Buyer of $1.4 Million Emily Mae Smith Unmasked, Jeffrey Epstein’s Brother Spotted Upstate, & More Art-World Gossip
What artist got a visit from LeBron James? What's the latest Chelsea gallery to open an Aspen outpost? Read on for answers.
Every week, Artnet News Pro brings you Wet Paint, a gossip column of original scoops reported and written by Nate Freeman. If you have a tip, email Nate at [email protected].
MYSTERY BUYER OF BONKERS-PRICE PAINTING REVEALED
After a year in which The Rich got way, way richer, and even the merely lowercase-r rich built up a nest egg after spending a vacation-less year at the country house, there is a ton of money sloshing around. Nowhere more so than in Asia: perhaps even more than in New York or London, sales in Hong Kong have become profligate spending orgies. As a certain mega-gallery owner recently told a friend of the column: “The sales in Asia, it’s just bubble land. They’re spending money on anything.”
Which is perhaps how a work by the Brooklyn-based figurative painter Emily Mae Smith could sell at the Phillips–Poly evening sale earlier this week in Hong Kong for $1.6 million, even though the auction house’s rosiest estimates had it set for a high of just $76,000.
The consignor bought the work from the nascent Lower East Side gallerist Laurel Gitlen’s booth at NADA Miami Beach in 2014 for $6,375, making the auction price a casual 25,000 percent return on investment. And Wet Paint can reveal that the buyer is an extremely private deep-pocketed Shanghai-based collector who’s aggressively building a collection fit for a private museum, regardless of the cost.
The collector’s name is YiXiao Ding, and he goes by Xiao. He’s based in Shanghai, started collecting about two years ago, and chronicles his purchases on his semi-anonymous Instagram account: there are bushels of KAWS, Murakami, as well as some pricy-looking Yoshitomo Nara paintings.
But nothing tugged at Xiao’s heartstrings (and bank account) like Smith’s Broom Life (2014), a painting typical of the artist’s practice—it’s a broom wearing sunglasses drinking a cocktail on top of a melting ice cube. Xiao wanted the piece so badly that, a day before the sale, he posted a now-deleted Instagram of Broom Life with the caption: “Plz don’t fight with me tmr for this EMS. We are in LOVE,” followed by three crying-laughing-squinting emojis.
Apparently someone did fight him for it, pushing the price into the stratosphere, but he’s not exactly suffering. We spoke to a dozen sources who have sold work to Xiao or worked with him in some capacity—dealers, advisors, and artists in New York, Los Angeles, and London—and what emerged was a portrait of a young guy with buckets of family money who buys with ease, and can push auction prices way higher than other collectors are comfortable paying. And not everything he buys is intended to end up in the collection—sources said he has also been known to resell works not too long after acquiring them.
Xiao responded to the rumors in an Instagram post, claiming he only wants to sell his KAWS and Murakami collectible toys in order to make room for more artworks, adding that he was going to sell some prints and toys through Christie’s to benefit COVID relief.
It’s unclear when the world will get to see the Emily Mae Smith work that commanded an astounding price tag. When asked for comment via Instagram DM, Xiao declined to say anything further about his purchase. Phillips said it does not comment on clients.
EPSTEIN BROTHER’S UPSTATE HIDEOUT
Mark Epstein was controversial before his brother Jeffrey was indicted on sex abuse charges and then died in prison. In 2013, while Mark was the chairman of the beloved Cooper Union art school, he oversaw the end of the institution’s century-long policy of offering free tuition to all students. The response from the Cooper community was vicious. Accused of financial mismanagement during a 2011 town hall meeting with alumni—Epstein stewarded the completion of the $166 million monstrosity that is 41 Cooper Square—Epstein attacked the alumni, saying 80 percent of them never donated. The crowd hissed. The meeting spurred the creation of the Free Cooper Union movement, which became so powerful, the school eventually reversed its decision, and now says it is on track to reimplement free tuition by 2029.
Epstein resigned from the Cooper board in 2015, but re-entered the spotlight in 2019, when he offered his townhouse in West Palm Beach as collateral for his brother’s bail. Their closeness was gradually revealed—they at one point shared employees, and the building that Mark owned on 66th Street was allegedly used to house Jeffrey’s victims, according to sworn testimony. They grew up together in Seagate, Brooklyn, went to Cooper Union together, and stayed close—eyewitnesses told the Daily Beast that when there was an open house at the 66th Street Building, Jeffrey was there.
Since then he’s stayed quiet, apart from texting a reporter for a local West Palm Beach news station maintaining that there should be a Department of Justice investigation into whether Jeffrey Epstein really died by suicide. But now, Mark Epstein’s whereabouts have been solved. A source tells Wet Paint that he’s been hiding out in the Hudson River city of Newburgh, New York.
As it happens, there are a lot of artists in Newburgh—the abandoned industrial buildings are ripe for reimagining into studios. And one artist who happened to be a Cooper Union grad and former Free Cooper Union activist spotted the school’s ex-chairman strolling through downtown Newburgh recently, recognizing him immediately, the source said.
As it happens, the 2019 Daily Beast story indicated that Mark owned rental properties in Newburgh. A quick property search against the address of the house that was offered as collateral shows that he has three properties there, all within the same block. No word on whether he plans to participate in the city’s burgeoning arts scene, but if it’s full of Cooper Union students, maybe he should sit that one out.
A call to a phone number listed for Mark Epstein went unanswered. Cooper Union did not respond to a request for comment.
SALTZ STAMP OF APPROVAL
Jerry Saltz is up to his old Instagram tricks again. What tricks, you ask? Let’s dive into the deep end of the Jerry pool.
Last week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic went by Black Wall Street Gallery, the SoHo space that was defaced on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre when its exterior was painted over by vandals. Saltz posted a picture from his visit of work by Chiamonwu Joy, who is featured in the gallery’s current group show. Which is great, the work looks fantastic.
But Saltz also decided to tag a few bigger, more established galleries in the post. It’s not a stretch to read the move as a gesture saying, essentially: Come see this great artist! And maybe, um, poach her from this smaller gallery! Lo and behold, sources tell Wet Paint (and the artist confirmed) that one of those galleries, Jack Shainman, did reach out to Joy about a future show. And that’s showbiz, folks!
Shainman did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week’s clue was indeed Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze/Ale Cans (1960) in the collection of the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, on loan to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. But it was not, as many people thought, sold to Ludwig by Leo Castelli. The man about whom Rauschenberg said, “That son-of-a-bitch, give him two beer cans and he could sell them,” sold it initially to Robert Scull, who famously auctioned it off with a chunk of his collection at Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet in 1973. So who sold it to Ludwig? That would be Rudolf Zwirner, who initially saw the work at Galerie Rive Droite in Paris—he wrote in his wonderful memoir Give Me the Now that it completely reoriented the way he saw the readymade. Just incredible stuff. (Incidentally, a source said that Johns still has the only other edition of Painted Bronze/Ale Cans, and it’s on view at his estate in Sharon, Connecticut.)
Here are the winners, and it’s just two: Brussels-based curator Louis-Philippe Van Eeckhoutte and Cyprien David, exhibition coordinator at Gagosian Zurich. Congrats to you both!
OK, here’s this week’s. Name this artwork, and its owner!
Send guesses to [email protected]. Glory awaits the winners.
Chelsea stalwart Mitchell-Innes & Nash is opening a seasonal space in Aspen on E. Hyman Street right around the corner from the Aspen Art Museum—it opens June 18, and joins fellow Aspen interlopers such as Almine Rech, Galeria Mascota, Honor Fraser, Marianne Boesky, White Cube, Lehmann Maupin, and longtime local Baldwin Gallery, time to hit the dispensary and gallery-hop … Brice Marden had partial hip surgery but will be back painting in a matter of weeks … There’s also an art fair Aspen now, why the hell not, it’s called Intersect, Galerie Gmurzynska and Perrotin are doing it, carry on … Vito Schnabel is opening a Los Angeles project space in the fall to continue his programming out west, and he’s found a gem of a space inside what was once the oldest post office in Santa Monica …
*** Mark Leckey in ads as the new face of Bottega Veneta *** A smattering of artists and dealers at the afterparty for Violet Dennison’s new show at Theta held at—where else?—Fanelli’s *** Lonti Ebers luring the blue-chippest of the art-world crew, including David Byrne, David Zwirner, and Rashid Johnson to a still-gritty block in an industrial stretch of Bushwick—or, as the PR rep would prefer us to say, “East Williamsburg”—where her new art space Amant has just opened *** Jack Donoghue of the band Salem spinning Lil Keed in East River Park until the wee hours to celebrate the birthday of artist Tommy Malekoff ***
*** Everyone’s favorite person on the internet Caroline Calloway sitting outside of Paul’s Casablanca Saturday, painting portraits of the revelers who manage to get past the doorman *** LeBron James doing a studio visit with Spencer Lewis and his dealer Vito Schnabel, bringing along his manager Maverick Carter and chief of staff Randy Mims—little is known about the art collection of King James, though he did once hang out with Brice Marden and Larry Gagosian in Capri ***
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