Tracy Emin’s “I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear is You”
The patient is showing positive signs and at the same time some not very happy symptoms. The good news first… There is a university in China (not very surprisingly today) that for the first time in history is collecting art not just to beautify the halls, but rather to fulfill the capacity to earn money for the university endowment at the same time. John Quelch, the dean of Ceibs, a business college with multiple venues throughout China, set up the art investment fund, which is overseen by faculty, students and alumni to buy, enjoy, and sell the works when market conditions warrant. When I attempted to register with the FT online to access this article, I was flummoxed, as there are absolutely no career choices referencing anything remotely tied to the creative industries when setting up an account. In the article Quelch stated: “art can be profitable, as well as entertaining and educational.” He is quenching my thirst in the hopes of having art fully acknowledged as an asset class (in a class, no less). Needless to say, I have applied for a teaching position.
On the negative side are recent legal skirmishes involving art and the lowly breed on the in totem pole of integrity-no, not lawyers, but rather art dealers. Gagosian, behaving like a low level Mafioso, stepped for the second time in a puddle of sleaze by getting involved with Charles Cowles, former owner of an eponymous gallery and son of a renowned, wealthy NY art collecting matriarch. First litigation around, Gogo helped Charles, who legend has it was found handcuffed to the radiator of his gallery one morning in nothing more than diapers (this is all but certain beyond urban myth), sell a painting owned by his mother and partially gifted to the Metropolitan Museum. Minor omissions the dealer failed to communicate to the subsequent collector. The judge rescinded the transaction and the money was returned. Not to be deterred doing business with Mr. Cowles, Gagosian struck again, selling another of Charles’ unsuspecting mother’s paintings this time for well less than its market value and then pocketing 50% of the sales price. Normally the commission for deals at those levels (in the millions) is 3%; I think I should raise my rates. The suit by Mrs. Cowles is now pending-what she does to discipline her son is anyone’s guess but he’ll probably enjoy it too much.
Then there is Pierre Lagrange a founder of GLG fund who recently left his wife for fashion designer Roubi L’Roubi, (a guy) and then sold off his house for nine figures to help pay for Britain’s biggest divorce settlement. That’s why I don’t read fiction; you just can’t make stuff like that up. Pierre should have given his ex the Jackson Pollack painting which turned out to be a costly $17m fake, sold by Knoedler, the venerable white shoe, 165-year-old prestigious NY gallery. And when Mr. Lagrange filed a suit against Knoedler, they did what any culpable establishment faced with a multi-million dollar suit would do: they padlocked the doors and ran for the hills. The subsequent FBI investigation is currently pending.
At the recent iteration of the art fair Basel Miami (as Henny Youngman would say, take Miami-please!) were your potpourri of celebs including Michael Douglas, Cathrine Zeta Jones, Naomi Campbell, Adrian Brody (broody Brody, even) and Sean Penn. Sean Penn you say? Was he at the A+ parties en route to a Florida conference on the suspected employment of underage, illegal immigrants fabricating Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst works? Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Sean Combs and/or whatever else he is presently also known as, bought Tracey Emin’s neon entitled I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear is You (2011), for approximately £45,000. More like P. listens to his art consultant and all he hears is the clinking of coins. And then there was A Rod, the quarter-of-a-billion dollar baseball player, a another MCE (Miami Cultural Elite), who had some Nate Lowmans, former boyfriend of one or the other of the Olsen twins, cleverly installed behind his indoor batting cage. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better place to hang my Lomans and Emins.
More on art business gone wild-I had a transaction scuppered by a third party dealer that sold me a painting indirectly through another contact when he got wind I was immediately reselling the work. He spoke to my client and said the art was his and that I had no right to sell, having the intended effect that my collector fled. When I found out someone sabotaged my deal even though I had had no contact or relationship with that person, there was no accounting for the invectives, threats and insults I hurled in an email. Even by my standards. Then I found out the chap that interfered with my sale had a rather large collection of paintings by the artist subject to our dispute so I did what any self-respecting dealer would do in such circumstances: I profusely apologized, bought him lunch and then a painting from his inventory. On another note, I recently Introduced a hedge funder to the notion of buying some works that might have been for sale from a prized collection, only for the little asshole to go behind my back directly to the collector, bad mouth me in the process, and then try and purchase the very works I offered to sell him. Welcome to my life.
The art world is still, even at these elevated levels, so small and provincial in a weird, claustrophobic and incestuous way, that you get stabbed in the front and then have a meal with your assailant, as you can’t afford to alienate your enemies. But I have to say I have never been more idealistically positive, ok, cynically idealistic, about art and the art market than at any time in the past 25 years-in spite of the above. The art world is at (many) times a big, bad, ugly and unregulated cesspool; but, so are some of the best things in life, and, it’s also a constant learning experience and a visual and visceral aesthetic cornucopia. It’s also more multi-culti, in a good sense if that’s possible, and board-based, than at any time in history and only seems to be expanding from here, though of course not always to the best affects. But imperfections warts and all I can’t think of a better more fun way to spend time, as simple as that; or make the returns still attainable in art.