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She Can't Be Bought


The Collector: Jean-Pierre Lehmann at home in front of a Lisa Yuskavage painting.  

Boone’s system finally came undone with the collapse of the art market in 1990. A Fischl she had sold for $1.4 million at the peak of the eighties was resold in the early nineties for $167,500. (Fischl’s market has since rebounded; he’s now represented by Larry Gagosian.) “Waiting lists disappeared during the early nineties, when the market was soft,” says Lorinda Ash, an art consultant. “They’re back with a vengeance.”

Today, demand far exceeds supply for such works as the slyly satirical paintings of John Currin; Lisa Yuskavage’s pictures of enormous-breasted femmes fatales; Kai Althoff’s multimedia evocations of the mysterious and macabre; the strangely beautiful retro-futuristic paintings of Neo Rauch; and Luc Tuymans’s paintings of child abuse, Nazism, guilt, and scrofulous pigeons.

“Lisa is the ultimate of wait lists, because she’s not at all prolific,” explains her New York dealer, Marianne Boesky. “She makes five big paintings every two years, maybe.” (Jean-Pierre Lehmann, as it happens, has a large number of works by Yuskavage.)

Over at Gladstone’s gallery on West 24th Street, Sarah Lucas’s God Is Dad, a sculpture composed of a pair of nylon tights, a wire hanger, and a lightbulb, may not be everyone’s idea of fine art. But it’s priced at £65,000 (in deference to the artist’s London bank account). And “I have a long wait list because it’s Sarah’s first New York exhibition in eight years,” Gladstone says. She declines to say how long. “It’s not a bakery. She’s popular, let’s just say that.”

At the January 22 Cecily Brown opening at Gagosian’s stadium-size gallery, there was a lot of conflicting chatter about the list for the British abstract artist’s paintings, priced between $70,000 and $130,000. “I’ve heard there are 200 on Cecily’s list,” an art adviser said in shock. “I’ve been having a running joke with my husband,” a dealer replied. “Last week we heard that there was a list of 137 for Cecily, and he said, ‘Today I met Mr. 132.’ It’s absurd. There’s no way to validate those numbers.”

Most dealers will discuss which artists have waiting lists, but usually not who’s on them, or even how many people are in line. Consequently, many in the art world dismiss the lists as so much hype; they certainly exist, but they’re grossly inflated. Nonetheless, this is a market in which collectors are even queuing up for works by kids who are still in art school—like Alison Fox, a painter in Hunter’s grad program whose current one-woman show at the East Village’s ATM gallery sold out before opening night, according to gallery owner Bill Brady. He’s quick to add that the British collector Charles Saatchi and the Guggenheim were among early buyers for the paintings (priced at $1,400 to $5,000), and that Fox already has a twenty-person waiting list for new work. “My list isn’t full of speculators,” he insists.

“I was flabbergasted,” Lehmann told the court. “I’d asked for a year and a half for a work by Julie Mehretu. and I saw that people I’d never heard of owned them.”

Saatchi is among those collectors who can jump to the top of a list, no matter who the artist is. Joining him there is anyone with a well-regarded private (but open to the public) museum, like Eli Broad in California, or the Rubell family, whose recently expanded space is in a former drug-seizure warehouse in Miami, or Marieluise Hessel, who is building an impressive contemporary collection for Bard College. They’re followed by those who’ve built private collections, like Dakis Joannou in Athens, who owns “probably more Jeff Koons than anyone else in the world,” says art consultant Mark Fletcher. Si Newhouse, Michael Ovitz, Peter Norton, and Agnes Gund are similarly privileged buyers. “If a collector with a fine reputation—say, Si Newhouse—is interested,” says Boesky, “then I’ll have to prioritize that client over a wonderful person who might have been waiting longer. And that causes tremendous angst.”

What that means is that an ordinary rich person can get left in the lurch. The system is openly discriminatory, but not without its logic. In gallery parlance, a work of art is not so much sold as “placed” in a museum or collection that is likely to enhance the career of the artist. For dealers, it’s a way of controlling what happens to art after they’ve parted with it—hence, of manipulating its value. Dealers often rejoice, and collectors despair, that the art world is the last big unregulated business in America. Prices can be altered by steering works to the right people in the right places. And what dealers really don’t want to see is a work get flipped at auction.

Yet it’s precisely those auctions that have caused such a spike in the value of contemporary art. The frenzy’s being fueled by the discrepancy between the primary market price for works of art sold in galleries and the dizzying prices they’re likely to reach in the secondary market, particularly at auction. Take Kai Althoff, whose paintings are sold by Anton Kern, his New York dealer, for $10,000. “They’re literally worth ten times that on the secondary market,” a European dealer observes.

So why aren’t dealers charging more themselves? “If we started jumping our prices to match the auction market, we’d be faced with a limited group of collectors who’d be willing to buy,” says Boesky. “You never want to [then have to] lower your prices. So it’s better to have work that’s in consistent demand.” Dealers say they like to raise prices according to “fundamentals”—for instance, if an artist has a museum show. Still, Boesky admits, auction prices do play a role in setting dealer prices. When Takashi Murakami paintings that Boesky sold for $60,000 started fetching $600,000 at auction, she conferred with his other galleries around the world and agreed to raise prices to $250,000.

Galleries often make clients promise not to resell work at auction, arguing that it can put an artist’s career (and the gallery’s investment in that career) at risk if the piece fails to sell. Conversely, if it sells for too much, other collectors may be inspired to dump work by the same artist at auction, with similarly unpredictable results. Dealers prefer that owners come back to them with works to resell, privately.

“I remember when we bought an [Andreas] Gursky from Matthew Marks, and they were so anxious that the piece would end up at auction,” says Abigail Asher, a partner in leading art advisory Guggenheim Asher, referring to the German photographer. “We assured them this was one of our best clients, and they would never do that in a million years.”

“The beauty of the art world is that it’s the last handshake business,” says dealer David Zwirner. “You have to trust the other guy.” Such trust, though, can be misplaced. Two years ago, when a collector purchased a Murakami mushroom sculpture from Boesky, the dealer warned her it would take time for the piece to be fabricated in France. It wasn’t long, however, before the collector began calling the gallery every week, yelling, “Where’s my mushroom?”

“She tortured me for two years,” Boesky says. But when the piece was finally shipped to New York, Boesky discovered that the collector had arranged for it to be sent directly to Christie’s without even an overnight stay in her apartment. “It was a gross thing to do,” she says. “I certainly won’t work with her again.”

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