Kenny Schachter On How Art Dealing Has Become Joyless, Boring, and Mean-Spirited

The art world resembles a playground.

Kenny Schachter as the art court jester. Image: via Kenny Schachter.

I began writing diaristic pieces for artnet.com more than 20 years ago, so it’s only fitting that I return to roost in 2015, where it all began. Only now the chronicle is beginning to resemble an over melodramatic Icelandic saga. Last week I covered the fun fair that was the New York auctions, the art world equivalent of The Box chain of upscale porn emporiums, but after spinning a cautionary tale of how the market can bite even in wildly up times (as it did me), I left out a lot of juice having been so chastened. (See $179 Million Picasso Sets Stratospheric Record at Christie’s $705.9 Million Sale.) Well, I feel better now, so here it is.

In order to fund my writing, teaching and amateur art making habits, I am part of a peculiar breed of dealer-to-dealer dealers and we are an idiosyncratic bunch at that. What that actually entails is the buying and selling of art to other like-minded traders thereby avoiding the time-consuming and hapless job of selling to end users, i.e., collectors—whatever that term has come to signify. I relate the capriciousness of some to a punter who walks into a supermarket, bargains down the price of a quart of milk, doesn’t pay for eight months then proceeds to return it because it went rancid. Or the market dropped or the couch changed. That should make me some more friends.

Back to my colorful cohorts in the art trade: there is the dandy (young) secondary market Turk who fancies himself the “Jeff Koons” of dealers who is such an avid gambler he knocked my socks off recently when I had to pay the bill for a very expensive dinner after he correctly guessed the designer of a pair I had stolen from my kids. Then there is the statuesque stallion posing mega deals prone to negotiating in a dressing gown on FaceTime, I guess in an effort to get a leg up on the competition.

The backstabbing and mean-spirited natter, usually intended to throw a wrench into another’s deal, can resemble the cruelest of schoolyard brawls. There was one in-and-outer (professional art flipper) who, in order to get his hands on a Christian Rosa when that necessitated finesse (which it doesn’t any longer), swore on his unborn child that it was for keeps. (See Catch Up With Rising Star Christian Rosa and Is Stefan Simchowitz a Blessing or a Nightmare?) Surprise, surprise, the work was pawned off in the next Phillips day sale, making a hefty profit for the then newborn who became the world’s youngest speculator in the process.

It didn’t end as well for the hapless dealer who sold the work, which so infuriated the artist when the newly painted painting landed in auction, that he had to pay Rosa a hefty penalty related to the high price the work fetched at auction to save face. Even more ludicrous was the father of the baby-dealer who himself got pissed off at yet another dealer who did the same thing with a Nate Lowman painting, landing him in hot water with Massimo de Carlo. Meow.

Are you with me? I’m getting confused myself. Welcome to the transmogrified art world where such antics have become the norm.

If cocaine or caviar cost $5.99 an ounce, I doubt people would clamor in quite the way they did and still seem to (in the UK anyway). The same might be said for Jonas Wood, whose paintings have leapfrogged to more than $600K in about six minutes. As the creed of greed more and more consumes the art market one dealer was thwarted when a collector, aka a spec-u-lector, refused to honor an invoice that had been agreed and paid for due to the marked market uptick which necessitated a threatening lawyer to free up the painting. I ran away from big business to art, which became bigger business still.

And it seemed to go down from there. “Jeff Koons” (the dealer), recommended a “friend,” a word with a wholly other connotation when utilized in the context of art, for his old job at a mega-gallery chain, only to be badmouthed by the new recruit when he referred to himself as the honest version of the very person that had just helped land him the job. Art dealer as cat and cat-scratching post.

I am certainly not claiming my hands are clean by any stretch, as I do on occasion short term buying and selling when the market permits, which albeit does not seem to occur as often as people think (to the dismay of my family). When one such instance did present itself to early exit on a painting at a substantial profit (Hey, I have four monsters to provide for), I had to pull the work from auction due to the incessant amount of likes I received from my new following-friend on Facebook. A good prophylactic method artists may want to consider in the future is barraging dealers/collectors with social media adulation to guilt them into hanging on.

Gallery owners might be a more desperate lot as seemed to be the case when I curated a group show at TBD gallery, on 97 Allen Street, up through June 14, with the likes of Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Kathrine Bernhardt, Rachel Harrison, Mary Heilmann, and others. When we requested a book on one of the artists from her Chelsea gallery they sent a catalogue and invoice for $50.00, which failed to take note of the sticker on the binding from the Strand bookstore for $2.50. That’s a markup to make a baby flipper blush.

Besides choking on the exhaust from the misfire of a recent attempt to auction a work with a low estimate, another painting proffered by the same artist in the same sale was bought in. The auction house led me to believe there were several active phone lines lined up on the paintings, which stopped me from pulling out altogether on one before the sale, a common practice if there is no interest manifest before things get underway. But I didn’t. Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have.

The audacity came afterwards when the auction house tried to strong-arm me into accepting a low number for the work they had only just failed to sell. I found out the scoop from the back office that they intended to enforce a clause permitting them to have the right to force a post-sale sale. Sellers still hold sway, so let them try.

I was on a debate last week at the scientifically oriented Royal Institution in Mayfair, London, on the subject of conservation and its impact on the value of art. After growing up in Long Island, it wasn’t until moving to London 11 years ago that I carved a niche as an avid debater. The subject of counterfeit art came up, and, suited and booted along with a distinguished panel of professors and the head of Hiscox, the UK’s leading art insurer and sponsor of the evening, I rubbed my chin and equated fake art with a fake orgasm: as long as you are unaware, you are the happiest man, that is, until you find out. Thankfully, they shared the humor.

And it’s the same with a fake Van Gogh—great when you are showing off to your friends at a cocktail party unless you discover it’s not all you thought it was—but funny how perceptions of value color our notions of worth. Like my Israel Lund painting; does it look any different now that it has stumbled from a lofty value of $150K to nearly $15K in about as much time as the debate lasted?

Here a few humorous asides, to my thinking anyway:

At NADA fair in New York a few weeks ago I bought a tiny canvas by Zach Reini at Bill Brady consisting of a marijuana leaf cut out of a canvas a la Fontana. Weed being the subject of the work and perhaps responsible also for the fact he forgot to invoice me for it. And I forgot to ask. Then there is the dealing friend (yes another and yes, you can like them) with a name one letter away from my banker who receives on a regular basis emails from me of the most personal nature about my incomings and outgoings, and what they are for. He got the last one the morning of his birthday so I had to bluff that the transfer for the Rudolf Stingel was for his gift. Uh oh.

Colin Gleadell, a(nother) writer on art and finance for artnet News (see In Its Third Edition ART15 London Is Still Finding Its Feet and Who Says the Lower End of the Art Market Is Suffering) and the Telegraph, whom I absolutely adore, related that his last insightful piece on the surfeit of auction house and 3rd party guarantees was essentially about sums, which perfectly summed it all up for me. Researching an article, I located a finance book entitled: Buy Low, Sell High, Collect Early and Pay Late, which might just be the perfect mantra for art world success. But when all is said and done, I made the revelation to only get involved with stuff I like, like at the beginning, which is not as easy at it appears at first blush and an occupational hazard not to. Don’t forget the market often prizes ears more than eyes as the go-to organ of choice. Such a tack is a costly, stupid waste of time that could come round and snap like a wet towel.

Alas, we are in a new (art) world order where even Krispy Kreme is marketing donuts in limited editions—call it trickle down art-o-nomics. After all the chaos and market mayhem I’m still excited and optimistic though forging ahead with trepidation. Art is a slow burning organic process for the long term, for art lovers. And a maxim for us all: Only someone who sells at a loss loses. Sellers beware.

Image: via Kenny Schachter.

Image: via Kenny Schachter.


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