The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade

The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade

by Simon de Pury, William Stadiem


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250059789
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,263,147
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

SIMON DE PURY is the former Chairman of Sotheby's Europe and the former owner and co-founder of Phillips de Pury. He co-hosted Bravo's series "Work of Art," and has written for numerous publications, including The Daily Beast. He is currently a London-based dealer and adviser to great collectors around the world.

WILLIAM STADIEM is the bestselling author of Mr. S, Jet Set, and Moneywood, and is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair.

Read an Excerpt

The Auctioneer

Adventures in the Art Trade

By Simon de Pury, William Stadiem

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Simon de Pury
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09409-4


My Nude Portrait

If anybody needed a rebound, it was I. Professionally, my plans to turn the auction-house duopoly that was Sotheby's and Christie's into a triumvirate that included myself had gone up in the terrible smoke and ash of 9/11. I couldn't have had a greater financial partner than the French luxury-goods tycoon Bernard Arnault, or a greater business partner than my former Sotheby's colleague turned co-gallerist Daniella Luxembourg. Alas, both the real world and the often unreal art world had been upended in the fall of 2001 by al-Qaida and by the resultant financial terror that shook the confidence of even the most deep-pocketed and geopolitically indifferent collectors. Arnault had gone, and Daniella was going. An incurable optimist, I refused to believe that the ship everyone else said was sinking faster than the Titanic could not be righted and sailed gloriously into the sunset. O Captain! The art world groaned and collectively crossed the street to avoid me, to them a dead man walking, whether the thoroughfare was Madison Avenue, Bond Street, or the Ginza.

Romantically, things were just as disastrous. My wife, Isabel, and I had parted ways. For our decades of marriage I had viewed Isabel as the most intellectually brilliant of women. I next was involved with Louise Blouin MacBain, a female tycoon by whose entrepreneurial gifts I had been smitten. Her power and success, not to mention the Marie Antoinette splendor of her lifestyle, were aphrodisiacal. Her gilded aura surely played into the ambitions I had in wanting to challenge the giants Sotheby's and Christie's. But that love affair had gone the fiery way of the Twin Towers, and now I was adrift. I had always found solace, as well as inspiration, in art. Now, at low tide, I found it in an artist.

Anh Duong could surely be said to be the distaff trophy of the art world, and in falling for her, I may have been a victim of the same megalomania that had drawn me to the likes of Bernard Arnault and Louise MacBain. A similar siren call had lured Odysseus to near-disaster. The Greeks, as ever, had a word for it. Unfortunately, I didn't have anyone left on my putatively sinking ship, now christened Phillips de Pury, to tie me to the mast to prevent me from succumbing to whatever fatal attractions the world had in store. Please forgive my delusions of grandeur, which actually did have some foundation in reality. I had been blessed with a fabulous wife, four fabulous children, and a fabulous career, having held two of the plum jobs in art, first as the curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, the greatest private assemblage in the world, only rivaled by that of the Queen of England, and then as chairman of the colossus that was Sotheby's Europe. I couldn't help but think big; it was an occupational hazard. And now all the hazards were coming home to roost.

Luckily for me, Anh Duong's remarkable beauty and talent didn't add up to her being a femme fatale. Anh was a true exotic, half Spanish, half Vietnamese, born in Bordeaux, educated to become an architect in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. Instead, she became a ballerina and then a top model, gracing Vogue covers and Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix runways. She eventually stole the heart of Julian Schnabel, away from his fashion-designer wife, Jacqueline. And now she was about to steal mine, away from nothing at this point but shell shock, loneliness, and the battle fatigue of the challenge of saving Phillips de Pury from its predicted oblivion.

What surely excited me the most about Anh Duong wasn't that she was a top model, but rather that she was an intriguing artist. She had been encouraged by Schnabel, who became famous for his huge paintings set on broken fragments of ceramic plates. Many consider that Schnabel has one of the biggest egos of any living artist. He boasted about being the next Picasso the way Cassius Clay used to boast that he was the greatest thing since Joe Louis. So the fact that this ego allowed Anh to develop as an artist meant that there was something special there. Schnabel bought her an easel, brushes, and paint, and she began to play around. Eventually she developed a style evocative of Frida Kahlo. Her trademark was her self-portraits, often nude or in transparent lingerie.

Anh and Schnabel had broken up when he went on to marry his second wife, Olatz, a Spanish actress. Ahn lived in her studio on West 12th Street, near my new Phillips de Pury offices on 15th Street, where I had beaten a hasty retreat when our disastrous auction efforts had necessitated fleeing from the skyscraper rents on 57th Street. This was well before Manhattan's Meatpacking District had become the new SoHo, and I like to think I helped plant the seed of cultural gentrification here. I had met Anh at a dinner at Pastis, then the neighborhood canteen, and suggested quite flippantly across the table that I would like to commission her to do my portrait. Equally flippantly, she agreed. Was this a modern version of the old seduction ploy of inviting the object of your affections to come up and see your etchings? I don't think so. I wasn't even thinking romance, at least not consciously.

Anh had been developing quite a reputation as a portraitist. She had recently painted the major contemporary collector Aby Rosen, a global realty mogul who had moved to New York from Frankfurt and would eventually buy both Lever House and the Seagram Building, two of New York's greatest architectural trophy properties. Ahn had painted Aby in his boxer shorts. She was currently painting the model Karen Elson, legendary for her pale skin and flaming hair, wearing nothing at all. I wondered what she had in store for me.

These portrait sessions tend to be very long and very intimate. I remember that when Heini Thyssen commissioned Lucian Freud to do his portrait, it took over 150 hours of sittings, over the course of fifteen months in 1981 and 1982.

I wasn't sure what I wanted in Anh's portrait, other than that it not take as long as Freud's of Heini and that it not be in the nude. I requested that I wear my uniform of a double-breasted Caraceni suit, a tailoring obsession I had contracted from my former boss, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who was a devoted Caraceni man and had sent me to Milan for my first fittings, after which I was totally hooked. The tailor of kings and the king of tailors, Caraceni had dressed the crowned heads of Italy and Greece, when they still wore crowns, as well as Gianni Agnelli, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and even couturiers like Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino. I liked being in such heady company, and really didn't want to be captured for posterity any other way. Matching the suit's navy color, I wore my habitual navy tie and white shirt and carried my other trademark, my red leather diary from Smythson of Bond Street. Auctioneers are notorious for their superstitions. One of mine was to eat an apple before every sale. Another was always to be bearing something red. Anh was very tolerant of these fetishes.

As we began our sessions, what drew me most to Anh was her striking, observant eyes. They put me on the spot and created a particular tension, which is essential to making art. The other thing that lured me in was that her taste in music mirrored my own. There had to be music in these sessions, and Anh's mix was an eclectic mélange of opera, classical, rock, pop, French chansons, and movie soundtracks. Every tune touched a chord in me. Ever since childhood my three obsessions have been art, music, and soccer. With Anh two out of three was as good as it would get. Over the course of our sittings something just happened. Anh gave me a sculpture of herself. I ended up buying her Karen Elson portrait for myself. Despite its full frontal nudity, Anh wasn't the slightest bit jealous. This was art, not sex. Such was Anh's immersion in la vie bohème, Chelsea version. But art is sexy, as sexy as anything, and eventually something started between us.

Enter Eric Fischl, an artist I have always greatly admired. I saw him as the continuation of the great American realist tradition, the spiritual descendant of Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. In the eighties, no one was much bigger than Eric. He was up in the stratosphere with Schnabel and Ross Bleckner. The three of them were a juggernaut, the "Boone Boys," all discovered and represented by the queen of that decade's SoHo art firmament, Mary Boone, a modern-day commercial Cleopatra, who, most fittingly, was of Egyptian descent. When I was running Sotheby's in Geneva, I had invited Eric, at the height of hot, to come to Switzerland to be part of my monthly lecture series. Jeff Koons, Karl Lagerfeld, and Philippe Starck were fellow invitees, proof that I was not behind the curve in the emergence of contemporary art and style as the next big thing.

Given the vagaries of the market, Eric has never gotten any bigger than he was in the eighties, nor has Mary Boone. Eric had become famous as the Degas of American suburbia, painting transgressive images of his alter ego staring at his naked sleeping mother in bed while picking her purse (Bad Boy) or that same alter ego masturbating into a backyard swimming pool (Sleepwalker). Eric was anything but bitter, but to pretend that schadenfreude did not exist in art the way it does in Hollywood would be a very Pollyanna-ish perspective. That his works sold in the high six figures rather than the seven he used to sell for or the eight of some of his fellow boy wonders was no one's tragedy. In fact, to me it was nothing but sheer opportunity. A dealer loves nothing more than an undervalued artist. The fact that I couldn't afford Eric in the eighties stoked my desire to buy him at bargain prices in the new millennium.

In 2002 I saw a Fischl at a Mary Boone show that I just had to have, in the same way I just had to have Anh's Karen Elson, and ultimately just had to have Anh herself. The piece was called Living Room, Scene 2, painted in a Mies van der Rohe house-turned-museum in Krefeld, Germany; Eric turned it back into a house and hired actors to do for German suburbia what he had done to that of his childhood in Arizona. Living Room depicted a wealthy couple in their sleek abode with their proudest possessions: a Gerhard Richter, a Warhol, and a Bruce Nauman. That painting spoke to me as a collector and, especially, as a dealer. I went to Mary and bought it on a handshake.

Alas, that handshake quickly went the way of all flesh. Mary called me to tell me that she wanted to bail and void the sale. She had gotten another offer from the hot and rising Seattle Art Museum and wanted to take it. Microsoft's Paul Allen, Mr. Seattle, was a huge benefactor of the emerging art scene in that Nirvana of tech. Mary liked the idea of bringing the mountain to Mohammed. Of the many superstars Mary had represented in her eighties glory days, only Eric and Ross Bleckner had stayed true blue. Schnabel had moved on, as had David Salle, Georg Baselitz, Barbara Kruger, and Brice Marden. Jean-Michel Basquiat was, sadly, dead.

My first reaction was to be incensed and refuse to succumb to Mary's perfidy. No way, I insisted angrily. A deal is a deal. But no one on earth is as persistent as Mary Boone. She wanted her deal as much as I wanted that Fischl. She came up with a compromise: Back off on Living Room, and I will personally get Eric to do your portrait. They're very rare, Mary said, selling hard. He only does them for his closest friends, like Steve Martin.

Forget it, I told her. I already had one portrait in the works by Anh. How many portraits did I need? Who was I, Louis XIV? Certainly not after my recent debacles. Instead, Mary was making me feel like Rodney Dangerfield, the great comedian whose trademark was "no respect." Besides, who wanted a one-man picture of me from Eric Fischl? That would be so boring compared to a real Eric Fischl, whose hallmark is the intense tension between two individuals on the same canvas. To me, Eric was right up there with Lucian Freud in creating that tension. Give me my Living Room or give me death, I declared to Mary and hung up.

Then I began having second thoughts, but not noble thoughts, like Let Mary have what she wants. We've both been up and down, and she deserves a break. No, I wasn't that altruistic or noble. Instead I saw a great opportunity to do Mary a big favor and do myself one as well, by turning this portrait into a real Eric Fischl and not some tribute to myself. My brainstorm was to get that trademark tension by having not only me in the portrait but another person as well. And that other person would be Anh Duong. And Anh Duong would be in the nude. As I previously noted, Anh is one of the only true bohemians I know. She has no false modesty, no prudery. There's nothing Swiss about her, like the high-propriety people I grew up around.

Anh had done so many nude self-portraits that I didn't even bother to ask her first. Instead, I pitched the concept to Mary, who loved it. Then I called Eric and pitched it to him, and he loved it, too. Only then did I pitch it to Anh, who said all systems go. Anh had done nudes for other artists, such as Peter McGough, a close friend of Schnabel's from the eighties, who created the daguerreotype-style Anh Duong, 1917, painting her like a pinup of the Jazz Age. Besides, Eric Fischl and Anh were good friends, and she loved his work.

So out to Montauk we went one summer weekend for our rendezvous with naked destiny. Eric lived in Sag Harbor with his wife, April Gornik, an acclaimed landscape painter. He had fled SoHo and the druggy excesses of being a millionaire artist of the eighties for the relative rusticity of the east end of Long Island, before the hedge-funders moved in. Eric was anything but an effete artist. He was a sporty guy, having traded art for tennis lessons with his pal John McEnroe. He had been a security guard in a Chicago museum in his early years.

Unlike Anh, who worked from life, Eric worked solely from photographs and memory. Eric's hardcore policy was that I would have no say whatever in the portrait and that I could not even see it until it was done. I had expected that Eric would give very specific instructions for what he wanted from us. Instead, he didn't tell us anything. "So what do you guys want?" he asked. Anh and I were both clueless. She had undressed and was standing around aimlessly in the nude, while I was standing around aimlessly in my Caraceni suit. Finally, Eric broke the ice by starting to snap an endless series of photos, sort of like the David Hemmings character in Blow-Up, but minus any stage directions, like Hemmings gave to Veruschka. Somehow I noticed a rocking chair on the wooden floor of the studio. I went and sat in the chair. Then Anh, by instinct, came over and sat on my knee. Eric climbed up a ladder and began shooting from above. "My God, I feel like Helmut Newton," Eric exclaimed. At that moment, I had a flash that this particular angle, this overhead shot, was what would end up as the portrait.

The whole session lasted an hour and a half. Anh redressed. Then we had tea, very demurely, with Eric and April and drove back to Montauk, where we were staying with friends. My relationship with Anh lasted ten months. Our romance ended before the painting was delivered. I had warned Anh that we might not last forever, but Anh had no regrets. What she did, she did for art. That was her philosophy. When I did see the painting I was pleased. It was no portrait. It was a real Eric Fischl. The psychological tension fairly screamed from the canvas, so much so that I wondered if I had ever understood how tenuous my relationship with Anh must have been. I look completely alone, notwithstanding Anh's sultry naked presence on my knee. There was a total disconnect between us. The work was proof of how artists like Eric can see beyond the medium.

I own the painting, but I never show it to anyone. I feared my friends might have written it off to a midlife crisis, or worse. In 2012, Mary Boone had an Eric Fischl portrait exhibition at her new gallery in Chelsea and asked to borrow it. I said yes, with some trepidation. She hung me, or rather the Fischl, on the first wall, all by itself. It was the first thing anyone saw on entering the gallery. Anh came to see it. She burst out laughing. Mary's exhibit got a scathing review in The New York Times. The critic savaged the exhibition for painting the 1-percenters. I got defensive for Mary. Didn't every artist throughout history paint the princes of his time? What were the Medicis if not 1-percenters?


Excerpted from The Auctioneer by Simon de Pury, William Stadiem. Copyright © 2016 Simon de Pury. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. My Nude Portrait,
2. Going Contempo,
3. Artopolis,
4. L'Artiste,
5. The Apprentice,
6. London Calling,
7. My Role Model,
8. The Auction House Wars,
9. Simon de Monaco,
10. Our Man in Geneva,
11. A Royal Courtship,
12. Me and the Baron,
13. The Merry Wives of Heini; or, The Making of a Collector,
14. Foreign Intrigues,
15. If I Had a Hammer,
16. Teams of Rivals,
17. The Women,
18. My Oligarchs,
19. Courting Medicis,
20. The Cutting Edge,
List of Illustrations,
About the Authors,

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