Kenny Schachter Pays a Mind-Bending Visit to Beeple’s New High-Tech Art Compound (Getting in Plenty of Trouble Along the Way)
Our columnist found a lot more than he bargained for at the NFT artist's Charleston, South Carolina, headquarters.
Imagine the scene in the 1986 film Caravaggio, the historical drama directed by the brilliant artist Derek Jarman, where the titular artist gets into a little lover’s spat and stabs his partner before they are later seen to embrace. A better parable for the art world—or, more accurately, the world at large, including NFTism and politics—doesn’t exist. You get stabbed in the front (not the back) and then you have dinner with your assailant as you can’t afford to alienate someone you can potentially do a deal with. What brings this to mind now?
Andrew Schwartzberg is a relatively new collector who, along with his wife, Jamie, was already featured in Artnews’s list of the top 200 collectors in 2022. He had been successful for some time before a recent liquidity event catapulted his wealth to another level. Funnily enough (that’s sarcasm), he made his dough off low-to-moderate-income affordable housing, cutting his teeth before that at the hedge fund of buyer/seller powerhouse Steve Cohen. Schwartzberg now shares more with Cohen than just the cutthroat, deal-savvy ability to amass great wealth—they also work with the same art advisor, Sandy Heller, featured in last month’s Financial Times article “The Who’s Who of Art Advisors.”
This was a big step up for Schwartzberg, who previously worked with a passel of art consultants including Advisor #1 (and all spoke on condition of on anonymity), who helped Schwartzberg nurture the art bug and form the core of the collection, building a personal relationship along the way that entailed frequent phone calls. Now, having cut ties with those other advisors, he has shifted exclusively to the Heller Group, which has offices located in New York and Paris and advises the likes of Dmitry Rybolovlev. (As an aside: a few years ago, at a small lunch with some well-heeled collectors in Basel, Heller pulled me aside and admonished, in a tone worthy of The Godfather, “We could be friends, but don’t write about my clients. Ever again.”)
After signing with Heller, Schwartzberg reneged on a primary-market Jonas Wood purchase he had landed with the help of Advisor #2, who works as a consultant to many a Hollywood celebrity, and voided a bunch of works previously put on hold at a multitude of galleries. Handwringing consternation has now spread throughout the advisor ranks like a contagion. When I emailed Heller to inquire about the situation, he had his henchwoman Alison Rubler—I’m kidding, she’s a brilliant advisor in her own right and noted collector herself—get in touch, who assured me it was only one cancellation and that such things are a norm in the industry. Hmm, smells like we are in the midst of an advisor war.
Moving along, I’d like to extend an apology to Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art and director Alex Gartenfeld for mockingly referring to the museum as the Institute of Contemporary Advising; after some further digging I realized that I should have given the museum more credit—they are actually more akin to a fully fledged dealership than a mere advisor. I am in possession of correspondence between Gartenfeld and a spec-u-lector wherein Gartenfeld attempts to broker the sale of a pair of Lucy Bulls and a Flora Yukhnovich with a finesse that would endear him to Larry G. Those Bulls ended up at Phillips’s New Now sale on March 8th in New York, selling for $40,640 and $45,720 on $15,000-to-$20,000 estimates, making one wonder if Gartenfeld shared in any of the upside. Oh, and the ICA Miami was also the beneficiary of gifts from Jamie and Andrew Schwartzberg. My analogy of the art world as a knot of worms under a rock rings forever true.
More on the Phillips New Now Sale (and that auction house is the keystone cops of the art world): I can reveal that the seller of a handful of lots by artists like Anna Park, Joe Bradley, Nate Lowman, Tanya Merrill, and more—identified in the catalogue as PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED COLLECTION—was none other than art-dealing superstar Larry Gagosian. Why at Phillips is anyone’s guess—and the catalogue designation makes him sound more like a British dandy than the apex predator he is. With some trepidation (he’s a screamer, trust me), I sent Larry G. an email on the topic but have yet to receive a response—or phone call, thank god. By the way, as a coda to my colleague Annie Armstrong’s last Wet Paint column, I’ll chime in that artist Calvin Marcus left David Kordansky for the shores of Larry-land.
Back to Phillips, the house also sold a monumental Cy Twombly “Bacchus” in November for $41,640,000 on an estimate of $35 million to $45 million, and an unimpeachable source informed me that the painting was owned by Rybolovlev and purchased by a Middle Eastern buyer—both of whom happened to share the same advisor. (My attempts to reach that advisor seem to have resulted in my email being blocked, so let’s file this under word on the street.)
Further up the auction-house food chain, I was intrigued to see that Christie’s is now selling Paul Allen’s David Hockney painting The Gate (purchased for $7 million in 2016) as part of that late collector’s final auction without mentioning the work’s full provenance—which is perhaps not surprising, since it was previously owned by the disgraced dealer Inigo Philbrick. I didn’t have to look further than my inbox to confirm that Philbrick had attempted to sell the very painting to me for $6 million back in the day. Postscript: I’m sure Phillips is mighty grateful to the Biden administration for covering their exposed funds at Signature Bank.
In other news, I was on hand in Charleston, South Carolina last weekend for the launch of what I’ll calll Beepleville, the 50,000-square-foot three-ring circus built by the famed NFT artist. The expansive complex is broken into components including a showroom/salesfloor for Beeple’s works (if you want in, best to consult your investment banker); an exhibition space that resembles a throbbing Ibizan monster club surrounded by gargantuan video screens, speakers, and black leather couches; and a workspace said to resemble a generic corporate office park. All in all, it’s nothing short of a new model for how digital-age artists can present their own works—and I want one!
So what was on display? There were a handful of devices similar to Human One, the rotating video box that Zürich crypto zealot Ryan Zurrer (on hand for the festivities with his curator Lukas Amacher) bought for $29 million at Christie’s, which so happened to sponsor the event. LGDR will be exhibiting a $9 million work from the series at Art Basel Hong Kong, which would explain Brett Gorvy’s attendance at the private dinner before the opening (at Beeple’s table). There was also a retrospective of Beeple’s works over the decades that featured a mile-long wall of the famed Everydays—the $69 million sensation that set the NFT market ablaze—along with videos, digital prints, sculptures, a computer work station, and paintings in small, medium, and ginormous. (The medium sized, about 40 inches wide, were priced at $250,000.)
Also on hand were Warhol, Picasso, Musk, Zuckerberg, and Kim Jong-un impersonators with expensive prosthetic masks that reminded me of the attention-starved fair-goers who dress up in a vain attempt to garner recognition. This was a bit too lame of a party trick.
As for those paintings, they were fabricated at the direction of artist Haley Mellin, herself appointed by Loïc Gouzer, the spear-fishing environmentalist and former mercenary Christie’s auction exec. They should have called me—I would have sourced the paintings at the Chinese factory that churns out my canvases for a fraction of the cost undoubtedly charged by the army of assistants employed by team Beeple, some of whom have worked for Jeff Koons and Rudolf Stingel. The 15 paintings that were available were all sold or reserved ahead of the opening by the Christie’s private-treaty team on hand. Come to think of it, the entire proceedings were like a Christie’s corporate retreat/trade show/product launch.
I must admit, even I was taken aback by the heavyweight art-worlders I was able to recognize there: Tico Mugrabi, Pamela Joyner (MoMA board member and trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago and SF MOMA, attending with her husband, Alfred J. Giuffrida), and, most unexpected of all, 84-year-old Bill Aquavella and his wife, Donna (plus a scion or two). When I asked titan Bill if he was going to exhibit Mr. Beeple, he responded without missing a beat: “Sure! He’s a very creative guy but not sure my gallery could accommodate all… this.” There were nearly as many private planes in the local airport as at any given Basel fair, including ones ferrying the Aquavella family, NFT maven Kevin Rose (who told me he had $30 million frozen and then freed up at Silicon Valley Bank), and Adam Lindemann.
Speaking of Lindemann, he was there fresh off his version of my “Hoarder sales,” entitled Adam, that grossed $31.5 million at Christie’s on a presale estimate of $22 million to $34 million. Though I was too lazy to tally up the totals, as most pieces were bought publicly at auction, I was told the net was a loss or not much above break even. God knows my sales fare no better (I shudder at the thought of tallying my results year after year). When a guest asked Adam how he felt about the overall experience, he exclaimed: “I’m world famous now!” There you have it.
Meanwhile, mega-collector David Khalili’s kids Benji and Raphael, who are chock full of Punks, Apes, and Beeples, also made the trip from London. CryptoPunks co-creator and Larva Labs founder Matt Hall, there as well, told me he never intended those Punks as “art works” but more like sports trading cards, and thus a new form of digital collectibles was birthed—spawning a slew of imitators in the run-up to the Great Crypto Crash that began in June 2022, and which the market is still recovering from.
Later on, Beeple made a series of works from a computer station smack in the middle of the dance-floor-like exhibition space with Drake’s song “Energy” blaring from the surround-sound speakers saturating the room: “I got girls in real life tryna fuck up my day/Fuck goin’ online, that ain’t part of my day,” ironically enough. Then sheets of paper dropped from the ceiling, the results of Beeple’s live handiwork, some of which had a code to redeem a free (but valuable) NFT—a play on an NFT airdrop that had throngs of crypto bros aggressively flailing at the falling sheets like floating golden tickets from Willy Wonka on meth. I didn’t spot Mr. and Mrs. Aqualvella lashing out in the fray.
During and after the Beeple bash, complaints flowed from social media that the event was largely a white affair, with barely any artists of color or women artists present. Missalsimpson DM-ed me: “Cheers! The tech bro mentality in cryptoart was laughable at first now it is systemic. It’s concerning how women’s cryptoart seems like an option instead of us taking our equal place at the table. Is it 1953 not 2023?”
When I asked Beeple for a response, he said: “I mean it is what it is, the space is all frigg’n dudes. This was only our first event and as with any art or crypto event, the diversity could always be better. We are taking active steps to improve this for next event and also in talks with unicorn DAO, which I am a part of, to do an entirely women / BIPOC show…At end of day, I 1000% agree that the space should be more diverse and while I realize this is not going to happen overnight, we are committed for long haul to doing what we can to help!!! ❤️”
We are in a strange time socially, politically, economically, and technologically. With two major financial institutions going belly-up in the last week alone, traditional bankers could be labeled the new degenerates (or degens in crypto parlance). Though I am still a Belieber and up to my eyeballs in NFTism, crypto is the only field on earth that exceeds the cesspool of sleaze and lies endemic to the art world. As a parasitic investigative journalist feeding off this frenzy of greed and narcissism for my column, I can’t say it’s not a little fun. Hence the emoji I made for myself: always in a state of apologizing, with outstretched hands.
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