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Of Spec-u-lectors and Drug-Dealing Art Advisers: Kenny Schachter at the New York Auctions

Koons's Balloon Monkey (Orange) outside Christie's last week.

Jeff Koons’s Balloon Monkey (Orange) (2006–13) outside Christie’s last week.

Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator, and writer. The opinions expressed here are his own.

In The Graduate, the hapless protagonist is given career advice in a single word: Plastics. Today, that word would be art.

Just as in the ’60s there appeared to be a great future in plastics, there now seems to be no limit to the highflying market for modern and contemporary art. Everyone from your interior decorator to your wedding planner to your tennis partner to your drug dealer considers him or herself an art adviser. With outposts around the world, the auction houses and galleries like Gagosian have made the business a 24/7 one. Everywhere you look, from cruise ships to strip malls, the stuff is being made and sold.

There are even galleries in the airports now, I marveled at Heathrow last week, en route to New York for the major November auctions.

Saturday, November 8

First stop: a private viewing of a Cy Twombly, a nice, solid early painting, with signature aspects like scattered clumps of paint and text. It had been on the market for a while, and had recently been sold at auction, and was obviously not a major work or it wouldn’t be priced the way it was. Looking at it, I asked myself the kind of questions one asks oneself these days: Can my client make 10 percent a year on this, or is he better off playing the stock market?

Next I headed to Christie’s to see a Rudolf Stingel. The piece hung in a new private-sales extension of Christie’s headquarters that a contemporary art specialist kindly informed me was formerly a steak house. In emails, the Stingel had been described to me as “bluish-green.” In person, it rivaled Kermit the Frog. This would all be well and good, had not Christie’s own Brett Gorvy, international head of contemporary art, recently proclaimed an art-market hierarchy of colors. Red, according to this scheme, is the most lucrative, followed by white, blue, yellow, green, and black. It is not, as they say, easy being green.

Sunday, November 9

Wesselmann, Study for Great American Nude #59, 1965.COURTESY CHRISTIE'S

Tom Wesselmann, Study for Great American Nude #59, 1965.COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

Auction previews are a tremendous way to encounter enormous amounts of art of all stripes across a wide spectrum of history. They’re also a great place for gossip. At Christie’s, I overheard a well-known older artist selling his younger companion on a tiny Tom Wesselmann nude. “Look! It’s great, cheap, and would look amazing in our bedroom,” she exclaimed. I didn’t catch his reply but from the tenor of the giggling it must have been naughtily encouraging. You have to admire artists shopping other artists, hedge-fund-manager style.

Dinner that night at the uptown house of a gallerist was called for 7:00 p.m., practically lunchtime. Were there two seatings? It turned out to have been one of many meals at the venue over the course of the week. At the dinner, the sharp edge of a modernist Paul Evans couch tore into my vintage McQueen suit. Later, what with all the week’s pressures, I took a friend up on his offer to indulge in a new organic THC delivery system said to be anti-carcinogenic. When the supplier arrived at the hotel he apprised me of his second job: Art adviser. He gave me the name of an artist, told me to make a studio visit.

Monday, November 10

My day began with a viewing of a Mike Kelley “Memory Ware” work, brilliant congested conglomerations of doodads reminiscent of folk art, but much more expensive. The dealer who was showing it to me is one I call the Jeff Koons of gallerists—no matter what’s going on, he’s always blindly optimistic about the art market in a cultist, otherworldly way. As I made my exit, I heard him arranging for the next visit, shopping the Kelley like a broker showing an apartment.

Mike Kelley, Memory Ware Flat #29, 2001.

Another “Memory Ware” work by Mike Kelley: Memory Ware Flat #29, 2001.COURTESY SKARSTEDT GALLERY

Then I was off to Brooklyn, a place that, in the late ’80s, when I was curating, I frequented for its artist studios. It’s one gauge of the changes to the borough that I was now going there to visit a familiar character in today’s art world, the jpeg-jobbing spec-u-lector. This is an animal who is ostensibly in the art business but is different from anything that existed before. An oil stick on paper work from the same series by 34-year-old Belgian artist Harold Ancart that he offered me for $80,000 was offered for $150,000 by another adviser the very same day. Said my new friend: “We own five or six, but not for long.” Then, after repeatedly saying he wasn’t allowed to mention a certain lawsuit, he proceeded to relay the whole scenario in great detail. Sometimes you can’t help but feel a pang of empathy for the sincere spec-u-lector who bucks the bullshit and strong-armed gallery tactics to stand up to his own, albeit over-hyped and under-informed, beliefs.

Post-Brooklyn, I stopped by the offices of the website arttactic.com to do a pre-auction podcast. Arttactic holds a competition to call prices, it’s kind of like being a contestant on The Price is Right. I was about 85-percent correct—knowing some of the pieces’ secret guarantees didn’t hurt. Afterwards my mother-in-law dragged me to a bridal shower where I met someone who knew a motivated Modigliani seller whom I would track down the next day at Christie’s, and convinced a jewelry designer to consider buying a Rudolf Stingel, telling her I knew of a terrific green one, a real gem. All in a day’s work.

Tuesday, November 11

My day began with an art-magazine writer and editor asking me, before coffee even arrived, “Why do you write?” I told her I figured it was either not having gotten enough attention as a child, or maybe I just feel duty-bound to disclose the art world’s secrets. Then she showed me some jpegs of her husband’s artworks.

Then I was off to the studio of the painter recommended by the pot-dealing art adviser, a painter whose work I was already familiar with and who explained to me how he set about making a formulaic series of works like Lucien Smith rain paintings, which became a one-hit wonder for their simplicity, ease of fabrication, and mild formal attractiveness. One of the solutions he came up with was stretched canvas, painted along the edges, resembling drumheads. The visit was followed up by an email from his dealer asking me what size and how many I’d like to order, and encouraging me to send anyone down, that they were always open for business.

Jeff Koons, Moon (Yellow), 1995–2000.©Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Moon (Yellow), 1995–2000.©JEFF KOONS

I ended my day at—where else?—Sotheby’s evening sale, the first of the week. When Koons’s gigantic, horrible, shiny blob (and yellow, at that, pretty far down on the color hierarchy) consigned by Damien Hirst failed to sell, the fellow sitting next to me proclaimed, “But it’s big!” Which reminded me of the old Jackie Mason joke about the food being disgusting, and why are the portions so small. Other tidbits overheard during the sale included “It’s very unlikely I’ll own this for the rest of my life,” and, regarding an elegant Twombly work on paper, “It’s still a piece of paper.”

After the sale, I stepped into the elevator with activist investor Dan Loeb, whose superhuman track record is currently being tested by his Sotheby’s investment. After he nearly bit the head off a Bloomberg reporter, I introduced him to a scion of the Nahmad dealing dynasty and they compared notes on each other’s Rothkos—the Nahmads had snared one for $36.5 million the night before at Sotheby’s Mellon collection sale—and discussed the evening’s Koons failure.

The next day, it would occur to me that Sotheby’s disappointing auction felt like a long, rambling sermon, the kind where everyone is fidgeting in their seats, hankering to leave. It wasn’t all doom and gloom—a Jasper Johns’ flag fetched $36 million—but overall the results, especially when combined with those of the following day sale, felt like a bit of a market correction. Some of the hot air was being let out some of Koons’s balloons, and there was also a dip in the work by young, fashionable stars. In the pecking order of contemporary art auctions, Sotheby’s has become somewhat Phillips-esque in its failure to procure the best works or prices, in comparison to Christie’s thundering successes.

Wednesday, November 12

I had lunch with a London dealer who recently assumed the reins of the family gallery from his father, and has been incrementally shifting the program away from modern and towards contemporary. Mulling over the impending Christie’s sale that evening I expressed my distaste for a bomber jacket in embossed gold plastic by Seth Price that looked better suited to a nightclub or the palace of a young Middle Eastern prince. We also discussed his collection of works by members of the Still House Group, a trendy, vertical art making and marketing machine, a model I’ve often espoused to my four kids. When I asked him if he was bidding on anything he told me, yes, the Seth Price. Whoops! Later it would turn out that the Price was right: though he wasn’t the one who won it, in the end the work made $785,000, 10 times its pre-sale estimate.

Nick Darmstaedter, born in 1988, is one of the leading lights of the Still House machine, and is known for his penny impression paintings on canvas and refrigerator magnets on metal panels. His 2013 penny work, entitled appropriately enough Suck, made $149,000 in September of this year. After lunch, Sotheby’s sold another iteration (and there are certainly plenty more) for $75,000 that was said to have changed hands prior to the sale at upwards of $200,000, involving wheeler-dealer Aby Rosen somewhere along the chain of ownership. Here was a case in point of the parallel universe to the headline-grabbing prices for contemporary classics: the wildly fluctuating values of emerging, overexposed, market art. This is a burgeoning sector but one that corrects sale to sale. There should be a warning sign at the entrance to the day sales.

Met with another artist before Christie’s evening sale, one who remains considered and thoughtful about her work even as its market has gone white-hot. When this artist got word that a spec-u-lector was trying to put one of her paintings up for auction, she complained to the auction house that it was part of an installation, not a standalone work, and therefore couldn’t be put up for sale. In response, the would-be seller threatened to sue her. Some artists are attempting to build sellable bodies of work while others are trying to thwart the market. And the lawyers continue to complicate and confuse. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

At Christie’s that night, a friend made his way to his pre-assigned seat, which had become wrongfully occupied. Trying to move the interloper was like contending with the raucous crowds perched in the upper bleachers of a football match. Instead of little symbols in the catalogues indicating when a work has been guaranteed by the auction house or a third-party, a topic of much debate nowadays, there should be little electronic cigarette icons pointing up or down depending on how Leo DiCaprio responded to the work.

When bidding began, the woman in front of me smacked her husband when he inadvertently bid against himself for a Philip Guston painting. Things weren’t any easier for a famed, aged dealer who was heard profusely apologizing to his client for having spaced out on bidding for a Judd lot he was supposed to procure, which in turn didn’t perform up to snuff. Next he was expressing remorse that a de Kooning sold for less than he had previously charged on another, earlier work (which typically sell for more). Maybe he should have stayed in and watched Dude, Where’s My Car?

The fervor of Christie’s $850-million record-breaking evening sale has by now been well reported. The inevitable $1 billion auction (and painting?) is sure to follow on its heels, maybe as soon as next May. For Sotheby’s and Phillips, though, this is what an ass kicking feels like. They should ready themselves for more.

Thursday, November 13

I had breakfast with a young entrepreneur who wants to learn more about art and start collecting. He’s going into it with the noblest of intentions, a nice reminder that this still exists. I explained the vast divide between primary and secondary prices and how over-control defined by favoritism on the part of galleries leads to the gulf in values of younger artists. If a dealer only sells selective works to selective friends, demand disproportionately swells. I told him I’d throw him a primary deal, the equivalent of free money, and then I figured I’d hit him up with some secondary.

Then I met with an old-school collector, a former museum chairman whom I pitched, sans visuals, on Joe Bradley and Danh Vo. Making a case for an artist in such a manner, in the context of an investment office, is strangely reminiscent of my past life working for Prudential Bache on the stock market. I ran from the law to avoid big business with no notion of the fact that art would become bigger than the business I fled. Speaking of Joe Bradley, I viewed a painting that was a barely-there minimalist thing outside the scope of his more recognized painting methods. I was told by the dealer in the face of the high price, “But it has his name on it which I guess means something!” I responded that I am not an autograph dealer.

If you thought the art world was becoming rank, it got worse when Artrank.com came along, the silly forecasting scheme said to gauge young artists’ futures based on, you got it, algorithms, also known as tittle-tattle. My colleague Deep Pockets, a perpetual font of information from the art world’s inner sanctum, relayed a story where a group of beginning-to-be-recognized artists were talking amongst themselves about what a badge of honor it was to be on Artrank’s Buy Now list, as opposed to its Liquidate list, which at the moment happens to be headed up by Lucien Smith, the bogeyman for today’s art market gone wrong (which actually makes me sympathetic to the work). Regarding the vicissitudes in the Smith market, which trades like oil, Deep Pockets reported he had retired like Anselm Reyle after a few reported exhibition and auction failures. What ever happened to pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and persevering? Smith was said to be surfing and selling (his own remaining artworks at auction). (Update, November 20: A representative of Lucien Smith’s Los Angeles gallery, OHWOW, says that this is not the case. —Ed.)

For the Phillips finale I considered turning up in a disguise after the thrashing I’d given them in my review herein on their last London outing. I’d already used a proxy to get a ticket, too scared to ask on my own behalf. I thought for a moment to turn over a new paddle and sport rose-tinted glasses to present a kinder, gentler front, but forget it, they don’t make it easy. Leave it to Phillips to put out the fire in Wade Guyton’s market, managing to shave nearly $1.5 million from the results of a similarly sized “Flaming U” work sold at Sotheby’s (!) last May, which still sold for a whopping $4,645,000, and passing on another—normally both bulletproof series. An adventurous collector could have picked up a de Kooning in the sale ($4,869,000) for Guyton/Grotjahn dollars.

On a passing note, unlike last time around at Phillips London, the phones seemed to be in working order in New York—there just wasn’t any action on them. I’d come to New York with Deep Pockets, and he sometimes engages in what I call chicken bidding, egging on lots he’s invested in just enough to bow out before the hammer comes down. (There’s an art to underbidding!) This sale’s Lucien Smith rain painting (and there were many up during the week) didn’t fetch a bid at $75,000, through it was later reported as sold for $100,000 on Phillips website (more art-market shenanigans, no doubt). These works have made nearly $400,000 in the recent past, and the dip is evidence of a slippery slope. I left the sale depressed and cancelled my plans to go see a Noble and Webster show I’d been looking forward, at Suzanne Geiss.

With auction week coming to an end, I returned to London with the usual thought: that I should come to New York more often. As for the auctions themselves, they only proved to me that art continues to be, like gold, a (relatively) safe harbor for wealth. This will only become more pronounced, a two-tier market where great things by acknowledged contemporary masters garner great prices and the rest swing violently, making profits for some and losses for more. It’s a party that will get bigger before it breaks up, and not everyone is invited.

Wave after wave of art comes for sale so regularly these days, it continues to astonish me how much of it gets absorbed into the market. I just received three catalogues for upcoming auctions at Vienna’s Dorotheum, not to mention my Miami Basel VIP card. Are you as tired as I am?

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