The Robins v. Zwirner lawsuit has brought about all sorts of rumblings about transparency, resale royalties for artists, countervailing arguments for the virtues of secrecy and canticles about the magic of the market. It has also reminded us of the comedic dysfunctions of the art world, the old axiom that "a dealer is a dealer: car dealer, drug dealer, art dealer" and the peculiar fetishistic bond between artist and work. Herewith, some tales from the art side awaiting, to use an old auction term, your "guesstimates."
Five years ago, the most powerful living artist around, who hadn’t had an actual gallery exhibition for a decade (not that he needed one) bestowed a show on a prominent Chelsea dealer. So excited was said dealer that he blabbed about the temporarily secret upcoming exhibition to all his insider pals, thus infuriating the most powerful painter. Said painter asked his friends, "Guess what percentage my new dealer is getting from sales of my work?" His pals guessed anywhere from 30 to 10 percent. "Two percent," answered Mr. Big, "and he’s lucky to be getting that. He should be paying me!"
Fifteen years ago, a very sketchy West Coast dealer opened a space in New York. In spite of a lifelong career of skullduggery, unpaid bills and, especially, stiffing artists, this dealer was able to land a very prominent earth artist to open his gallery. Mr. Earth’s work was so huge and heavy that he needed five tractor trailers to move it east. The caravan began a week before the show’s September opening date, stopping somewhere in Colorado. Dirt artist called dirty dealer, "Where’s the upfront money wired into my account?" Dealer: "You’ll have it Wednesday." The caravan continued to Chicago. The artist phoned again, "The money still hasn’t been transferred." The dealer replied, "I am talking to my bankers. The money will be in your account on Friday." To which, Mr. Earth replied, "I have five tractor trailers sitting in a Holiday Inn parking lot here in Chicago and we are prepared to stay here until hell freezes over." He got his money that afternoon, the first and last time West Coast dealer made an honest deal.
But it’s not just the macho men of Artland. Take that midcareer gal, whose lush paintings are full of fabulous fantasias. She is a modest Midwesterner and, thus, 15 years ago, was leery about signing up with that saucy, controversial female starmaker. Now, our humble artist walks around in Keds or flip-flops, and, the day before her big opening, famous female dealer shipped her 50 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes. Infuriated, Ms. Midwest shipped them right back and, soon, pulled her paintings from the gallery. A few months later, she discovered that her glitzy dealer had charged the pedibaubles to her account!
Such is the world of dysfunctional wonder that our world brings, where one megadealer returns consigned paintings by leaving them wrapped in brown paper in the lobby of collectors’ apartment buildings and another pioneering British painter visited his dealer, dying of AIDS, in the hospital every day, vowing to continue being represented by the dealer’s estate. Trouble was, he was having dinner afterwards with the famous female cited above, moving to her gallery during the first dealer’s funeral.
Whatever the virtues of transparency, it might accomplish something for you, dear reader: you would know the names of all those mentioned above! Perhaps you already do.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).