Friday, March 28, 2008

Quote of the Day: Art Dealer Larry Salander

"Our society now values a Warhol for three times as much money as a great Rembrandt. That tells me that we’re fucked. It’s as if people would rather fuck than make love.

“That’s the difference between the Warhol and the Rembrandt. Being with Rembrandt is like making love. And being with Warhol is like fucking."
Larry Salander's rant sounds a lot better before you learn that he's $100 million in debt and under attack from people like artist Stuart Davis's son (who says Salander sold 50 of his father's paintings without permission), actor Robert De Niro (whose artist father was once represented by Salander), and New York Sun art critic Lance Esplund (who didn't get paid for a catalogue essay). The list goes on, including a group of investors who got a court order preventing Salander from entering his own gallery or selling art anywhere else.

The problem was that Salander, who had a successful business selling 19th and 20th century art, took a big gamble opening up a huge gallery dedicated to old-master and Renaissance art. In fact, as New York Magazine's James Panero reports this week, Salander was out to shift the art-buying world from over-priced contemporary art back to historical masterpieces.

It's a noble goal, and a sort of moral one. What Salander was in effect trying to do was to create connoisseurs out of investors and fashion victims. What percentage of the wealthy art collecting world do you think can articulate why they acquired a piece of art without talking about money, much less hold forth intelligently about any piece in their own collection? You can lead a hedge fund manager to great art, but you can't make him appreciate it.

Maybe it isn't fair to ask that busy people who spend all their brainpower on making money start talking (and collecting) like sophisticated art critics. There are always going to be people who collect art (or wine or cars or real estate) as investments, people who don't pretend to have any taste of their own.

It's a mistake to believe that the monetary value a blazing market assigns to anything as ethereal as a painting is real or stable. The only quantifiable factors in such things are age, size, and rarity; everything else is smoke.

It's a good smoke, though. I believe in it. But it's closer to religion than it is to science. That's part of what Salander understood, I think, but in the end he was no different than the money guys he was trying to tame. He was perhaps just a guy who saw an undervalued commodity. He thought he could cash in. He failed.

Panero's Salander story has a strange ending: contemporary artist Jeff Koons, who may be second only to Damien Hirst as an epitomy of everything Salander worked against in current art market trends, is now buying up old masters.

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