Online Magazine
Book Review
‘I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon)’ by Richard Polsky
When contemporary art market was robust, years before the global economic collapse, Richard Polsky made a decision to put his hard-won and hence much-loved ‘Warhol Fright Wig’, up for a Christie's auction. The avid art lover was then hoping to turn a decent profit. And his instinct seemed to be right on target: his prized piece fetched $375,000. But if only he had been a touch patient and waited a bit. Art prices soon scaled unimaginable peaks. Over the next two years, multimillion-dollar deals became more of the norm than the exception, totally baffling bewildered buyers and sellers. Hapless dealers were bypassed for international auction houses, and benchmark prices knew no limits, almost touching the sky.

Had the contemporary art market lost all reason and logic? Elaborating on the backdrop and concept of ‘I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon)’, an introductory note depicts it as a compelling, revealing, backdoor tell-all about the fickle, fragile world of art investing and collecting. It mentions: “The author leads the way through this highly volatile and explosive, albeit short-lived period when the ‘art world’ became the ‘art market’. Polsky delves into the behind-the-scenes auction politics, the shift in power away from galleries, and the endless search for affordable art in a rich man's playing field. Unlike most in the world of art, he is not afraid of telling it like it is as he negotiates deals for clients in London, San Francisco, New York, seeking out a replacement for his lost ‘Fright Wig’ in a market, which has galloped beyond his means.”

‘I Sold Andy Warhol’ (Publisher: Other Press, New York; hardcover, 2009; pages: 288; price: $23.95; also available as: eBook) takes a pointed and unvarnished look at how the art ‘industry’ gradually and suddenly shifted to monetary appreciation from art appraisal. It’s a revealing account of the runaway art market of a mind-boggling mid-2000s phase that witnessed auction houses selling artworks worth whopping $400 million in a night, and in a matter of month the value of a Warhol piece could quadruple.

Richard Polsky’s pulsating account of this explosive period is a clueless private art dealer’s attempt to adjust, wondering whether he would ever be able to buy back his beloved Warhol. In the process, he builds up a riveting account of behind-the-scenes activity. The author has also to his credit ‘I Bought Andy Warhol’ and ‘The Art Market Guide’ (1995–98). He launched his career in the art world more than three and a half decades ago. In 1984, he cofounded Acme Art, where he presented the work of artists like as Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha. Since 1989 he has been specializing in postwar artists’ works, especially Pop art.

Giving an up-close view of the awe-inspiring auction world, he reveals: “The real highlight for many patrons is the Sunday morning brunch at Christie’s (Sotheby’s has a cocktail party). From 11o’clock to one, jacketed waiters serve champagne and tend to a spread of food, hoping to create a festive atmosphere for potential buyers. Watching my colleagues stack their plates with leaning towers of mini-bagels and lox, assorted pastries, and croissants, is a sight to behold. The less important the player, the more food they take. There’s nothing worse than trying to shake the hand of a client when yours is covered with cream cheese.

“Ditto for trying to have a serious discussion with a collector, who’s staring at your teeth, dotted with black poppy seeds from a bagel. Simply put, the Christie’s brunch offers a unique overview of the players who make up the art market. Whether it’s a dealer exaggerating to a colleague about how much money he just made on a sale, a collector lying about how he was the under-bidder on last year’s record-breaking work by (fill in the name of a famous artist), or an auction house expert insisting whatever painting you point to is the best of its kind, it’s all pretty amusing–to an outsider.”

Such honest chronicles of dizzy days of chasing art deals during the frenzied height of the buying boom provides a curious insight. He describes the business of art akin to ‘high school or grade school with money’, and adds: “I feel we have all digressed. People turn art dealers since they can afford to. You are attracted to the life of going to glitzy art fairs, aimlessly hanging out at artists’ studios and taking collectors out to eat. It’s hard to treat it like a business; that’s because you are dealing with crazy behavior. People trade million-dollar paintings with a handshake, and it’s all built on trust. When anyone betrays that trust, there’s little recourse. 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.”

In a subtle and succinct way, Richard Polsky weaves his personal tale into the web of a business-driven culture, questioning the course art world has chosen for itself to conclude ‘I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon)’.