The Art Detective

A Wall Street Billionaire Shot Himself in His Family Office. His Death Is Reverberating in the Museum World, and the Art Market

In happier times, prominent friends would gather at the chic Sutton Place home of the billionaire museum trustees Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tenenbaum to celebrate their favorite causes amid paintings by 20th-century giants and electrifying works by living artists. A curved staircase, meanwhile, beckoned to ever higher realms above the bustle of Manhattan.

This week, New York society assembled there one more time for a far more somber occasion: the Jewish mourning ritual of shiva, following Lee’s tragic suicide by gunshot on February 23. The private-equity buyout pioneer was 78, and left behind his wife of 27 years, five children, two grandchildren, and many unanswered questions.

As the family grieves and Wall Street ruminates on Lee’s legacy, some of the implications of his passing have already started to radiate into the museum world and art market. A longtime museum trustee, Lee assembled an art trove replete with paintings by Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, and Francis Bacon. A monumental 1964 blue-and-red painting by Ellsworth Kelly that hangs in the salon is a promised gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art, on whose board Lee served for 29 years. Some photographs decorating the home are part of a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which paid tribute to the couple’s eye for the medium with a public exhibition in 2020, “Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection.”

Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tennenbaum's Sutton Place apartment photographed during an event in 2019. Works by Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol are on view. Photo: Matteo Prandoni/ © BFA 2023.

Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tenenbaum’s Sutton Place apartment photographed during an event in 2019. Works by Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol are on view. Photo: Matteo Prandoni/ © BFA 2023.

Lee began buying postwar and contemporary art in the 1990s, a significant decade in his professional and personal life. In 1992 his Boston-based firm Thomas H. Lee Partners famously acquired Snapple for about $135 million, took it public, and then resold to Quaker Oats two years later for $1.7 billion. (Lee’s brilliant flip turned out to be a giant flop for Quaker Oats, which resold the beverage company for just $300 million less than three years later, inspiring headlines like “Quaker-Snapple: $1.4 Billion Is Down the Drain”).

Armed with about $927 million from that sale, Lee jumped into the art world as a collector and philanthropist. In 1994, he joined the board of the Whitney, where he would go on to play an important role, serving on the executive committee as well as the committees overseeing the modern painting and sculpture department and nominations for the board. At the Breuer building, the Whitney’s old home, Lee commemorated galleries on the second floor in honor of his parents Mildred and Herbert Lee.

“He brought the attitude of a businessman and an entrepreneur to a sector that, as you well know, is much less focused on that than on the present moment,” said Maxwell Anderson, the Whitney director from 1998 to 2003, noting that, as the chair of the nominating committee, Lee was “critical to charting the future of the institution in recruiting new talent, support, and ideas.”

Lee’s fellow board members said in an obit: “His unmatched business acumen, pragmatism, and wit elevated board conversations and made him a natural leader. But it was his passion for the arts—which he shared with his late mother, the esteemed collector Micki Lee—as well as his steadfast commitment to making art accessible to all, that has made an indelible mark on the museum and numerous arts and cultural institutions.”

Thomas H. Lee in 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for NYU Langone Medical Center)

Thomas H. Lee in 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for NYU Langone Medical Center)

At the same time, Lee was becoming a frequent presence at Christie’s and Sotheby’s salerooms, paying record prices for works by Arshile Gorky and Sigmar Polke, as Carol Vogel would attest again and again in reporting for the New York Times

He was passionate about Abstract Expressionism. In May 1994, he bought Pollock’s Number 22, a small, dense drip painting from 1949, for $1.7 million. The work, which has remained in his collection, could be worth $40 million or more now, according to auction experts.

He picked up the pace in 1995, the year he divorced Barbara Fish, his wife of 27 years. That November, he set an auction record for Arshile Gorky with the $3.96 million purchase of Scent of Apricots on the Fields (1944). (It’s unclear if the work remains in the family collection, but it hasn’t returned to auction, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.)

Privately, Lee bought Rothko’s nearly 8-foot-tall Olive Over Red (1956), according to David Anfam’s catalogue raisonné, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas. The Rothko still hangs in his living room. It could be worth about $40 million, according to auction specialists.

Tenenbaum, whom Lee married in 1996, became his collecting partner. She is a trustee of the Met and serves on several other prominent cultural boards in New York.

“She was very much by his side thinking through these choices,” Anderson said, “what they collected and the ways in which they supported individual artists. And I think that hybrid was important for him.”

Three years ago, Tenenbaum spoke with me about the origin of the couple’s photography collection and Lee’s support of her interests.

“He was getting divorced from his wife,” she told me in March 2020. “They had a big art collection, mostly Old Masters. I didn’t care for that stuff. I was only 32. He said, ‘Let’s start over. Go buy some stuff.’”

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #48,(1979), from the exhibition "Photography's Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #48,(1979), from the exhibition “Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Her first acquisition was Cindy Sherman’s photo of a hitchhiker, Untitled Film Still #48, which she bought at auction for $40,000. Today, the work is among Sherman’s most expensive; in 2015, another example from the edition of three fetched $2.9 million at Christie’s.

Lee’s own collecting roots went back to his parents, and especially his mother Micki Lee, who “had an eye and taste ahead of her time,” Vogel wrote in 1998. The elder Lees were early supporters of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, often buying freshly made works from Leo Castelli Gallery. One such work was Weeping Women, a painting by Johns, that in 2006 made its way to billionaire David Geffen via Si Newhouse, according to Vogel. Geffen said this week that he still owns the piece.

“They were very good early collectors of contemporary art,” said a person who knew them. “They were buying on the primary market. [Lee] learned from his parents to buy primary-market when he could.”

Micki Lee’s Calendar (1962) by Rauschenberg recently entered the Met’s collection as a gift from the Lee family, according to the museum. Apparently, the work had been offered for sale privately over the past 10 years but was unable to find a buyer, a person familiar with the work said.

While Lee’s parents were noted collectors, his personal art trove was largely of his own making and taste, a mix of blue-chip postwar art and emerging works. As recently as 2019, guests to the Lee and Tenenbaum residence would encounter a small portrait by Francis Bacon, a wall piece by Donald Judd, a map by Alighiero Boetti, a Bruce Nauman neon, the iconic twins by Diane Arbus that inspired The Shining, a sleek glass sculpture by Fred Eversley, an exuberant ceramic pot by Brian Rochefort, and a Jeff Koons painting from his Hulk Elvis series.

Andy Warhol, 5 Deaths twice 1 (Red car crash) (1963). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Andy Warhol, 5 Deaths twice 1 (Red car crash) (1963). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A key work was Warhol’s 1963 5 Deaths twice 1 (Red car crash), which sold for $6.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2004. It may be worth $15 million to $20 million in today’s market, according to auction experts.

The exact value of the collection is tricky to assess because it’s unclear what remains in it and what may have been sold in recent years privately. Complicating things further is the fact that Lee was, in auction parlance, “a value buyer,” according to a person familiar with his collecting.

“It’s all the right names: Rothko, Pollock, Lichtenstein,” the person said. “The works are good, but they are not great.”

Still, Lee expected top prices when negotiating with the auction houses. When a group of Lee’s works ended up coming for sale at Christie’s in November 2016, a Warhol self-portrait fetched $6.5 million but a Lichtenstein work on paper, Reverie, failed to sell, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. It was last seen this week in the Sutton Place apartment, according to people familiar with the setting. 

It’s unclear whether any of these works have been promised to institutions. Michael Sitrick, a representative for the family, said the family was not doing the interviews.

It’s also unclear whether any of the art might head to auction. After Newhouse died in 2017, leaving the art trove to his wife, several key works from his collection came to market, with Warhol’s Orange Marilyn and Koons’s bunny selling for eye-watering numbers to billionaire hedge fund managers. Still more works are coming to Christie’s in May.

What is certain is that the Wall Street icon’s sudden death is now reverberating on many levels, including in the art world.

“Tom Lee was a remarkable philanthropist and a dear friend to many,” said Max Hollein, the Met’s director. “His unwavering commitment to the Met for more than 25 years, together with his wife Ann Tenenbaum, has left an indelible mark on our institution. He and Ann provided transformational gifts to the Department of Photographs and beyond that will continue to enrich the lives of our visitors for generations to come. We are deeply saddened by his loss and extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones.”

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

Last Year’s Art Stars Make Way for Even Younger, Cheaper Debutants in London’s Auctions as ‘Voracious’ Speculators Seek New Blood

Where is Jadé? Where is Anna? Where is Christina? 

The familiar artist names that have regularly set off fireworks at recent high-stakes contemporary-art auctions are conspicuously missing from the lineup of London sales that are scheduled to kick off February 28. Their absence is all the more intriguing given that London’s auctions are the first public market test of the year, offering an important snapshot of the trends that are crystalizing as the season progresses to Hong Kong and New York.

One thing is clear: There’s a noticeable drop in the offerings of Black portraiture, bro-primitivism, and Spanish New Wave at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. (Where are you, Otis, Jordy, and Rafa?)

Sotheby’s will offer the week’s only Nicolas Party painting, and Christie’s will present the sole canvas by Amoako Boafo—two artists whose works used to be ubiquitous. There’s not a trace of Matthew Wong, whose $48.5 million auction total in 2021 was halved last year. 

Tastes change fast in the investment-driven art market. One of the first places to reflect a shift is the speculative ultra-contemporary segment, where prices for some artists were recently moving up-up-up with lightning speed. The sector’s auction sales grew 500 percent in five years, peaking at $741.4 million in 2021, when they surpassed the Old Masters, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. Now, ultra-contemporary is on the downswing. Last year the broader segment declined by 10 percent, to $668.2 million.

And because the feeding frenzy for many of these market darlings has subsided, speculators have begun testing new-to-the-scene artists. Auction houses are only too eager to offer the stage. Welcome to the Flip Class of 2023.

“There’s a voracious and enduring appetite among collectors for the new,” said David Galperin, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for the Americas and co-head of marquee sales. “They are constantly seeking out new names. The auctions have become a place where a lot of collectors are introduced to new artists for the first time, and we tailor our sales meticulously to try to really paint a picture of what are the most interesting works being made today.”

Mohammed Sami, <i>Family Issues I</i> (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mohammed Sami, Family Issues I (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Aptly titled “The Now,” Sotheby’s evening sale will begin with Mohammed Sami, an auction newbie whose 2019 painting of a carpeted room is estimated at £50,000 to £70,000. Born in Iraq, the London-based Sami is gaining curatorial attention, with a solo show up now at the Camden Arts Centre in the U.K. capital. His New York debut at Luhring Augustine gallery will feature paintings currently included in the 58th Carnegie International survey.

“Impossible to get primary,” an art advisor told me this week about Sami’s new works. It’s a perfect scenario to stage a multi-phone bidding war and set the mood for the evening auction.

In the same vein, Christie’s will start its 20th/21st Century evening sale with Michaela Yearwood-Dan, a young Londoner of Caribbean heritage, whose large and lush floral tableau is estimated at £40,000 to £60,000. Her prices surged to $388,798 at Phillips in December. A recent addition to Marianne Boesky Gallery, she has a show coming up in April in New York.

Phillips positioned Belgian artist Ben Sledsens as its opening act on March 2. Looking stylistically like a cross between Party and Scott Kahn, the painting Wanderer With Dog is estimated at £80,000 to £120,000.

The new crop of artists represents a change of guard from the earlier, pandemic-era cohort; their lower prices and greater resale upside is just what the flippers crave.

“There’s a huge pack of speculators,” said an auction executive. “It’s all pump and dump. And then they are on to the next thing. And auction houses just reflect what artists are being actively sought-after.”

Emerging-art speculators typically don’t buy half-a-million-dollar artworks. Instead they look for things under $50,000 and then create hype.

“They’d resell this work for $150,000 and it would be considered a great result,” said an auction specialist. “Then somehow $350,000 became the new $150,000, and then $600,000 became the new $350,000. It’s just like a product of this frenzied environment for young, contemporary.”

Christina Quarles, The Night That Fell Upon Us Up On Us (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Christina Quarles, The Night That Fell Upon Us (Up On Us) (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

It’s a lucrative but risky game. Avery Singer’s art reached its high total of $21.5 million at auction in 2021—and then dropped 28 percent in 2022. Christina Quarles peaked at $10.7 million in 2022, with an auction record of $4.5 million for Night Fell Upon Us (Up On Us), sold by collector Howard Rachofsky in May. Since then, not a single price has come even close.

“Yes, there haven’t been any paintings that have matched the price that we were able to achieve,” Galperin acknowledged of the Quarles market. “But I would also say that there haven’t been any paintings that have come up that matched the quality of this work.”

Ironically, the higher the auction results, the less attractive artists become to speculators. Their markets may remain robust (auction houses would kill to get an A+ Quarles or Jadé Fadojutimi), but trading volumes typically decline when primary prices catch up to secondary values and arbitrage goes away.

A new painting by Anna Weyant and Fadojutimi at Gagosian would set you back $500,000 or more. Hauser & Wirth was asking as much as $1.2 million for large-scale Quarles canvases in her New York exhibition last year, even as most of her older works were fetching $600,000 to $800,000 at auction.

“There are a lot of people who want a painting at $100,000,” an auction expert said. “There are a lot fewer who can pay $1 million. Instead of 20 bidders you get one or two.” 

Meanwhile, new paintings by these artists are still too fresh to be resold. (Stringent non-resale agreements don’t help either.)

“You don’t wanna get blacklisted,” the auction executive said. “Especially since they put the prices at around the level that they were selling secondary. Where is the real upside? Why ruin your relationship with the gallery?”

Other speculative bubbles are getting deflated because of the overproduction by artists and taste changes among collectors.

The frenzy over Black figuration, for example, has subsided dramatically, advisors and auction specialists said. Auction houses are putting brakes on what they take. For example, there’s suddenly a lot less work by Isshaq Ismail, whose seemingly endless supply of heads flooded the market in the past year, selling for as much as $367,541 a pop last March.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, <i>Love me nots</i> (2021). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Love me nots (2021). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Bro-primitivism is another area of contraction. There’s just one painting by Robert Nava going under the hammer in London, at Christie’s evening sale. Auction houses are saying no to countless works by Jordy Kerwick, a stark reversal from October when his painting fetched $242,967 at Phillips in London. Ditto Susumu Kamijo, a Japanese artist whose poodle paintings have sold for as much as $274,724 since his auction debut in 2020, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

“People don’t have the confidence that they’ll make more than they paid,” the auction specialist said.

When the Zombie Formalism bubble burst, collectors watched how their investments plummeted at auction. The houses learned their lesson and came up with a new strategy.

“When the results start going down, we get really selective,” an executive said. “I don’t want it in my evening sale, I’ll put it in the day sale and off-season sale. So these things just get downgraded or they disappear.”

Others see this as a natural market evolution, from gluttony to refinement.

“The highest-quality artists rise to the top, and the public market starts to reflect that,” Galperin said. “You have extraordinary artists like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who has an incredible show at the Tate right now, or Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who’s going to open with Zwirner next year. These are artists  who are making Black portraiture and who are in extraordinary demand.”

But supply of top-quality work is always tight. Which is why auction houses are constantly on the lookout for new names whose work is related but less expensive and easier to get.

“You’ll get somebody who’s similar, an artist who’s like the B-version or Johnny-come-lately,” the auction executive said. “You see this in music, too.”

Ben Sledsens, <i>Wanderer with Dog</i> (2017-18). Courtesy of Phillips.

Ben Sledsens, Wanderer With Dog (2017-18). Courtesy of Phillips.

That’s what Sledsens (estimated at £80,000 to £120,000) may be to Nicholas Party (estimated at £900,000 to £1.3 million); and Angela Heisch’s Egg White Blue (estimated at £20,000 to £30,000) to Loie Hollowell’s Split Orbs in purple, ochre, and… (estimated at £400,000 to £600,000) at Phillips.

“If you can’t get a Marlene Dumas, you can get Claire Tabouret,” an advisor said about two female artists, one generation apart.

Tabouret’s market will be tested by her 2014 painting, Les débutantes (blanc lunaire), estimated at £250,000 to £350,000 at Christie’s. Another version of the painting fetched $388,454 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2021.

“It was just truly mindless for a while,” the auction executive said about the feeding frenzy in the ultra-contemporary market. “I feel like there’s a tiny, tiny bit of sense creeping in, people questioning why they’re spending so much on these things.”

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

Gerhard Richter’s Market Is Abuzz Following His Breakup With Dealer Marian Goodman. Here’s the Story Behind the Art World’s Most Shocking Defection

Gerhard Richter’s sudden departure from Marian Goodman Gallery after almost four decades sent shockwaves through the art world in December. It was the biggest defection of its kind in recent memory, constituting a dramatic rupture between one of the greatest living artists and the legendary dealer who took him to the pinnacle of curatorial and market acclaim.

The news was announced by David Zwirner Gallery, which gained bragging rights as the new representative of the Promethean artist. The move telegraphed that Richter, just shy of 91 at the time, still had the energy and hunger to do things his way.

But questions swirled. What precipitated such a seemingly abrupt break between Richter and Goodman, two nonagenarians who used to be friends? Was this a betrayal of Shakespearean proportions, or just time marching on? How did David Zwirner, a 58-year-old mega-dealer, accomplish this coup? And what does it all mean for the artist’s market, which generated $225 million at auction last year—besting Rothko and Basquiat and ranking fifth among the more than 400,000 artists tracked by Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

“It’s a very different proposition, going with David,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, a top executive at Phillips auction house. “If you want to have the last dance, it makes sense.”

Now, suddenly, there’s a lot more Richter buzz than we’ve seen in the past three years, during which the market’s heat shifted from the blue-chip-white-male segment to Black and female artists in the ultra-contemporary bracket.

Next month the Richter action will spill from auction salesrooms in London to David Zwirner’s gallery in New York to Hong Kong, where Art Intelligence Global—an advisory firm co-founded by Amy Cappellazzo—is organizing Richter’s first exhibition in the city, to take place during Art Basel.

Gerhard Richter working on one of his "Cage" paintings, Cologne, Germany, 2006. Artwork © Gerhard Richter 2020 (05102020) Photo: © Hubert Becker, Courtesy Gagosian.

Gerhard Richter working on one of his “Cage” paintings, Cologne, Germany, 2006. Artwork © Gerhard Richter 2020 (05102020) Photo: © Hubert Becker, Courtesy Gagosian.

Richter’s incandescent abstrаctions and somber, grisaille figurative canvases had been among the most sought-after works in the 2010s. Since 2011, not a year has gone by without at least one Richter painting surpassing $20 million at auction, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database; in 2014 there were six such lots, as Asia became a big driver of demand. There was a time when every Park Avenue collection of a certain caliber had a Richter prominently displayed. By 2016, Marian Goodman was selling his new large-scale paintings for $5.5 million a pop—and that was just a fraction of auction prices, which reached $46.3 million.

“She really turned him from a German painter who was known in the mid-’80s into a very respected international global player of abstract art,” Philipp Kaiser, president of Marian Goodman Gallery, said in an interview this week. He shied away from using a perhaps more crass but apt term: an art star.

It’s hard to know exactly what caused Richter to part with Goodman. Those who know them say it’s been a long time coming. Goodman hasn’t had the same omnipresence at the gallery of late. She’s spending this winter in Los Angeles. Last month she didn’t come to the opening of Andrea Fraser’s debut at her New York gallery. This week, she came to Frieze Los Angeles, looking thinner and smaller in a chic red coat, accompanied by her son.

There was a perception that Goodman, known to be fierce and territorial, wasn’t able to give Richter what he’s come to expect from her over the decades. There were “opportunities not responded to,” according to a person familiar with the gallery, in part due to her reduced presence in the gallery’s day-to-day.

“Marian never wanted to share Gerhard with anyone,” the person said. “Gerhard was her crown jewel.”

Gerhard Richter exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo by rune hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images.

Gerhard Richter exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo by rune hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images.

Meanwhile Gagosian gallery had been making a push to win Richter over, offering him representation, staging secondary-market shows in 2019 and 2020, and often featuring him in its publications. Andrew Leslie Heyward, who opened Marian Goodman’s London branch with a Richter show in 2014, now works at Gagosian. Richter’s wife, artist Sabine Moritz, who is also represented by Marian Goodman, was approached to do a show with Gagosian in Rome, according to Kaiser.

“They have tried desperately for years,” he said. “Whenever I read Gagosian Quarterly, there’s another article on Richter.”

A representative for Gagosian declined to comment.

Kaiser, an international curator who joined Marian Goodman in 2019, said that Richter’s departure had little to do with the matriarch’s lessened involvement in the gallery’s operation.

“He waited as long as possible,” Kaiser said. “But my sense is he wanted to make the decision himself. When it gets closer to your end, you look after yourself. He didn’t want anybody else to make the decision.”

The move is consistent with Richter’s artistic practice. “He’s always been radical,” Kaiser said. “He has this unsentimental side.”

The gallery reorganized in 2021, elevating executive directors to partners and forming an advisory board as it planned for succession. Kaiser, who is Swiss and speaks German, is trusted by Goodman and had a good rapport with Richter.

“I’ve known him for quite a while,” said Kaiser, who served as director of Ludwig Museum in Cologne, where Richter lives, from 2011 to 2013. “I’ve worked with him in the past.

While art market insiders expected Richter to go to Gagosian, it was the artist himself who reached out to Zwirner. Details were hatched out within weeks.

Gerhard Richter, <i>48 Portraits 1972</i> (1998). MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation. © Gerhard Richter.

Gerhard Richter, 48 Portraits 1972 (1998). MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation. © Gerhard Richter.

Richter had known David Zwirner’s father, Rudolf Zwirner, an influential dealer who co-founded the Art Cologne fair, showed Richter at his gallery in the late 1960s, and brokered the sale of his 1972 Venice Biennale project, 48 Portraits, to the Ludwig Museum, said Kaiser.

“We respect David and I think it makes more sense than Gagosian,” Kaiser said. “Gerhard’s work is expensive, but his work is also highly discursive and intellectual.”

Zwirner, in other words, is seen as being on a similar continuum as Marian Goodman. “Gerhard just wants a good custodian for his work,” said a person who knows Richter. “He doesn’t care about the buzz. He’s always felt divorced from the market.”

In recent years, Richter has been more focused on his legacy (and estate planning) than making new work. In May 2020, he established a private art foundation, Gerhard Richter Kunststiftung. Its holdings consisted of 127 artworks, spanning from 1965 to 2019, according to a hardcover catalog published in 2021. The foundation has given permanent loans to several German institutions, including the Richter Archive in Dresden.

(To be sure, that inventory is a tiny fraction of Richter’s famously prolific output; he made 545 abstract paintings in the 1980s alone, according to his online catalog raisonné.)  

Meanwhile Richter’s primary market is a shadow of what it once was. In 2017, Richter announced that he would stop painting due to the strenuousness of the process and his advanced age. Since then he has focused on smaller formats and works on paper. His recent group of 31 works titled mood—created by pouring glass paint on paper—were shown last year at the Beyeler Foundation to mark the artist’s 90th birthday.

Installation view of 'Gerhard Richter, Painting After All' at The Met Breuer, 2020. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Chris Heins

Installation view of “Gerhard Richter, Painting After All” at the Met Breuer, 2020. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Chris Heins

The last exhibition of Richter’s new large paintings took place at Marian Goodman in 2020, coinciding with his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the outset of the pandemic. Just five paintings were available for sale, with two-thirds on loan from the foundation.

“He stopped painting, and he makes very few works on paper,” said Kaiser. “There is no basement with works that he owns that can be sold now at a different gallery. The Richter market has moved mostly to the secondary market.”

Richter’s secondary market is robust, if uneven. In 2022, auction sales generated $225 million, ahead of Basquiat’s $221 million and Rothko’s $198.3 million. The auction market peaked at $299 million in 2012, when Richter became the most expensive living artist, but then steadily declined to $102 million in 2020.

Since the pandemic several key works came to the market, including a monumental seascape from the collection of Harry and Linda Macklowe (price: $30.2 million) and an abstract canvas owned by Eric Clapton (price: $36.5 million). Both prices fell within estimates, but didn’t set off any fireworks.

A major event that was poised to cement Richter’s significance—the Met’s retrospective “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All”—opened on March 2, 2020 and closed two weeks later along with the rest of New York City due to COVID-19. Years in the making, the show’s six decades worth of figurative and abstract paintings, glass sculptures, prints, and the hauntingly melancholy Birkenau Cycle (which had a room all to itself) remained largely unseen by the public. Its planned tour to Los Angeles fell apart as well, Kaiser said.

The picture is a lot more upbeat three years on. Richter’s show at Zwirner next month will feature several “last paintings” from 2016 to 2017, works on paper created in 2022 for the Beyeler show, and a glass installation, according to the gallery.

Things are heating up at auction, too. This week, Phillips announced it would offer a Richter abstract consigned by French collector Marcel Brient. Titled Mathis (1983), the early, more gestural abstract canvas will carry an estimate of £10 million to £15 million when it is auctioned in London on March 2.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1986). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1986). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s scored a 1986 diptych, Abstraktes Bild, spanning 12 feet across and estimated at more than £20 million. It will be offered during the Modern and contemporary evening auction on March 1.

Beyond that, an early figurative painting, Bathers (1967) is expected to headline a not-yet announced collection of Boston philanthropists Sandra and Gerald Feinberg to be offered at auction, likely at Christie’s in May. The blurry, grisaille depicts a group of female nudes. One auction house, which competed for the work, estimated it at $20 million to $30 million, according to a person familiar with negotiations.

Across the globe, Art Intelligence Global’s Richter exhibition during Art Basel Hong Kong will have works available at prices ranging from $1 million to more than $40 million.

Just a couple of highlights in that show have been announced so far. One was consigned by Dallas-based collector Howard Rachofsky. Another, Abstraktes Bild 809-4 (1994), is the same painting that Eric Clapton just sold at auction in May. Reporting on that sale, I noted that Asian interest in high-value lots seemed to have “been switched off with a click.” The only person bidding on the paining was its third-party guarantor, who, presumably, is now sending the canvas to Hong Kong.

Now AIG will test Asian demand again, at the time when Hong Kong is finally opening up after three years of pandemic-related restrictions.

“Last year, COVID restrictions were very harsh and not many people were in the mood for large purchases, unlike years before,” said Yuki Terase, an AIG partner. “I am hoping and do believe that Asian appetite is coming back this year. The mood is definitely better.”

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

High-Flying Charity Auctions Help the Causes the Art World Supports. But Who Do They Actually Benefit?

It was a high-wattage night at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach on Feb. 3, with a live auction by Sotheby’s, billionaire attendees like Julia Koch and John Paulson, and such celebrities as polo player “Nacho” Figueras, race car driver Jimmie Johnson, and Victoria Secret model Lorena Rae. The 800 tickets sold out in a blink, with prices ranging from $1,500 for individuals to $100,000 for sponsors.

By the time the dust settled, the Norton had raised $3.8 million for its curatorial, educational, and community-engagement programs. It was so much fun some guests forgot to eat.

“A lot of times at these galas you sit, it’s quiet, you have your rubber chicken,” said Sue Hostetler Wrigley, a Norton trustee. “This was not. This was the next level.”

Much of the event’s electricity resulted from the presence of 20 artists from as far afield as the Netherlands and Brazil. The six lots of the live auction totaled more than $700,000. One of the star artworks was an abstract painting by Marina Perez Simão that fetched $140,000 (her primary market prices range from $35,000 to $250,000). A painting depicting two nudes by George Rouy went for $160,000 (his primary prices top at $100,000).

The results are noteworthy—and not just because they blew past the presale estimates. Both artists are represented by blue-chip galleries: Perez Simão is at Pace, Rouy at Almine Rech. There are waiting lists for their primary market works. Not a single piece by either artist has appeared at auction, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

“I gotta call my mom,” London-based Rouy could be overheard saying excitedly after the gavel fell.  

Artist Marina Perez Simão, right, with Eva Al-Thani and Ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani at the Norton Museum of Art gala. Photo: Carrie Bradburn/CAPEHART

Artist Marina Perez Simão, right, with Eva Al-Thani and Ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani at the Norton Museum of Art gala. Photo: Carrie Bradburn/CAPEHART

Charity auctions have long been places to find deals and steals—and potentially write off some of the purchase cost (more on that later). In addition to helping the institutions we love and causes we support, these glamorous fundraisers are also a breeding ground for future market stars. They create a virtuous cycle—not dissimilar to the curse of BOGO—where everyone seems to benefit, but which is based on the asymmetry of access and information. While galleries and artists don’t directly profit from these sales, many find ways to indirectly monetize them to build up publicity and justify steep primary market prices.

But there’s also a risk. Many moons ago, a painting by Jacob Kassay, estimated at $2,000 to $8,000, fetched $94,000 at Kitchen benefit, unleashing a speculative craze for the silvery, shimmering paintings and leading to the young artist achieving an auction record of $317,000 at dizzying speed. Then prices fell off the cliff.

That number—so shocking at the time—looks almost quaint now, a decade later, when new works by untested artists like Anna Weyant sell for more than a million dollars at auction. Which is precisely the point. Emerging art is a high-stakes game. Those who can afford to play may get access to coveted works by artists too hot to obtain through galleries, which prioritize institutions over mere mortals, no matter how rich.

In this dynamic, artists who offer up fresh work for a charity auction know it can reap big rewards for the cause in question—while also potentially throwing their market out of whack. It’s a risk that buzzy artists are frequently enjoined to undertake. 

Nicole Wittenberg Sunset 36 (2023) is slated for amfAR’s charity auction in Palm Beach on March 11.
Courtesy of the artist, The Journal Gallery, New York, and Acquavella Galleries, New York, Palm Beach.

“The ask is constant on any big artist these days,” said Michael Nevin, owner of the Journal Gallery in New York. “It’s pretty tricky to get top works from top artists.”

Nevin would know. As the curator of amfAR’s auctions, he goes hunting for art donations all the time. He’s good at it. The nonprofit’s upcoming gala in Palm Beach on March 11 will include a brand new work on paper by George Condo, which would be priced at $750,000 on the primary market, and a sunset painting by Nicole Wittenberg, that typically retails for $42,000.

“A lot of artists give to give,” Nevin said. Some, like Eddie Martinez, are just generous, he said. Others, like Kenny Scharf, lost friends during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and want to support amfAR, which has raised millions of dollars for AIDS research. There are countless others.

Museums often tap artists they have championed—and these artists often step up. In 2013, Jasper Johns created a work specifically for the Whitney Museum of American Art to auction in order to raise money for its new building. It fetched $2.85 million, part of a group of other works benefiting the Whitney that Sotheby’s included in its marquee May sales of contemporary art that year. Altogether, the group totaled $19.1 million—eclipsing the estimate of $8.8 million to $12 million.

Auctioneer Robert Woolley, left, at Gay Games Auction in 2001. Photo: Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

Auctioneer Robert Woolley, left, at Gay Games Auction in 2001. Photo: Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

That sale was a turning point for charity auctions, according to Nina del Rio, Sotheby’s head of advisory and museum services. Up until then, charitable auctions were separate events. The New York Times obituary of Sotheby’s auctioneer Robert Wooley, who died in 1996, described him as “witty and tart-tongued pitchman who wheedled, needled, cajoled and shamed his society friends into spending millions of dollars at charity auctions.” In 2008, the Red auction, championed by Bono and Damien Hirst, made headlines, raising $42 million for AIDS research.

But the Whitney sale’s collaborative approach—incorporating the charitable works into a blue-chip evening auction—changed the game, and its success led to more collaborations, including with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2015 and the Hammer in 2019. All surpassed their high estimates.

“You got a couple of drivers,” del Rio said about the success of this approach. “You are celebrating an institution and you are giving buyers access to this great primary-market material.”

Works solicited by Thelma Golden to raise money for the new home of the Studio Museum in Harlem set off a feeding frenzy at the start of Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in May 2018. Mark Bradford, who has credited Golden with his career takeoff, created a painting, Speak, Birdman, for the sale. Estimated at $2 million to $3 million, it soared to $6.8 million. A painting by then relative newcomer Njideka Akunyili Crosby fetched $3.4 million.

A street-level view of the forthcoming Studio Museum in Harlem. Courtesy Adjaye Associates.

A street-level view of the forthcoming Studio Museum in Harlem. Courtesy Adjaye Associates.

The Studio Museum group raised $20.2 million, obliterating the estimated range of $6.8 million to $9.9 million. It was a perfect storm for the market, which was just starting to revalue the contribution of Black artists.

“I don’t remember anything quite like that,” del Rio said about that auction. “There were 20 people on each object. It was bananas.”

Since the pandemic, new works by in-demand artists have routinely appeared in the marquee auctions as the art world has rushed to cash in on the explosive global demand for contemporary art.

Many of the top auction prices for sought-after artists—including Rashid Johnson, Nicolas Party, and Dana Schutz—were set at Christie’s evening sales of 21st-century art.

Johnson, who has emerged as a leading voice (and one of the most commercially successful artists) of his generation, has been donating a painting to benefit sales almost every six months, resulting in ever-higher auction results over the past two years.

In May 2021, he donated Anxious Red Painting, which fetched $1.95 million at Christie’s to benefit Community Organized Relief Effort—more than six times its high estimate of $300,000. Six months later, in November 2021, he smashed this result with the $2.55 million sale of Bruise Painting “Or Down You Fall, sold to benefit ClientEarth, an environmental law charity. In November 2022, Johnson consigned Surrender Painting “Sunshine” to raise money for the Right of Return Fellowship to support and mentor formerly incarcerated creatives; it was a new auction record yet again, at $3 million (the prices include Christie’s fees).

Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth Menorca. ©Rashid Johnson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Daniel Schäfer.

Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth Menorca. ©Rashid Johnson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Daniel Schäfer.

Johnson’s primary-market prices have increased as well during this period. His large “Bruise” paintings, shown at David Kordansky Gallery in 2021, were priced at $600,000 to $1.2 million. Last June, large new paintings exhibited at the Hauser & Wirth branch in Menorca were offered from $975,000 to $1.75 million, according to a person familiar with prices.

Representatives for the galleries didn’t respond to my requests for comment on whether the increase in Johnson’s primary market prices were influenced by these results.

In addition to generosity and access, there’s another big consideration when it comes to the lofty prices achieved at charity art sales: their potentially tax deductible value. Opinions on this topic vary.

“There may be circumstances when buyers could seek a deduction,” a Christie’s spokesperson said. “But they should always consult a tax advisor.” (The house sold more than $2 billion work of art for charitable causes in 2022, in large part thanks to the estates of Paul Allen and Doris and Thomas Ammann.)

Auction houses also defer these questions to the charities themselves. The Norton Museum, which raised $1.5 million from its most recent live and silent auctions, encourages donors to consult with their tax advisors.

“That said, yes, we do provide buyers with a fair market value and note that any amount paid in excess of that may be tax deductible,” a Norton spokeswoman said via email. 

That doesn’t sit well with Ralph Lerner, co-author of Art Law, a must-have opus on the subject that is now in its 5th edition.

“That’s nonsense,” Lerner said by phone this week. “Some people argue that if the artwork’s market value is $400,000 and he paid $500,000, he would have been entitled to a charitable deduction of $100,000. Absolutely not. You can’t claim a charitable deduction because you bought it at a charity auction. The auction price is the fair market value. It’s not a cruise.”

The IRS will have to sort this one out, I guess. But it is telling that none of the museums that raised money for charity at Sotheby’s offered buyers supporting documentation for tax deductions. Caveat emptor, folks.

So, how do these auctions benefit the artists whose donations set the machinery in motion? Visibility, marketing, access to wealthy new fans, potentially higher primary-market prices, and a new benchmark for secondary sales. Dealers use these prices to pitch clients and sell out shows. Charitable works that are included in regular auctions are recorded alongside other results in the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database for posterity (unlike live and silent auctions conducted by nonprofits, which are not recorded).

“It’s just part of the cumulative impact,” said Marc Glimcher, president of Pace gallery, which represents Perez Simão and has a branch in Palm Beach. “This was a gift to a museum. We haven’t had a single piece come back for sale. Nobody wants to part with her paintings. The impact comes with where the secondary market is going.”

Auctioneer Simon de Pury conducts an auction on May 26, 2022 during the annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS Cannes Gala at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes. Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images.

Auctioneer Simon de Pury conducts an auction on May 26, 2022, during the annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS Cannes Gala at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes. Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images.

Kennedy Yanko made a star debut at amfAR’s Cannes gala in 2021, where her sculpture soared to $415,000 in bidding and was purchased by music entrepreneur and mega-collector Swizz Beatz. Her career has since skyrocketed. Next month she’ll have a solo show at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery in New York, a coup for any artist.

Artists get celebrated. At amfAR, they walk the red carpet with celebrities and are called out by auctioneer Simon de Pury during the gala. The Norton put together a program for the attending artists, including private tours of its collection, which now includes billionaire Ken Griffin’s treasures, and of Beth Rudin DeWoody’s private museum, The Bunker. Hostetler Wrigley, a Norton trustee, hosted a cocktail reception for the 20 artists and 30 art dealers at her home.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled the board, the museum, and the community was that all of these artists and dealers not only agreed to donate works but also to come down to Palm Beach and celebrate with us,” said Hostetler Wrigley. “The energy they bring is critical.” 

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

‘Gmail Art Advisors’ Are a Pestilence on the Market. Luckily, They Are Starting to Melt Away, One by One

When Wendy Cromwell began advising people on buying art in 2002, she didn’t want to be called a consultant because that word had a bad connotation at the time. So, she called herself an art advisor.

Two decades on, Cromwell feels ambivalent about that title.

“Now, I don’t want to be called an art advisor because the name is so tarnished by bad actors,” she said this week.

We’ve all heard stories: When the market gets hot, a new cadre of advisors arrives with the hopes of getting outsized returns—and fast. Highly transactional and not very scrupulous, they leech onto the same hot emerging artists, helping to push their prices into millions of dollars. They get kickbacks from the galleries in exchange for bringing business from their clients, who also pay them. They are happy to flip works quietly without galleries finding out—because they know people who know people who own the works, and can make a cut, no matter how small, by selling them. (Unlike the runners of earlier decades, the folks operate through social media and their Gmail accounts.) Some call them “10-percenters,” others “Gmail art advisors.”

An influx of "Gmail advisors" muddies the water when it comes to legitimate transactions. Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images.

An influx of “Gmail art advisors” muddies the water when it comes to legitimate transactions. Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images.

“A lot of people who printed out business cards that said ‘art advisor’ during the last couple of years, when things were frothier, will disappear back into the woodwork never to be heard from again,” said Todd Levin, a veteran advisor, whose clients have included former hedge-fund manager Adam Sender and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “It’s almost like a parallel ecosystem that comes up when the market gets strong. They appear like a chimera and they disappear as one, once the bubble deflates.”

The bubble for some contemporary artists may be deflating in front of our eyes. January has been mostly quiet. People start talking about “a return to quality,” which to me always sounds like a code word for a market in transition. The industry will have to wait till the London auctions in March and the New York ones in May to really gauge the temperature of the secondary market. Sales of Old Masters in New York have done surprisingly well, as my colleague Eileen Kinsella reported last week.

The influx of new art advisors coincided with the influx of new art buyers since the pandemic. Many are young, recently out of college, and related to an art dealer or collector (i.e., nepo babies), which gives them the initial entry into the system. They are highly transactional and not necessarily interested in art. People often use some kind of hyphenated description like “an advisor-dealer.”

Julie Curtiss, The whispers (2020). © the artist. Photo © Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy of White Cube.

Julie Curtiss, The whispers (2020). © the artist. Photo © Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy of White Cube.

“They are like shapeshifters,” Levin said. “They’ll adopt any form that best suits their desire to transact.”

While the names of bad actors are circulated by galleries, Gmail art advisors are usually absent from the black lists—because they are not known entities. 

“They appear out of the blue and often vanish into the mist,” said Allegra LaViola, a gallery owner who regularly receives emails seeking “available art” from art advisors she’s never heard of. “They often want your well known artists, which is obviously a no-go coming out of nowhere. Sometimes they do these blanket emails. They tend to be very mysterious about who their collectors are.”

An advisor of this kind is usually drawn to a collector of a similar speculative mindset, creating a symbiotic relationship that may be based on a shared transactional goal as much as sheer necessity.

“A really good collector wouldn’t be working with an advisor of this type,” Levin said. “And a collector of that type will be quickly ferreted out by an experienced advisor. You are not going to waste your time with them.”

Experienced advisors know that it could be as hard to get a $20,000 artwork as a $2 million one—and sometimes harder, given the access limitations for hot artists. They also know that indiscriminate buying leads to a collection whose value may go down 90 percent as soon as the works leave the gallery.

The surge of Gmail art advisors is in part a result of a low entry barrier into the field.

“Unlike being a stockbroker, which requires a rigorous process to get professionally certified, anyone could print up a business card that says ‘art advisor,’” said Alex Glauber, whose early professional experience was acquiring and then liquidating art of the Neuberger Berman and Lehman Brothers corporate collections.

“Any time that there’s a really buoyant and frothy market, especially one that’s filled with new collectors and a lot of heat around young artists, you get a number of people who participate as intermediaries and sort of masquerade as advisors,” he said, “because there is a surplus of people with money who want to spend it and are looking for direction.”

Access is essential, especially when you’re dealing with the primary market. Which is why newbie collectors may be drawn to those presenting themselves as having relationships with galleries.

Think of it as tourism, where art buyers are visitors and such advisors are guides. They’ll “take you to the bazaar, where they have the carpet dealer who’s a pal or a brother or whatever, and they’ll sell you all those carpets,” a young, savvy collector told me. “Every client has the same collection—basically the same five artists that the art advisor promotes.”

Joseph Yaeger, Sanctimony as a pastime! (2022). Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant, London.

Joseph Yaeger, Sanctimony as a pastime! (2022). Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant, London.

There’s a way to ferret out bad actors and find good ones. The Association of Professional Art Advisors, for example, has 151 approved members internationally, up from 111 in 2013, with its ranks including curators as well as consultants. The gold standard of the field is Elizabeth Szancer, the longtime advisor to Ronald Lauder, who helped organize the show of some 500 objects that make up “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection” at the Neue Galerie through March 20. It’s a rare public look at the private collection of the museum’s billionaire co-founder and president, whose taste ranges from medieval armor to Modern art. Levin, Cromwell, and Glauber are all members too.

Such a pedigree can be valuable, because being an art advisor involves much more than just getting an artwork or walking someone around an art fair.

“If you’re a collector in New York you’re probably acquiring from galleries and fairs, and you’re probably dealing with a lot of international shipments and administrative challenges that you probably don’t want to deal with,” Glauber said. “And that’s another key responsibility of a good art advisor.”

Educating clients, shaping their vision, researching provenance, and inspecting the condition of art are among other responsibilities. Historically, the role of an advisor has been played by curators and dealers. William Rubin, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the MoMA, advised the collector Leon Black. Art dealer David Nash found many irreplaceable treasures for Paul Allen.

The ranks of art advisors began to expand as more people began investing in art. These days, in addition to organizations like the APAA, there are global consortiums like AIG, co-founded by auction dynamo Amy Cappellazzo, and Schwartzman &, founded by her once-partner Allan Schwartzman, who advises artists and their foundations as well as collectors. The Fine Art Group and its rival the Winston Art Group offer advice on acquisitions, financing, and deaccessioning among other services.

John Baldessari, Money (with Space Between), (1991) courtesy Gemini G.E.L.© John Baldessari.

John Baldessari, Money (with Space Between) (1991) courtesy Gemini G.E.L.© John Baldessari.

Payments vary. Retainers used to be common, but a recent internal survey by APAA members revealed that being paid by commission based on a purchase price has gained traction in recent years. The standard is 10 percent, but that could go up to 20 percent on lower-value works, or fall far below at the trophy level, advisors said.

Undisclosed commissions from a gallery are a big no-no for an APAA member, as is holding inventory, according to Megan Fox Kelly, the organization’s president. The key is to always act in the best interest of a client, and uphold the greatest transparency, she said.

One cautionary tale is the epic legal battle waged by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who claims to have overpaid $1 billion in fees to Yves Bouvier, the Swiss shipping and freeport magnate, who procured 38 artworks for him over a decade in the capacity of an advisor.

The murkiness of the field is precisely why new people pour into it during frothy times but exit quickly in sober periods.

“It’s really hard to make money,” a collector, who deals on the side, said. “With these young people, they don’t realize that. It’s easy to set up, easy to get going, to show up at Art Basel or a White Cube dinner. Then they meet the wrong person. The wrong person flips the painting. And boom. Where do they go? I guess real estate. The next thing they’ll do is try selling condos.”

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook: