Here’s a fun fact: when Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (c. 1500) came to auction in December of 2017, it was placed in a contemporary art sale by Loïc Gouzer, Christie’s 37-year-old chairman of postwar and contemporary art. “How did 500-year-old painting fit into contemporary art?” wondered writer Michael Shnayerson. His conclusion: “Because that is where the billionaire buyers were.” The gambit worked, with the painting selling for $450 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for any work of art.
Welcome to the new world of price as validation, where a record sale can rapidly erase any lingering doubts about an artwork’s cultural value. That was certainly the case with “Salvator Mundi,” as the “muttering of skeptics” about the painting’s sketchy provenance and over-zealous restoration was obliterated by 19 minutes of rapidly escalating bidding. The joke made by critic Jerry Saltz — that the 16th century painting was in a contemporary art sale because 90 percent of it had been painted in the last 50 years — clearly didn’t resonate with the market, which had been whipped into a frenzy by an international marketing push.
These telling anecdotes — and many more — are included in Shnayerson’s revealing new book BOOM: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art. A diligent researcher who was able to interview many art world insiders, Shnayerson paints a vivid portrait of the dizzying ascent of contemporary art and the powerful succession of dealers responsible for its rise in price and status. He also connects the booming art market to the rise of a new class of super-rich, anxious to burnish the gleam of their jaw-dropping wealth with the patina of high culture.
With over 2,200 billionaires holding assets of over $9 trillion dollars (as of 2018) Shnayerson describes a situation in which the mega-rich of a new “Gilded Age” have made contemporary art their favorite financial instrument. These nouveau super-rich dominate an interconnected, and often secretive market where buyers and sellers at auction are in fact stealth dealers working to bolster prices in a high-stakes circle jerk. Many also serve on museum boards, where their collections, donations, and dues exert a magnetic influence on exhibitions and acquisitions.
Shnayerson opens his book with a history of pioneering dealers like Betty Parsons — who had “mixed feelings” about Jackson Pollock but still gave him a stipend of $150 per month — and writes his way up to the current crop of mega dealers: Iwan Wirth, David Zwirner, Arne Glimcher and Larry Gagosian. These four dealers are portrayed as having become even more powerful than the major auction houses.
Each one has the brand status, international connections, and palatial gallery spaces needed to launch an artist towards stardom. Gagosian now has a network of 17 international gallery spaces (and a shop), Pace will soon open a huge new space in Chelsea, just ahead of a $50 million dollar location planned by Zwirner. Filling these spaces will require a small army of artists: Shnayerson notes that in the past decade many rising and mid-career artists have joined or been “poached” by the “megas,” leaving behind the dealers that guided and nurtured them as their careers took shape.
BOOM also describes the ascent of the art market stars who have led the market upwards. Jeff Koons, a cult figure whose works have achieved eight-figure prices at auction, is one of two leading artists (the other is Damien Hirst) who is powerful enough to work with any dealer he wants. Although Koons is officially represented by Larry Gagosian — the alpha dog of mega dealers — Shnayerson reports that Koons took a “leave of absence” to show with David Zwirner in 2013, as well as showing with New York dealers Robert Mnuchin and Almine Rech.
Reading BOOM will likely both delight and distress you. You may smile as you read about a dealer who dressed in a bunny suit for six weeks as a stunt and perhaps gasp when you read about the artist Sterling Ruby and his 120,000 square foot Los Angeles studio. Similarly, reading about how Hauser and Wirth has intertwined a working farm and an art gallery in Somerset, may call to mind the charming faux farm that Marie Antoinette built on the grounds of Versailles before the real farmers showed up with their pitchforks.
BOOM is a required read for art market junkies who want to know more about the machinations behind the market. It’s an informative and fair-minded book that ultimately left this reader a bit depressed. The book’s ultimate effect was to remind me how contemporary art has become a high-end brand that mainly serves as a financial instrument for the wealthiest citizens of an increasingly unequal world. For artists who care about more than revenue, this situation casts a shadow over their idealism. The current boom in contemporary art feels like tulipmania all over again, but on a vast international scale.
BOOM: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, by Michael Schnayerson, is published by PublicAffairs and now available from Amazon and other booksellers.