“I Bought Andy Warhol” Author Richard Polsky Publishes a Sequel

Six years ago, Pop art dealer Richard Polsky caused a stir in the art world with his gossipy memoir about the art business, “I Bought Andy Warhol.” Yesterday, he published a follow-up, “I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon),” which chronicles his days of chasing art deals during the height of the buying boom.

Speakeasy called Mr. Polsky at his home in Sausalito, Calif., to see how he and the gallery crowd are holding up during the recession. Here is the edited excerpt.

Speakeasy: In your book, your say the business of buying and selling art is a lot like “high school with money.” How’s the mood in the cafeteria these days?

RP: It’s like grade school with money now. I feel like we’ve all digressed. People become art dealers because they can afford to become art dealers, but it’s not a business so much as a lifestyle. You’re attracted to the life of going to art fairs, hanging out at artists’ studios and taking collectors out to eat. The whole trip of it. And it’s very hard to treat it like a business because you’re dealing with crazy behavior.

A dealer once told me he paid $150,000 for a painting and sold it five years later for $175,000. He was bragging to me about his profit, but I had to wonder what the carrying costs of owning that painting were all those years and what the interest might have been on his line of credit for paying it off. You do the math and he lost money on that deal. People in this field don’t understand Business 101.

During the boom era, you said your role evolved from selling artworks to working as a “financial art advisor” for collectors. How’s that line of work holding up?

I’m helping a collector put a painting up for auction this fall, and what I’m noticing is that Sotheby’s and Christie’s are becoming more detail-oriented. You no longer get this sweeping “Yes” to whatever you want to sell. The vibe is, “We’ve got to really pay attention here.” Every deal counts now, and every million dollars matters to these auction houses. In 2007, they wanted the $10 million paintings, but now they’re willing to talk. The bottom line has shifted.

Your first book revolves around your quest to buy a silkscreen self-portrait of Andy Warhol wearing his spiky silver wig, a portrait often called his “Fright Wig” series. You paid $47,500 for a green version in 1998, which you auctioned off three years ago for $375,000. The profit looked good until you watched a similar “Fright Wig” sell for $2.6 million in 2007 during the market’s height. What’s the going rate for a “Fright Wig” these days?

I hate to say it, but it’s probably back down to about $400,000. There were a group of three “Fright Wigs” that were sold as one lot for $1.2 million this February at Sotheby’s, so I can base it on that.

Heading into the fall art season, which artists seem to be faring well?

In general, prices are off by about a third. Certain artists are holding up better that others, like Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder. Warhol’s market is solidifying.

Who’s becoming a tougher sell?

Anyone whose market saw a lot of speculation, like Ed Ruscha. Richard Prince’s “Nurse” paintings also peaked a little over $8 million and they’re under $3 million now. Damien Hirst is also taking a hit.

Have you checked out the galleries in Chelsea lately?

There’s a lot less foot traffic. If you don’t have a street-level space, you’re screwed. People don’t want to climb stairs or wait for the elevator –- they have too many other options. So it’s about high visibility, showing fewer artists and leaving your shows up longer to keep your overhead down.

Is there any good news?

The upside is that if you’re a great artist, you might be getting treated better because the dealers are realizing they only have a few long-term prospects, so they want to really give their best artists the promotion they need.

The White House wants to reform Wall Street –- how would you fix the art market?

This may sound radical, but I wouldn’t mind if the art market was regulated. My colleagues would kill me for saying it, but it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if dealers had to pass an exam to sell art, a test on art history, on the history of the profession and how to price art.

People trade million-dollar paintings with a handshake, and it’s all built on trust. When anyone betrays that trust, there’s little recourse and no SEC to come charging in and checking licenses.

In the art world, values are set when I say a painting is good and you say a painting is great and whoever is right makes the most money. You can’t teach that easily, but I do think we can ask for more due diligence.

What’s the best thing a collector can do this season?

Go to New York, see as many shows at the galleries and museums that you have the patience for, and have a conversation about what you like. Insist on meeting the gallery director and sit down for 10 minutes and listen to their pitch. Don’t just look at the art -– hear about it and try to discern the difference between the propaganda and the truth.

What’s the worst thing a collector could do now?

Ignore things.

Looking back through the annals of art-world power, you say that collectors called the shots in the 1950s, artists ruled the 1960s, and dealers owned the 1980s. The auction houses took over during the past few years, but who’s on top now?

Collectors. When there’s a real shake-up, we always go back to connoisseurship, to the ones who decide which art will stand the test of time. Most art that I see is a one-liner -– you see it, you nod, you get it, you move on and forget it. The good stuff that will be worth money makes you go back a second time. Collectors are going after art that’s well-executed and seems to have a soul. The rest? Forget it. It’s not getting sold now.

Which art sales or fairs are you hitting or skipping this fall?

I will go to auctions in New York in November and Basel Miami in December, just to see what changes are afoot. But the art fairs are becoming less important. Their model is all about cash and carry. The auction houses are also getting less important, and the galleries are getting more important. It’s not a party atmosphere, and that’s what art fairs are all about.

Everyone is a lot more sober –- they still want to buy art, but they want to be thoughtful about what they’re doing. No one is frantic because they haven’t bought any paintings yet today. I wish they were, but that feeling is over.

When prices started freefalling last fall, did you ever reconsider the title of your book to something like “I sold Andy Warhol (I swear)?”

I’ve had a few friends tell me I ought to just drop the “(too soon)” part of it, and but that’s how I felt in the moment a couple years when that other “Fright Wig” sold for $2.6 million. That was my brief moment when I could’ve sold my painting and become a millionaire, but it was like watching someone else win the lottery. There’s no use beating myself up over it now. No one can time a market perfectly every time.

Source - WSJ.com
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