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Is Terence Koh’s Sperm Worth $100,000?

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A double-sided cast of Koh's head.  

The relationship between dealer and artist can be businesslike, but it sometimes grows into something more emotionally charged. “Javier used to be my lover, but now is only my dealer,” Koh explains via e-mail. “We probably have the closest relationship in the whole of the art world. He has never asked me about why I do a piece or my motivations or ideas or feelings for it. He makes it all up for the world and it’s a perfectly happy symbiosis.” That synergy is partly responsible for Koh’s tremendous market success. “When an artist and dealer who reflect the current time work together like Terence and Javier, things happen quickly—as with Leo Castelli representing Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein in the early sixties,” says veteran art dealer Mary Boone, who had her synergistic moment with Julian Schnabel and David Salle.

Explaining their collaboration, Peres says, “We can talk very candidly about the market issues without it being viewed as a vulgar topic. He’s always alluding to the Chinese merchant culture. Terence jokes about the combination of the Jew and the Chinese being able to figure things out.” It’s not just between them that Koh is candid. Koh once posted online how much money he claimed to have earned as an artist in 2004: $153,782. Even conservative estimates for his 2006 take would break a million dollars. “I love money,” says Koh. “Having money is the grease that helps me run my other crazy projects, like my magazine and my Website and the new porn production company I am setting up in my basement.”

Koh was particularly fortunate to hook up with a dealer able to fund (and sell) anything he conceives. Peres spent nearly $400,000 on an art assembly line in Berlin to produce the 1,400 vitrines required for Koh’s Zürich and London shows. Twenty-eight assistants worked for three months “whiting” the objects Koh collected from sex shops and flea markets. Peres’s investment promptly paid off. The Kunsthalle vitrines, grouped into some ten sets priced between $65,000 and $265,000, sold out. The other objects in the show—a set of white-chocolate paintings, a suspended double-sided mold of Koh’s head, and two towering white-chocolate sculptures (part mountains, part Twin Towers, part phalluses)—brought in $400,000. Likewise, the installation at the Royal Academy cost super-collector Saatchi more than $200,000.

Those are high prices for a young artist, even considering Koh’s huge production costs. But what’s shocking is that collectors are willing to pay such prices for pieces of uncertain durability. From the beginning, Koh has made a habit of using unusual materials: chocolate, semen, blood, vomit, Chanel lipstick. At first, Koh and Peres made the mistake of selling the work without detailing its fragility. “In our rush, our naïveté, it seemed clear that this work was going to change—I mean, it was made of ashes and chocolate. And collectors would later come and say, ‘This broke, can you fix it?’ ” Peres recalls. “Now, no work of Terence leaves my gallery without a release, because his materials are quite unusual. We just don’t know what will happen to a piece made out of chocolate and Terence’s come.”

Koh occasionally consults with buyers when a work degrades, deciding whether it should be replaced, restored, or left alone. Collectors Phil and Shelley Aarons bought a 2004 piece called Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson—two fourteen-inch figures of Jackson in his “Thriller” and “Beat It”–era costumes, covered in chocolate—which over time started to turn white. They were not new to the unpredictability of Koh’s work. In fact, the pair had commissioned what Koh calls his first real artwork: an artists’ book set that incrementally transmogrified into a huge mirrored coffin, packed in white powder, lined in white fur, filled with 220 individual cases, and weighing half a ton. “I gave him my FedEx number when he called to say it was done,” Phil says with a laugh, “and he said, ‘It can’t be FedExed.’ ” Still, he and his wife were concerned by the whitening Michael Jacksons. “Terence came over to see them,” the collector recalls. “He said, ‘It’s even better now; it looks more like Michael Jackson.’ ” The figures, lightly crusted, stand immediately inside the door of the Aaronses’ apartment near Lincoln Center.

In one sense, this material instability functions as a collector purity test. Because while Koh’s rocketing market invites speculation, only a fool buys perishable work for investment purposes. That said, such fragility attracts collectors who pride themselves on supporting “avant-garde” art. Moreover, Koh’s heated market has had an alchemic effect on more risk-averse collectors. “Terence’s work is sometimes covered in fingerprints, contains dirt and spiderwebs, and it’s often broken or already developing mold when you buy it,” points out London dealer Nicolai Frahm, who started collecting Koh in 2004. “But with hype and high prices, those pieces somehow seem more aesthetically appealing to new collectors. That was also the situation with Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley. Their art seemed too tough at $30,000, but at half a million they’re much easier to swallow.”


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