. Second, Taubman saw that he could easily persuade collectors (the lending service didn’t hurt, and neither did the guarantees Sotheby’s started to give sellers) to buy and sell with Sotheby’s instead of through dealers. Everybody was happy with this arrangement as long as prices were going up, and the beauty was that the guarantee/loan system actually helped push them up. Potential purchasers bidding in part with the auction house’s money tended to bid things up from the guaranteed floor (whereas, by contrast, a gallery’s asking price is a ceiling, which can be bargained but down). If a work sold at such a high price and on such a big loan that the buyer defaulted, the original owner could get the work of art back, write off part of the “loss,” and sell the work once again with a new, higher, guaranteed floor established by the initial, loan-supported hammer price. In terms of living artists, the biggest bite of the ’80s auction feeding frenzy was of course the 1988 sale, via Sotheby’s through Larry Gagosian to Condé Nast proprietor S.I. Newhouse, of Jasper Johns’s 1959 painting False Start for, give or take a few pennies, $17 million. It was by far a world record. Nobody suspects for a moment, though, that Newhouse had to borrow money from Sotheby’s to complete the deal.

The trickle-down to lesser-mortal artists was decidedly symbiotic. As painter Donald Sultan remembers, “All of a sudden everything sold. Sotheby’s got into it, and young artists’ work went kind of right to auction. Somebody would come into a gallery, buy something for, say, $25,000, then go sell it at auction the next week for forty. I suspect that sometimes you just had somebody—the artist’s dealer, say—bid the price up against the collector, and maybe kick some of the overage back to the collector in return for establishing a higher auction price for the artist.” Whether Sultan’s suspicions are justified or not, by 1989 painter Sean Scully was enjoying a six-month boost of more than 50 percent (and we’re talking ninety grand spiked to $140,000) at David McKee’s gallery. These relatively brief silver-cloud days (which started with the American stockmarket recovery of 1987 and ended with the tanking of the Japanese stock market in 1990) did have their dark linings. A few artists were permanently injured in the stampede, as had happened to Sandro Chia in 1984–85 when mega-collector (that is, frequent buyer of whole shows and studiosful of art) Saatchi suddenly tired of the artist’s neo-expressionist paintings and dumped him—so baldly that Chia’s fragile market collapsed. But perhaps a better gauge of Saatchi’s market muscle—and savvy—came in late 1989, when, rumor has it, he quietly sold a sizable chunk of his collection (some say as much as a tenth of his enormous holdings) to dealer Larry Gagosian for an undisclosed but purportedly staggering sum. Shortly therafter, the market for contemporary art imploded.

By the end of the decade (if not sooner) many not-for-profit souls were repulsed by how thoroughly the market mentality infested, well, everything. In the introduction to the 1989 Whitney Biennial catalogue (at that time still half fearless examination of art’s cutting edge and half buyer’s guide), the curators lamented, “Capitalism has overtaken contemporary art, quantifying and reducing it to the status of a commodity. Ours is a system adrift in mortgaged goods and obsessed with accumulation, where the spectacle of art consumption has been played out in a public forum geared to journalistic hyperbole.” And the art consumed on the grandest scale wasn’t necessarily the best. As Polsky has recently written, “Much of the work from the 1980s is not holding up very well. . . . [I]t doesn’t seem as if very much of the work of that era will ultimately matter.” But then that is true of any era. Broad notices that “people who do collect for investment generally don’t have the best eyes. They don’t get the best works.” Still, as Mary Boone told a British interviewer in 1991, “Real collectors never stop buying. They buy more carefully and ask for bigger discounts these days. People used to give you a decision within twenty-four hours; now they want to think about it.”

But, in spite of the persistence of some “real collectors” during the dog days of the 1990s, ultimately the ’80s raked and graded the slippery slope of collecting contemporary art toward a state of affairs that persists to this day. Findlay contends that “where the historical art market has a ratio of lay people (that is, collectors who aren’t also dealers) to professionals of about three to one, in the contemporary market it’s reversed. There practically everybody is a pro or a semi-pro. Seventy-five percent of the people in the contemporary market have a stake, or ‘take a position’ (as they say) on a certain artist. And a lot of the contemporary market sometimes depends of the feverish excitement of a few people. The market is volatile because the pros can suddenly look at their watches and say it’s time to move on.” Says one anonymous dealer, with a hint of admiring disgust, “The 1980s continued right into the 1990s and now, only people are so much smarter at what they do.”

A contributing editor of Artforum, Peter Plagens is art critic for Newsweek.