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Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art

Michael Shnayerson

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"All artists do is produce the work, the dealer has to create the allure."

Collector Ben Heller bought a huge Pollock painting One: Number 31 from the artist. Nine feet high by 18 feet across, it didn't fit in the lift in Heller's apartment bldg. So the caretaker lowered the lift, Heller and Pollock climbed on top and held the rolled up painting between them, pointing up the shaft. Then when they got to heller's apartment, his walls were only 8'9" high, so the top of the painting had to be stapled to the ceiling.

Andy Warhol came up with the idea of silk screening images in 1963, starting with what came to be known as the silver Liz. Buyers didn't care how much habeen done by AW himself, and how much assistants had done. They were buying a brand.

Landmark Sotheby's sale Oct 1973, of 50 artworks from collection of taxi magnate Robert Scull. The sale saw the first sharp change in values, as prices went through the roof. Ben Heller bought a Jasper Johns for $240,000, twice the record for a living American artist. (Heller cd afford it - he'd just sold the Pollock One: Number 31 to the Museum of Modern Art for $900,000)

One work, which Rauschenberg had sold to Scull via Castelli for $900 in 1959 went for $85,000. Afterwards, Rauschenberg confronted Scull "I've been working my ass off for you to make that profit". But Scull countered by pointing out that the auction meant R cd raise his own prices. "I've been working for you too. We work for each other."

Auctions used to pump up prices. Dealer 1 puts a Warhol up for auction. Dealer 2 agrees to bid it up and buy it at $10 million. At the same time, Dealer 1 agrees to buy another Warhol from Dealer 2 for $10 million. The end result is that the dealers swap Warhols, no tax is paid bc the costs balance out, and a new benchmark has been set for this sort of Warhol.

High auction prices have unexpected consequences. First, the artists raise their sol - cars and houses - but then they realize they have to keep the dealer's pipeline loaded. And the marketplace doesn't tolerate a lot of experimentation. Dealers like to see artists with expensive tastes, bc that's what drives them to produce.

Why do the rich buy art? Obviously need for conspicuous consumption to gain status, but also bc they had nothing else to talk about.

Death of Dan Flavin in 1996 brought a conundrum. His flourescent light 'monuments' were meant to last no longer than the bulbs promised 2100 hours of life. Typically Flavin made editions of 3, 4 or 5 identical pieces. But many of the editions lacked one or more of their pieces. At some stage, Flavin's estate began creating new works to fill out the editions. They didn't have the same cert of authnticity that DF's works did, but no public comment was made, and collectors didn't seem to care. And new bulbs were available, so the new collectors cd turn the works on as often as they liked without having to worry about the bulbs burning out.

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