Richard Polskyís new book, I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) (Other Press, $23.95), hits stores on Sept. 15, 2009. Via events surrounding the auction sale of his Warhol "Fright Wig" self-portrait, Polsky chronicles the "highly loopy and irrational culture of collectors and dealers" (New York Observer) during the art-market booms and busts of the last 25 years. Here, we present an excerpt from Chapter 11, Itís All in the Timing, which relates a bit of market history of one of Wayne Thiebaudís best-known paintings.
When I started working for myself in 1984, I became obsessed with investing in art that I loved. Within a year I owned a small Warhol "Mao" (cost: $4,500), a prime 1960s John Chamberlain called Ma Green (cost: $12,000), and an early Joseph Cornell box with a yellow canary (cost: $36,000). Art was escalating in value back then too, but at a more sustainable pace. The problem was that my galleryís expenses were overwhelming me. I was forced to gradually sell off these works to keep the business going, but always believed I would be able to replace them. It seemed inconceivable back then that the art which thrilled me would eventually be out of reach.
But I was wrong. By 2006, the same Mao would be worth over $1 million, the Chamberlain $750,000, and the Cornell $400,000. What I could earn by brokering sales for and to collectors wouldnít come close to buying any of these works that once formed the core of my collection. I came to the sad realization that I could never afford to buy what I once owned. The upward trajectory of the art market was pushing me away from the art itself.
I hadnít realized it until then, but I was transitioning into a "financial art advisor." Rather than talk about art with clients, I discussed investment strategies: 1031 exchanges, auction tactics, buying up overlooked bodies of an artistís production (like Rosenquist collages) -- anything to make a profit. Looking back, I wished I had majored in business rather than sculpture.
On the positive side, experience and plenty of mistakes had taught me well. I fully understood the dynamics of the art market, as much as anyone could. If forced to identify a single element in any industry that meant the difference between success and failure, it would be "timing." Timing a market is almost impossible. If it turns out that you bought near the nadir and sold near the acme, it essentially means you got lucky. Thatís true of trading stocks, real estate, and art -- especially art.
My timing on the sale of my Warhol ended up being something less than impeccable. I got the first part of my "Fright Wig" equation right but came up short on the second, selling two years too soon. As bad as I still occasionally felt, I realized I had seen worse. Much worse. In retrospect, I should have known better about selling my Warhol after being connected to the sale of what was arguably Wayne Thiebaudís greatest painting.
If there was one market that had sprinted past the others during the recent boom, it was Thiebaudís. Now 88, Thiebaud lives in Sacramento, still plays tennis, and per square inch per new painting may be Americaís most expensive living artist -- even pricier than Jasper Johns. For years Thiebaud had been Californiaís best kept secret. It wasnít until his 2001 retrospective at the Whitney Museum that the art world woke up to Thiebaudís brilliance. Until that show garnered universal praise, he lacked an international following. As the Europeans condescendingly put it, he was a good "regional" artist in America.
Wayne Thiebaud burst upon the art scene in 1962. Accompanied by his student Mel Ramos, who would eventually become a famous artist in his own right, Thiebaud traveled to New York seeking gallery representation. While Ramos would have to wait until a year later, Thiebaudís paintings of sweets and desserts caught the eye of Allan Stone. Thiebaudís creamy paint application, which mimicked the frosting of the cakes he depicted, became his trademark. At the time, Stone had cast his lot with the Abstract Expressionists and was completely devoted to Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Barnett Newman, among others.
The year 1962 was a transitional one for the art world. Not only was it the first year that Thiebaud began producing fully realized work, but the same was also true for Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and maybe John Chamberlain. With the success of Jasper Johnsís targets and flags in his inaugural exhibition at Leo Castelli in 1958, the Abstract Expressionists began to feel threatened. They had worked hard to break away from European dominance to create a movement that captured the vitality of post-war America. Now they were being upstaged by paintings of Campbellís soup cans!
When Stone announced to Barnett Newman that he was going to represent Thiebaud, Newman called a meeting of the galleryís artists and issued a stern demand -- "Get rid of the pie guy." Stone stood his ground and gave Thiebaud his first one-man show. As those who follow the art market know, Thiebaudís 1962 exhibition was a success on a number of levels. Sales of the artistís "food landscapes" were unexpectedly strong and the show was reviewed by Time, a national news publication rather than an art magazine. Time singled out a specific canvas to illustrate the article. That painting was Bakery Counter.
Stone sold Bakery Counter to a Manhattan couple. It was the largest painting in the show, measuring a perfect "over the sofa" 4 x 6 feet. An educated guess is that they paid $500. The imagery was magnificent. Thiebaud had painted an almost a life-sized deli-style glass case, jammed with rows of multi-colored pastries, donuts and pies. If you were writing a book on art history and had to select a painting that summed up everything Thiebaud was about as an artist, Bakery Counter would be the obvious choice.
In 1978, I began my career in the art world with a job at a downtown San Francisco gallery called Foster Goldstrom Fine Arts. The gallery was owned by Foster Goldstrom, a Bay Area native, and his wacky, Romanian-born wife Monique. Life with the Goldstroms was educational, vastly entertaining and at times perverse. The couple had evolved an alternative lifestyle that was straight out of Cyra McFaddenís book The Serial. This was the late-1970s story of a Marin County hipster couple who indulged in all the hedonistic trends of the times: hot tubs, transcendental meditation, pot smoking and partner swapping -- in the Goldstromís case, we can substitute fine wines for pot smoking.
Irrespective of his lifestyle choices, Foster had a terrific eye for art. Despite his background, which included no college or art exposure, he simply had an innate sense of quality. His success in the art business, built largely on developing the American market for the Austrian artist Hundertwasser, allowed him to reap numerous material pleasures. He bought a Mercedes, case after case of Chateau Lafitte, an architecturally significant home designed by Bernard Maybeck and a stunning art collection.
Foster also had more nerve than anyone I had ever met. He was a risk taker with attitude. Foster spoke about how the movie The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz made a big impression on him as a young person -- especially the scene where Duddy waited on a guest in the Catskills who tore a $100 bill in half, handed it to him, and said, "You get the other half at the end of the summer if I get good service."
Taking a page that could have been from the movieís script, Foster pooled his Bar Mitzvah money, managing to put together $1,000. As he tells the story, "Those were the days (1958) when the U.S. Treasury issued $500 bills and $1,000 bills. Even though they only circulated among banks, you could actually call ahead and request one, which I did. Right after getting my $1,000 bill, I got on my bicycle and rode over to the corner drugstore, found a nickel Hershey bar and handed the cashier the $1,000 bill. You should have seen how flustered she got! She said, ĎI canít break thisí and called the manager over. He couldnít deal with it either so I said, ĎFine, Iíll take my business elsewhere.í So I left and peddled around town doing the same thing over and over again. It was some of the most fun I ever had!"
With that sort of arrogance, Foster couldnít miss as an art dealer. As the money piled up from selling Hundertwasser prints, he wisely invested his profits in blue-chip art, including classic works by Sam Francis, Louise Nevelson and Morris Louis. But what he really wanted was a Wayne Thiebaud. In 1979, Foster went to New York specifically to buy one from Allan Stone. The former attorney, who was both immensely eccentric and successful, got a kick out of Foster. But it wasnít enough to offer him an important Thiebaud. Instead, Foster had to make do with a rather minor painting of a cigar in an ashtray.
Foster brought his consolation prize back to San Francisco, disclosing he paid $10,000 for the 10 x 12 inch oil painting on board. As Foster soon learned, cigars were not a favorite subject of Thiebaud collectors. After six months of being unable to find a buyer, Foster sold it back to Stone, who graciously paid him $12,000 for it. Undeterred by his initial Thiebaud experience, Foster returned to Stone, this time securing a more attractive (but still minor) painting of an office "in/out" box. But at least it was a canvas. He paid $28,000 for it and resold it quickly for approximately $35,000.
Foster was still determined to acquire something major. He visited Stone again, this time camping out in his office for three straight days. Stone, who sometimes never showed up for work until 4:00 in the afternoon, must have been impressed by Fosterís persistence. On the fourth day, a large wooden crate arrived at the gallery. Foster watched the gallery preparator pry it open and carefully unpack its contents. Once the painting was slipped out of its protective bubble wrap, Foster exclaimed, "Now thatís a Wayne Thiebaud!"
Allan Stone had recently bought the Bakery Counter back from the couple who purchased it at Thiebaudís inaugural show. Foster could barely contain his enthusiasm when he asked, "How much do you want for it?"
Despite controlling the Thiebaud market during the 1980s, Stone was fully aware that Thiebaudís resale prices were limited. Like fellow Californian Richard Diebenkorn, his work hadnít fully caught on in New York. The record for a painting at auction was under $50,000 at that time. Stone probably figured heíd shut up this cocky guy from California by quoting a price that would intimidate him. Stone declared, "If you really want to buy it, the price is $60,000."
Then Stone waited for Foster to make the requisite response of acting outraged. Only it never came. Foster shrugged, "Fine -- Iíll take it. What sort of discount can you extend to me?"
Caught off guard by Fosterís willingness to more or less meet his price, Stone recalled he had given him 20 percent off on the last two paintings. So he said, "You can have your usual discount."
"Great, Iíll send you a check for $48,000 as soon as Iím back in San Francisco."
Once Foster was home, anxiously awaiting his Thiebaud, he got a call from Stone, "Listen Foster, it was premature of me to offer you that painting. I never intended to sell it. I really had bought it back for myself. But Iíll tell you what, Iíll send you $5,000 if youíre willing to forget the whole thing."
Foster was pumped up; he lived for these moments, "Sorry Allan, I can certainly understand why you want it back -- but itís my painting." Then Foster hung up the phone and did a little victory jig.
And that was that. There was nothing Stone could do about it. A deal was a deal. Not long after, the painting arrived. Even though I had respect for Thiebaudís work, it was never among my favorites. That was until we installed Bakery Counter in Fosterís dining room. I had to admit that this work made a powerful argument for Thiebaud to be included in the upper echelon of American painters. Foster celebrated by throwing an elaborate dinner party at his Maybeck mansion to unveil the painting to friends and clients.
Not long after, Harry Anderson, the Bay Areaís biggest collector, who made his millions in the college cafeteria food service industry, got wind of Fosterís painting. Anderson, who to this day owns Lucifer, the finest Jackson Pollock "Drip" painting in private hands, wanted to buy Bakery Counter -- if the price was right. When I informed Foster, he was ecstatic -- the great Harry Anderson was pursuing him. Rather than have me tell Anderson that we appreciate his interest but Foster doesnít want to sell, I was told to quote him $100,000. As Foster put it, "Donít worry, he wonít buy it."
When I sheepishly told Anderson how much Foster wanted, he was peeved. He responded, "You tell Foster the day a Thiebaud painting sells for $100,000, Iíll buy him dinner." Then he hung up.
When I passed the message along to Foster, his cockiness jumped another notch. In his mind he was now in the big leagues. After all, who tells a collector like Harry Anderson to, essentially, take a hike? Even Fosterís wealthy competitor and nemesis, John Berggruen, knew better than to provoke Anderson.†
Call it destiny, but within a year, a large Thiebaud painting called Pin Ball Machines came up to auction and sold for $120,000. According to Foster it was Harry Anderson who bought it. Once we found out, Foster asked me to place a call.
"Hello, Harry Andersonís office," answered the pleasant female voice.
"This is Richard Polsky calling from Foster Goldstrom Fine Arts. I just wanted to leave a quick message. Mr. Anderson promised Foster that he would buy him dinner if a Thiebaud painting ever sold for $100,000." Swallowing hard, I added, "Foster would like to know when would he be available for dinner?"
The secretary said, "Iíll pass along the message and Iím sure someone will get back to you."
After I got off the phone, I brought Foster up to speed on the conversation. For some reason, he really thought heíd hear back and theyíd have dinner together. He was already debating which fancy restaurant he wanted to be taken to. A week passed and we heard nothing. Foster commented, "Heís probably out of town or something."
The "or something" proved accurate. The next day, Foster received a check in the mail for $50 and a short note telling him to "enjoy his dinner" (alone). Foster was indignant, complaining, "Who does this guy think I am? I canít eat dinner for $50. What sort of restaurants does he think I go to?"
Foster took another look at the note and then another at the check. A smile crossed his face, "You know what Iím going to do? Iím not going to cash this -- maybe it will screw up his checking account!" The next thing I knew, Foster dropped the check off at his framer. As soon he got it back, he proudly hung it in his office.†
As the years passed, and the art market grew, Bakery Counter appreciated tremendously in value. By the end of the 1980s, Allan Stone bragged that he had sold a major Thiebaud painting of cake rows for $1 million to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. None of this was lost on Foster, who immediately declared his painting was better and that he wouldnít dream of selling it for "only" a million. A local dealer actually offered Foster that magical sum -- and true to his word he turned it down.
Then, to loosely quote John Lennon, "life happened while Foster was busy making other plans." In 1997, the Goldstroms filed for divorce. With most of their wealth tied up in their art collection, they both knew it was going to be a nightmare dividing the art. Naturally, Bakery Counter was the big prize. As the divorce proceedings wore on, neither team of lawyers could come up with an equitable solution. Finally, the case went before a judge who declared everything should be sold at auction. Foster was devastated. I could certainly relate to his frustration at having to sell his favorite painting. He always envisioned holding onto his art at least until retirement. The legacy of what he had built and the status he achieved through his collection meant everything to him.
No matter, the judgeís decision was final. The Goldstroms had decided to work with Christieís to sell the collection. Though Foster informed Christieís that he had rejected an offer of $1 million for Bakery Counter, Christieís insisted on giving the painting a modest estimate of $500,000-$700,000.
When the auction catalogue came out, there was plenty of pre-sale interest in the painting. Supposedly Berggruen was going to make a run at it. The painterís son, Paul Thiebaud, was also a rumored potential buyer. Then inspiration struck Foster a second time (the first being when he made the gutsy commitment to pay Stoneís price). A week before the sale, Foster made a curious deal with soon to be ex-wife Monique. Bombarded for months by her incessant complaints about not having enough money to live on, Foster proposed that he guarantee her the first $500,000 on the sale. Anything above that would be his. That meant if the painting sold at the upper end of the estimate, Foster would only be entitled to $200,000. If it went for the bottom of the estimate, Foster would receive nothing. Monique readily agreed to the bargain.
I was there on the night of the sale. I wasnít aware of the current record for a Thiebaud at auction, but I believed it was well under $500,000. Back in 1997, the art market was slowly clawing its way back from years of weakness. By 1998, the second boom market was underway. Once I took my seat, I quickly located the former spouses. Monique was seated in the audience; Foster was standing in the back of the room. As the preceding lots were knocked down, the tension grew.
When the great moment arrived, I shot a quick glance at Monique. She looked pale. Foster, on the other hand, had a wide grin on his face. Maybe he knew something I didnít know. The bidding started at $200,000, surging ahead in $20,000 increments. Sure enough, Berggruen was in the thick of the action. When the auctioneer cried $500,000, I looked back at Monique. Now she was smiling. But once the bidding shot past $700,000, her smile began to wane. When the bidding topped $1million, her facial expression resembled someone sucking on a lemon.
I tried to look for Foster but I could no longer spot him. I could only imagine his racing thoughts. Maybe he fantasized about all the $1,000 bills he now could afford. Soon, the painting crested at $1.5 million, selling to the St. Louis collector Barney Ebsworth. Final Score: Foster $1 million, Monique $500,000. Right after the sale, Ebsworth went up to Foster and said, almost apologetically, "I know how bad you feel about selling it, but Iíve wanted this painting for years and would have paid more." Had Foster managed to hang onto it, which was his intention all along, it would have been worth between $10 million-15 million by the end of 2006.
I could certainly relate to Fosterís situation. It was hell living in a rapidly escalating art market, knowing I had played by biggest card too soon by selling my "Fright Wig." The more I thought about it, I should have listened to my mother.
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon). Comments can be directed to Polskyart@msn.com