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An Old Master in Ruins


To announce his move into the old-master and Renaissance market and quell concerns that his gallery was imploding, Salander began preparations in early 2007 for “Masterpieces of Art: Five Centuries of Painting and Sculpture,” a blockbuster of an exhibition featuring works by Michelangelo and Titian that he planned to open on the evening of October 16. Over Labor Day, he brought in a single piece exceptional enough to anchor the show.

A London dealer named Clovis Whitfield arrived at the gallery that weekend with consignments from his own collection, including a rediscovered painting called Apollo the Lute Player. When the painting had been sold by Sotheby’s in 2001, it was attributed to an artist in Caravaggio’s circle and went for far below $1 million. But Whitfield had since discovered documentation that he believed proved the painting was by Caravaggio himself. Though the attribution was controversial, Salander intended to sell Apollo for $100 million.

The Caravaggio, he was certain, would reverse the gallery’s fortunes. “There was always the sense that he was going to make that one big sale that would make him liquid, and he’d pull it off,” says Roland Augustine, director of the Luhring Augustine gallery. The $100 million price tag was not arbitrary, either. A diamond-encrusted skull by the artist Damien Hirst had allegedly sold for the same amount in London. Salander’s Caravaggio would directly challenge Hirst’s backers and set up a showdown between the contemporary and old-master markets.

Yet just as the exhibition began to take shape, Salander’s partnership with Donald Schupak was falling apart. With the lawsuits now appearing regularly in the press, Schupak did everything he could to prevent the show from opening. Starting that summer, Schupak had become a regular presence in the gallery, often with his son Andrew. (Gallery workers nicknamed the pair Dr. Evil and Mini-Me.) According to one former Salander employee, Schupak “made it clear that he needed total control over everything. It wasn’t about the money anymore. He screamed into the phone a few times that he was literally going to get us and have his way.”

A few days before the October opening, Schupak and his lawyer filed a series of motions in New York Supreme Court designed to constrain Salander’s control of the gallery. Schupak installed a private security firm outside the gallery to videotape activity and search those exiting the building. He convinced a judge to padlock the gallery temporarily. Salander fought back, but the confrontation took its toll.

At 3 p.m. on the day of the opening of “Masterpieces of Art,” a rattled Whitfield showed up at the gallery. Tearful, he announced to Salander that he was pulling his paintings. As reporters and invited guests began to collect outside, Whitfield tossed his Caravaggio and other loans onto a truck and fled. At the same time, with the help of private security, Andrew Schupak began rolling out works from Salander’s storage that he claimed belonged to RAI. Salander left the gallery later that afternoon with his wife, Julie, daughter Ivana, and son Jonah, who lunged at a Bloomberg News photographer before walking home. The gallery, suddenly, was finished.

"Masterpieces of Art” never officially opened. Absent Schupak’s legal maneuvers, it might have, although it is doubtful the gallery could have stayed afloat for long. Upon Salander’s exit, the door was locked by court order. The district attorney’s office executed search warrants on the gallery and Salander’s townhouse and launched a criminal investigation, seizing computers, servers, and 90 boxes of documents. In November, Larry and Julie Salander filed for Chapter 11 personal bankruptcy from their second home, upstate, protecting them from the avalanche of suits filed against the gallery over the previous two years.

“The scenarios range from ‘He got in over his head’ to the other extreme, where he perpetrated a massive fraud,” says Robert J. Feinstein, who represents a committee of unsecured creditors against Salander. Roy Lennox has been more direct, accusing Salander in court of operating “an illegal Ponzi scheme.” But Salander denies any fundamental wrongdoing and shows little regret: “Why should that place be closed down by people who were late being paid and didn’t need the money anyway?”

In any case, when the bankruptcy is over and his assets are sold, Salander believes he will be left a rich man. (“The art,” he says, “is worth much more money than I owe.”) But there will still remain one fascinating question: Could Salander’s spectacular gamble ever have paid off?

“The old-master market operates in total ignorance of the twentieth-century market,” says the dealer Richard Feigen, who runs a successful backroom business in older art. “To attract the hedge-fund buyers is very speculative. They hear about Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons since they use their ears and not their eyes. How do you turn them on to the old masters?” And Leon Wieseltier admits that Salander “sometimes seemed like he was out to amass the most unpopular art he could.”

But it is possible to imagine the market changing—especially if the old masters began to take on the glamour of contemporary art. “If press and public could be persuaded,” says Whitfield, “if Martin Scorsese could have taken an interest, if Geffen and Wynn could have noticed, it could well have worked. Maybe there was a little bit of grandiosity in the thinking, but we know this piece of alchemy can be done.”

As for Salander, he’s certain his plan would have worked. “The timing was perfect,” he says. “There are now stories of hedging your bets against this bubble by buying old-master pictures.” This is no doubt true; Jeff Koons himself has been on an old-masters buying spree, spending $6.3 million for a sixteenth-century limewood carving just last month.

The prospect of Koons—Koons!—cornering the old-masters market is perhaps too much for Salander to bear, but it confirms he was onto something. “It’s an incredible thing when you have a vision,” he says as we clear the plates from lunch. “I don’t have the academic background. I don’t have any credentials. I love art as much as it can be loved. I understand what the morality of it is.”


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