Back in 1986, if someone had asked me, "What does the art world really revolve around?" I would have had to answer, "Belgian Shoes." Not money or status, but a pair of hand-crafted, elegantly designed, butter-soft loafers.
There was nothing in the realm of fashion like Belgian Shoes. Only one store in New York sold them. When you walked in to examine a pair they treated you with subtle disdain, as if they were doing you a favor -- and they were.
Owning a pair of Belgian Shoes announced that you belonged, that you were an art dealer. The Los Angeles dealer, Jim Corcoran, bragged that he had six pairs. When I informed the painter Chuck Arnoldi about Jim's trove of Belgians, he said, "Big deal. I have at least a dozen."
I knew he was telling the truth because years later, when he moved on to the latest trend, he offered to give them to me. I remember rushing right over to try on a pair of cognac ostrich shoes and then cursing out loud when they didn't fit. Alas, Chuck wore a size 10 and I was a 10 1/2.
Part of the shoes' mystique was that they were fairly expensive -- $235 for what was essentially a pair of slippers. In fact, the leather soles were so thin that you immediately had to bring a new pair to a shoe repair shop, so they could affix a protective rubber sole over the fragile leather. Additional cost: $45. Combined with New York's hefty sales tax bite, the shoes wound up costing about $300.
If you really wanted to make a statement, you wore the shoes without the rubber soles. That way, when they wore out after two months of pounding Manhattan's pavement, you simply threw them away -- and then made sure you told everyone. The bottom line was that as much as I craved Belgians, I wasn't going to succumb to peer pressure and waste my money. There was simply no way I was going to follow the herd.
However, the next time I flew to New York, I made a beeline for the Belgian Shoe store. My willpower had evaporated. As I strode down 56th Street, I was so psyched that I probably would have paid $500 -- such was the allure of the shoes.
I parted the doors to the magical footwear emporium and ran the gauntlet past several disinterested salesmen. As I scanned the rows of shoes, I was enthralled by a cornucopia of leathers and colors. There was olive suede with maroon trim. There was midnight blue lizard, a velvet shoe with a leopard pattern, and even a simple black shoe with room to sew on the family crest.
The brilliance of the shoes was how they resembled a simple pair of penny loafers, but instead of a slit to hold Lincoln's copper likeness, there was a tiny leather bow. So elegant, so correct, and so very desirable.
After much agonizing, I finally settled on a pair of wonderful burgundy suedes with smooth black piping and a black bow. As I flashed my United mileage-plus Visa card, all I could think was that at long last I had arrived. I was now a serious art dealer -- or as serious as you could be, given the absurd standards of the art world.
Wearing my new Belgians, I left the shop in a hurry as I was late for an appointment with Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol's flamboyant business manager.
While the Belgian Shoes purchase may border on the ridiculous, it is impossible to overstate their symbolic importance. This is because the entire art world is solely about appearances.
For instance, when a dealer or collector comes to New York to participate in the spring and fall auctions, it is imperative that he stay at the "right" hotel. The Carlyle and the Mark are de riguer, the Paramount and the Hudson are acceptable (you may be cheap, but at least you're cool), while the Sheraton and the Marriott just don't quite cut it.
Personally, I stayed at an obscure bed and breakfast on the Upper West Side -- so obscure that no one could determine its status quotient.
Besides seeking approval on your hotel choice, there were also restaurant conflicts to contend with. For instance, it used to be that if you left Christie's between the "day" sales to eat lunch, you had better not be seen at Kaplan's delicatessen. That was a sure sign that you had little taste -- both in your mouth and on the walls of your gallery.
A far better choice was to skip lunch altogether or maybe sneak over to Lexington Avenue to grab a slice. However, during the day sales at Sotheby's, the restaurant choices were more compelling. A smart move was to be seen dining at Petaluma. But even then, if you were seated with a fellow dealer, you lost points. Far better to be seen with a recognizable big-name collector.
Then there was the issue of transportation. No one ever admitted to taking a subway -- but everyone did it on the sly -- especially when journeying downtown to SoHo. Buses were too slow and cabs were better than nothing, but if you had business on Madison Avenue you were better off walking. That way you could show off your clothing and hopefully run into a client who might comment, "Nice shoes."
However, if you were really intent on traveling with style, you hired a car and driver for the day. Imagine being whisked around town in a shiny black limousine, and then stepping out of it in front of the chic Mary Boone gallery -- and being spotted by a rival dealer or impressionable collector. Life in the art world didn't get any sweeter than that.
But even if you had your wardrobe together, stayed at an impressive hotel, ate at fashionable restaurants, and had a car and driver, your image was still dependent upon the art you dealt. If you wanted to be in the "club" of upper echelon dealers, you had to deal great art.
The lowest form of animal was a print dealer. To deal multiples was an indication that you were either poorly financed or lacked enough confidence in your judgment to buy unique works. Lithographs and silkscreens were just downright unadventurous. Most print dealers were so desperate that they would undercut your price by a measly hundred dollars just to ace you out of a deal. I avoided being seen with them at all costs.
The real prestige was to deal great paintings by major artists. The biggest players dealt works by the highly revered Abstract Expressionists. Names like Rothko, de Kooning, and Pollock were the currency in which they traded. Buying and selling works by the next generation, especially Pop artists like Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, also carried heavy cachet.
But nothing set a dealer's heart to flutter more then when you offered him a great Warhol that had been buried in a collection for 20 years. Warhol was the most universally traded artist in the world. His work was the equivalent of owning IBM or Intel stock -- at a price, there was always a market for it.
A rare Warhol, such as a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, was the most sought after trophy among dealers. To have one for sale reminded you of a famous line from the movie, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, "To own land is to be somebody." Well, in the art world, to own a significant Warhol was to be somebody. But to own a pair of Belgian Shoes was the next best thing.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him at Polskyart@aol.com.