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An Old Master in Ruins

Why is an El Greco worth less than a Koons? Gallerist Larry Salander called it a moral travesty, and decided, catastrophically, to do something about it.

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Prop styling by Naila Ruechel.  

The art dealer Larry Salander is ready to erupt. He puffs up, expanding his chest like a bellows. He presses his mouth shut. He squeezes his tongue against his palate and engorges his cheeks, his upper lip already damp with perspiration and a few molecules of lunch. Finally, with nostrils flared, he explodes.

“Our society now values a Warhol for three times as much money as a great Rembrandt,” he thunders, referring to the latest auction reports. “That tells me that we’re fucked. It’s as if people would rather fuck than make love.”

He says the last sentence slowly, emphasizing each word.

“That’s the difference between the Warhol and the Rembrandt,” Salander continues. “Being with Rembrandt is like making love. And being with Warhol is like fucking.”

Salander and I are just finishing a lunch of pasta fresca in the eat-in kitchen of his Upper East Side home. Now on the market for $25 million, the townhouse—almost a palace— is decorated with paint imported from Venice and fifteenth-century Sienese tiles. It reflects Salander’s eclectic taste, with African sculpture and American tonalist landscapes mixed in among the Canalettos. In the next room, Salander has inlaid a marble floor with the phases of the moon.

An aesthete with no formal art education (nor even a college degree), Salander built his art empire, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, on native artistic empathy and an intensity of will. “He is a very unusual combination of street vitality and aesthetic refinement,” says Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic and a close friend of Salander’s who wrote catalogue essays for the gallery. “He’s a street kid who’s read Ruskin. I don’t know anybody else who so naturally recognizes the brutality of the world but lives in such a fine way.”

Artists, actors, critics, and buyers responded to his gravitational pull. When I visited Salander in Venice during the opening of the Biennale last June, he was a character in need of a Balzac, a prophet and a gambler who seemed to walk across the water of the Venetian lagoon. He spoke about Titian and Tintoretto as if they were close friends and skipped the contemporary art of the Biennale altogether. As we returned from the island of Burano, where we’d had dinner with his friend Robert De Niro, Salander said to me, “Art is the human attempt to make one plus one equal more than two.”

But Salander made a critical miscalculation. Over the last few years, he had been trying to apply his passion and alchemy to correcting what he saw to be a dangerous inversion of the art market. To Salander, many contemporary art collectors are philistines. But if he could use his gallery to create a new market for old-master and Renaissance art, perhaps he could shift the paradigms of the international art trade.

It was an intriguing idea, but it left him in ruin. On the opening evening of a show he hoped would electrify the market, angry investors closed down his multimillion-dollar gallery. A restraining order prevented Salander from entering the gallery or selling art anywhere in the world. He now faces a criminal investigation and lawsuits from investors who say they were abused, collectors who say they didn’t get what they paid for, and artists who say they never got paid. He could be upwards of $100 million in debt. As our lunch filled the afternoon, Salander spoke for the first time about his plan to rescue the art world from bad taste, and how it ultimately destroyed him.

Three years ago, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, located at the time at 79th Street and Madison Avenue, seemed to be an indestructible institution. Raised by middle-class Jewish parents in Long Beach, Long Island, Salander built his dealership from a small antiques shop in Wilton, Connecticut, into one of New York’s premiere art houses specializing in nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting and sculpture. Becoming partners first with the more established dealer William O’Reilly and then with a passive investor named Myron Kunin, Salander mounted hundreds of museum-quality shows that seemed to rise above market concerns.

“Larry always has some mystery,” says Ann Freedman, the director of Knoedler and Company, New York’s oldest commercial art gallery, on 70th Street off Madison Avenue. “Success for him was to find the undiscovered painting, to prove this was a masterwork against all odds, to put on a show that nobody else would have dared to try to do. He just wanted to be special.”

Salander learned how to read the market. He developed a reputation for recognizing undervalued art, and took a prescient interest in the nineteenth-century pre-Impressionists and in early American modernists such as Ralph Albert Blakelock, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Marsden Hartley, and Louis Eilshemius.


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