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The Art and the Deal

Aby Rosen and his wife, Samantha Boardman, at the Guggenheim Museum International Gala last November.  

Months later came the extravagant bash under a tent at the Seagram Building with 40 Russian violinists, industrial-size drums of Petrossian caviar, and Kobe burgers for all.

Friend Sante D’Orazio insists there’s no pretense. “He couldn’t care less if you have a bigger yacht. All he knows is he’s got a yacht. He’s fun.” He lives life to its fullest, says everyone who knows him. He enjoys himself more than most. “I remember him telling me one time that pot is the upper-class drug,” says one person who knows him. “To put a status on pot smoking? That’s the ultimate Aby.”

To others, he’s obnoxious, he’s brusque, always calculating whether someone he meets can be useful. “A man of incredibly annoying and particular opinions, very self-assured, aggressive, and broaching no doubts whatsoever about anything,” says one business acquaintance. “A show-off,” says another longtime associate. “He’ll always tell you the great price he got on something. His stuff is always better—and he paid less for it.”

The houses are well-appointed warehouses for cool stuff and cool guests; in Manhattan, cigarettes for the taking, three bars, the finest forties French furniture, Warhol’s “piss paintings” over the marital bed. (Rosen was late to the early, more valuable Warhols but has been reasonably early to the late, up-and-coming Warhols.)

In the library are pillows upholstered in skunk and croc, geodes on the shelf, a Pliosaurus skeleton swooping through the air—memories of the library at M.K. “The kids’ rooms are ridiculous,” says someone who’s been, “like, Basquiats on the wall next to a Sopranos pinball machine.” The boys—Gaby, 13, and Charlie, 11—from his previous marriage sleep over twice a week, “and he has dinner with them. He’s not like, ‘I’m off with Jeff Koons tonight,’ ” says a family friend.

In Southampton, neighbors Calvin Klein and Schrager stop through his converted white carriage house in the dunes, with a half-pipe on the side for skateboarding and cars with keys for the use of houseguests. More recently, Rosen bought a louvered St. Barts villa he likes to say is “the biggest house on the island” for reportedly $36 million, after the wife of French Connection CEO Stephen Marks split with his wife and a rare fabulous house was up for grabs. “On vacation he does it up,” says D’Orazio. “Champagne for everyone because life’s a bitch and then you die.”

Whenever Rosen is interested in something, says Koons, summarizing his friend’s Weltanschauung, “he’s going to absorb it.”

It was after seven here at the Sotheby’s fall contemporary-art evening auction, and Rosen had just lost a stainless-steel Jeff Koons caboose to some bidder on the phone more willing to part with $1.4 million than he. On one side, he had his wife, Samantha. On the other sat his son Charlie, lately accompanying him to the auctions and occasionally bidding, which had some onlookers getting as agitated as they did when Charlie got written up in The Wall Street Journal as having his own art collection. Aby was wearing one of those wattle-minimizing paper-airplane- collar oxford shirts, with the buttons undone down his clavicle. Little Charlie had roughly the same look going on.

A number of the volume buyers—the Warhol hoarders—were in attendance: dealer Larry Gagosian, paper magnate Peter Brant, and Jose Mugrabi, the Israel-born Colombian textile merchant. With all these friends collecting the same thing—the Princes, the Basquiats, the Warhols, the Koonses—there are whispers of collusion among this group the art world has nicknamed “the Cartel.” The idea is that you buy 20 or 30 artworks by, say, Richard Prince, put two or three of them up at auction, and you and your pals bid them up. At every contemporary-art auction now, there’s a bump and the prices reset.

Most recently, Rosen has taken a big position in George Condo, an eighties artist who never made it as big as Salle or Schnabel but who’s suddenly got the heat behind him.

“Some of those guys own as many as 100 pieces of Condo,” says Sante D’Orazio. Not incidentally, this is classic commodities trading, which isn’t surprising given their respective backgrounds. Rosen once cornered the market for new apartments on the Upper East Side. Koons used to support himself as a commodities broker. Peter Brant has spent his career selling paper. And of course, Gagosian himself, the best pusher in town, son of a stockbroker, who’s known to cold-call moguls and say, “My name is Larry Gagosian, and I’d like to sell you some art.”

“There are these people who have this idealistic sense that the art market is not a market because it’s art!” says Adam Lindemann, another volume buyer, patiently explaining that “there is no Aby Rosen or Larry Gagosian who can really control the scope and international nature of the market.” At Sotheby’s this very evening, Lindemann was getting rid of a magenta Hanging Heart that he got from Koons’s dealer, Gagosian, and had reportedly never even bothered to uncrate. Its sale, for $23.5 million, set a record for the highest price ever paid at auction for the artist. (Its buyer? Larry Gagosian!)