Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art
By Michael Shnayerson
In her memoirs, published in 1960, Peggy Guggenheim deplored the state of the art market in America. Guggenheim was one of the great collectors of the 20th century, living in palatial exile in Venice, where you can still visit her collection — at her home, now a museum — but on a return to New York the previous year, she was dispirited by what she saw.
“The entire art movement had become an enormous business venture,” she wrote. Prices were “unheard of.” Many collectors, she wrote, buy only “what is the most expensive, having no faith in anything else. Some buy merely for investment, placing pictures in storage without even seeing them, phoning their gallery every day for the latest quotation, as though they were waiting to sell stock.”
By the end of the century, that faith would harden into creed. Guggenheim died in 1979, narrowly missing a stratospheric rise in the stocklike sale of art, and, with it, that of the man who would become its most exceptional stockbroker: Larry Gagosian, a gallerist whose dominion would come to span the earth. Gagosian is the grandest and, apparently, the highest earning, of the mega-dealers who gate-keep the grounds of contemporary art, deciding which museum, collection or egregiously wealthy client can get what and at what price. With more than a dozen galleries scattered across America, Europe and Asia to entice artists with dreams of global conquest — like Damien Hirst, who was so taken with the idea that he ran a competition, offering a signed print to any with the means or mettle to visit his concurrent shows at every Gagosian outpost in 2012 — Gagosian, together with a small number of fellow mega-dealers, has presided over an art market in a fantastically lucrative boom.
“Boom” is the title Michael Shnayerson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has taken for his history of the postwar art market, which is to say, a story of untrammeled growth and undreamed-of excess. “Dealers tell us that the day of the $10 million painting is at hand,” the critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1984. “Never before have the visual arts been the subject — beneficiary or victim, depending on your view of the matter — of such extreme inflation and fetishization.” In the decades since, the $10 million painting no sooner arrived at hand than flew out of it, headed for higher, much higher. Now records, itchy even in their impossibility, wait impatiently to be smashed. “Rabbit,” a 1986 stainless steel sculpture of a child’s inflatable bunny by Jeff Koons, a Gagosian artist, sold for $91.1 million with fees at Christie’s on May 15, setting a new record for work by a living artist at auction. It seized the title from a David Hockney painting, which went for $90.3 million last year.