In May 2013, German artist Gerhard Richter broke his own record when his 1968 painting “Domplatz, Mailand,” which looks like a fuzzy black-and-white photograph, sold at auction for $37 million, the highest amount for any living artist.
It was a record he held for six months, until Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” smashed it, selling for $58.4 million at Christie’s.
The number staggered even the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkanen. “We are in a new era of the art market,” he said.
The total sales that night at Christie’s: $495 million, setting yet another record for the highest single auction haul ever.
A new era is one way to put it; another would be a world gone mad. As the .00001 percent run out of mansions to buy, they’ve poured their wealth into art. And not art many would find, well, good.
While there’s been a run on blue-chip artists such as Picasso, Pollock, Lichtenstein and Johns, collectors are increasingly throwing out the old rules, spending millions on artists still alive who are producing art that is less and less accessible.
The newer and more outré, the more middle-aged billionaires believe they have modern tastes. It’s a cynical attempt to be cool by consumption, and increasingly, the artists they collect create work for them that verges on contemptuous. Would you like to buy a pile of dirt? One billionaire did.
“I have no idea” what makes a good collector, says author and art expert Don Thompson. But for wealthy buyers, nothing’s more appealing than contemporary art.
“You can collect branded artists,” he says, “and be seen as having cutting-edge taste.”
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s “Tree #11″ is one in a series of 15 dead trees. It sold in 2012 for $468,000. “if this was Joe Blow,” one collector said, “it wouldn’t mean anything.”
“Balloon Dog (Orange)” by Jeff Koons. The work sold for $58.4 million, a world auction record for the artist and a world auction record for a living artist, according to Christie’s
In his new book, “The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art” (Palgrave Macmillan), Thompson explores this peculiar, secretive, insular world in which the rich can’t consume fast enough, while their artists produce with a hint of mockery and the prices go ever skyward.
Among the world’s wealthiest and most avid collectors is Peter Brant, the billionaire industrialist also known for his tumultuous marriage to supermodel Stephanie Seymour. Because contemporary art lacks provenance (rarely is it a museum piece, nor has it passed the art-world metric of remaining relevant for 40 years after its creation), one of the greatest factors in burnishing work is back story.
Usually, the story is invented or embellished by the dealer — but that of Brant’s “Stephanie” needs no exaggeration.
In 2002, the couple had the great satirical Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan to dinner at their estate in Greenwich, Conn. Brant was looking to commission something, and as Cattelan surveyed the library, studded with stuffed and mounted animals Brant had killed on safari, he had an idea.
“Your real trophy, Peter,” he said, “is your wife.”
And so off Cattelan went, returning in 2003 with a waxwork sculpture of a topless Seymour, cut in half and mounted to look like a dead gazelle. He called it “Stephanie”; the art world called it “Trophy Wife.” It was made out of wax, so Brant couldn’t hang it over a fireplace without it melting. As is often the case with commissioned sculpture, the piece was done in an edition of four: one for the buyer, one for the artist, one for the dealer, and one to be sold.
The original buyer, French businessman Francois Pinault — owner of Christie’s and the luxury house Kerig with a net worth of $15 billion — sold the piece in 2010 for $2.4 million. The buyer was New York’s José Mugrabi, a self-made Israeli businessman worth an estimated $795 million.
Aside from briefly loaning “Stephanie” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012, Mugrabi has kept it hidden in one of his two vast storage facilities, in Zurich, Switzerland, and in Newark. Mugrabi owns 3,000 pieces of art, including 800 by Andy Warhol.
“For the Mugrabi family, it’s an investment,” Thompson says. “He bought ‘Stephanie’ with the expectation that he could sell it later for a lot more money. In a given auction season, a house may offer 40 Mugrabi pieces.”
Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with” — a quote often mistakenly attributed to that great appropriator, Andy Warhol. It’s never been more true than today, when the rush to possess and rig the art market has created a situation akin to “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Even elite collectors admit it.
After a November 2013 Christie’s auction that grossed $380.6 million, former talent agent Michael Ovitz was disgusted.
“I am an art collector. This is not about art collecting,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. “For a moment last night, I thought I was in the commodities market.”
As Thompson writes, it’s a sentiment visible in more than a few contemporary artworks.
Take “Untitled (March 5th)” by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. It consists of two 40-watt light bulbs strung up by two extension cords on a blank wall, and in 2010 it sold at auction for $506,500. It was part of an edition of 20, with the auction catalog calling his work “ephemerally beautiful and deeply profound.”
In 2007, Swiss artist Urs Fischer jackhammered through the floor at Gavin Brown’s West Village gallery, leaving a massive pile of dirt he called “You.” Brant bought it (edition of one, price unknown) and had it re-created on his Connecticut estate.
“The work is about deconstruction, about where the art world has gone,” Brant had said. “And it is ‘You,’ because that’s where you’re going to end up one day.
There’s Tino Sehgal, a German artist who charges $100,000, cash only, to have the buyer provide a museum guard, who will then strip off all his clothes.
In 2012, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei — whose stints in jail have turned him into a human-rights cause — showed “Tree #11” at Art Basel. It was one in an edition of 15 actual dead trees and sold for $468,000.
How can a dead tree command so much? It depends who has attached their name to it. Asked by the Miami Herald if transporting a dead tree halfway around the world made sense, billionaire art collector Norman Braman was shocked.
Industrialist Peter Brant and daughter Lilly enjoy a prize possession — a trench dug at his Connecticut estate and titled “You” by Swiss artist Urs Fischer.
Years earlier, Brent bought a wax bust of his model wife, Stephanie Seymour, which he had commissioned by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.Photo: Getty Images
“Of course, it does,” he said. “It makes sense because of who the artist is. This is Weiwei. He’s a world-renowned artist, and his works are in demand. Now if this was by Joe Blow, it wouldn’t mean anything.”
And so goes the circular logic of the art world.
Few “stunt” pieces, Thompson notes, can top Yves Klein’s “Transfer of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959-62).”
The collector paid, in gold, for invisible space — the “immaterial zone.”
Accompanied by a curator and a couple of other artists, the buyer was then to dump half the gold in the Seine. A commemorative photo and certificate were issued, but the collector was required to burn the certificate.
Actor and artist manqué James Franco ripped off the idea in 2011, creating, with the artist duo Praxis, works of “nonvisible art.”
One went for $10,000, accompanied by the following description:
“A unique piece, only this one is for sale. The air you are purchasing is like buying an endless tank of oxygen. No matter where you are, you always have the ability to take a breath of the most delicious, clean-smelling air that the earth can produce.”
“Some may call it a scam,” said the buyer, Canadian actress Aimee Davison. “But I call it patronage of social-media art.”
The biggest hustler of the modern age is widely thought to be Damien Hirst, who was at the forefront of the Young British Artists of the ’90s.
In 1992, he mounted a dead shark in a tank and titled it “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” In 2005, it was bought by American collector Steven Cohen for a reported $12 million, and Cohen has loaned his reconstituted version — the original fell apart — to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“If Hirst had called it ‘Shark,’ it wouldn’t have worked,” Thompson says.
Again, back story, title and context all come into play for the prospective buyer. “If you went into a New York City seafood restaurant and saw this tank,” he says, “you’d pay no money for it.”
Hirst is perhaps best known for his “spot paintings.” There are about 1,800 in the world, ranging in price from $300,000 to $3 million. Only five were painted by the artist himself. Like Koons, Fischer, Takashi Murakami and many other contemporary artists, the actual work is made by other people.
“This is conceptual art,” Thompson says. “They’re the conceivers. It’s like how an architect conceives the building, but doesn’t actually build it.”
It’s a highly common practice that was mainstreamed by Andy Warhol — but Warhol was open about it and claimed it was a statement on consumer culture and the idea of ownership.
The average person has no idea an artist often has not touched the art bearing his name. Cattelan’s “Stephanie” waxwork, for example, was actually made by a master at Madame Tussauds.
Hirst is one of the rare artists to publicly give credit to his team. Of his favorite assistant, Rachel Howard, he said, “The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel.”
In 2008, Howard put one of her spot paintings, unsigned by Hirst, up for auction in New York. It brought in $90,000. Several months later, another of her spot paintings — this one signed by Hirst — sold for $2.25 million.
Howard’s example sheds light on another controversial aspect of the contemporary-art world: the absence of women. “There has never been a woman on the list of the top 25 artists in the world,” Thompson says, “Ever.” The artists, the dealers, the buyers all remain predominantly male.
This holds true for the makeup of the three emerging markets for contemporary art: Qatar, Abu Dhabi and China. In 2010, construction began on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (cost: $800 million), which will be in walking distance from the Louvre Abu Dhabi, scheduled to open in 2015.
Every day, a multimillion-dollar piece of contemporary art sells to one of these three regions.
In the run-up to the auction for Koons’ “Balloon Dog,” Christie’s issued a 129-page e-catalog, and the sculpture’s status as one in an edition of five was framed as a boon to the next owner.
“To own this work,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman for postwar and contemporary art, “immediately positions the buyer alongside the very top collectors in the world.” The other owners: Eli Broad (the blue one), Steven Cohen (the yellow one), Dakis Joannou (the red one) and François Pinault (the magenta one).
Brant put the orange one up for auction. Mugrabi was the buyer.
Are there limits to what the billionaires will buy? Among the selling
of dirt, air and light bulbs, it would appear not — though, as Thompson notes, auction houses only ever publicize their successes, not their failures.
As it happens, at that Richter auction six months prior, Koons had a piece on the block called “New Hoover Celebrity IV,” composed of four vacuum cleaners in an acrylic box. Sotheby’s estimated its value at $10 million to $15 million.