A Collector’s Tale

by Barbara Guggenheim

This new mogul may be expert in Big Media business but now he’s being schooled by the art world. 2,819 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

Luck was with Pincus “Pinky” Peterman that day. Here he was, CEO and the largest shareholder of one of the 8547D799-C475-4659-B563-17A9A283F8B3biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world, including a film studio, television network, and a lot of new Silicon Valley ventures he didn’t totally understand. And now he’d acquired a prized online news service. Immediately some CNBC analysts said once again he’d purchased at too high a price. At first Pinky was hurt and depressed. After 24 hours, he snapped out it. He may have overpaid for what he’d bought so far, but he’d also learned a lot. An education, he realized, always comes at a price. Besides, he was the newest Big Media mogul and about to enjoy it.

Tonight, he found himself at a posh dinner party seated next to the most exquisite leggy blonde he’d ever seen. Not bad for a 48-year-old guy from Merrick on Long Island, he thought to himself, enjoying the view as his dinner partner shifted in her seat and allowed her skirt to ride up a little further so he could see what pleasure lay beneath.

Then the impossible happened. Somewhere between the appetizer and the main course, this vision named Natasha Rostova ran her fingers lightly down his thigh. Could he dare to imagine what would happen later? Peterman knew he was short, paunchy, and balding and that this was happening because his hostess had told Natasha that he was powerful and worth billions of dollars. But he didn’t care. His heart — and other parts — were pounding in rhythmic overdrive.

As Natasha lifted her manicured fingers from his thigh, she handed him a card which announced that she was the director of the Michael Simeon Gallery. As it happened, Pinky’s decorator had just started his huge new Holmby Hills home, and there were lots of bare walls crying out for art. After all, he was a mogul now and needed all the high-end accoutriments.

He suggested that Natasha check out his needs — all of them — by having dinner with him at the house the following evening.

Natasha arrived early, wearing a bright red minidress with a plunging neckline and carrying a small package under her arm. Before Pinky could properly appreciate her curves or offer her a drink, Natasha was busy unwrapping a painting.

“This just came in today,” she gushed. “One of our clients is going through a divorce and needs money. You know how it is in the art biz. It’s always one of the three ‘D’s — death, debt and divorce.” She smiled at the idea of so many useful disasters and propped up the painting on the back of a chair.

“You’re getting first crack at this,” she told him airily as she led him to a sofa opposite. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”

But the painting didn’t look like any kind of an opportunity to Pinky. “What is it, anyway?” he asked her.

“It’s a Picasso,” Natasha said impatiently. “One of his only paintings with a landscape in the background.”

“I don’t see a landscape,” said Pinky, squinting, “It’s just a bunch of lines and some bright colors.”

Natasha moved closer to him: “Shhh…” she whispered as she put her finger to his lips and her arms around him, then looked into his eyes. “Just let yourself get into it.”

Pinky looked at her enraptured. She was so much more attractive than the painting. Sure, it would be great to tell his hoity-toity tennis partners, O’Connor and Spiegelman, that he’d just bought a Picasso. But he sure didn’t want to live with this one. Trying to be diplomatic, he pointed to one of his huge blank walls.

“This painting is tiny, Natasha. What I need here is big.”

Natasha jumped up nimbly and held the painting against the smallest wall in the room. “Just look at that!” she enthused. "Have you ever seen such wall power?”

The thing looked like a postage stamp to Pinky who only had eyes only for Natasha. She sighed, knowing she couldn’t go back to Mike Simeon and tell him she’d struck out with the Peterman pigeon. She knew what she had to do.

“Why don’t we try it in the bedroom?” she purred. “Some people hang their best art there.”

By the following morning, the $4 million Picasso was Pinky’s and so, he thought, was Natasha. But once the money had been wired and the painting installed, Natasha was suddenly very busy. No, she couldn’t make dinner the next week or the week after that. Pinky knew a brush off when he heard it. “C’est la vie,” he thought to himself.

But he still had many walls to fill, and he was determined to conquer the art world just as he’d conquered Big Media.

The following week, Pinky was in New York City when his friend Charlie called to say he had an extra ticket to a major evening auction of Impressionist and Modern Art at Shaeffer’s auction house. Pinky was glad to tag along.

The evening of the sale, Charlie led Pinky to seats at the very back of the auction room. “I’m not a big enough buyer to have seats up front,” he apologized. “The further forward you sit, the more they expect you to spend.” Pinky was just happy being there. As the crowd filed in and slipped into the seats that telegraphed their spending power, he ogled the spectacle.

Everyone looked rich. The women were bedecked with glistening jewelry and the men wore custiom suits and elegant wristwatches. They preened and chatted non-stop, until the auctioneer mounted the podium and started to take bids on a procession of Renoirs and Monets. Pinky would have liked to buy a few — at least these paintings looked like something — but he knew his decorator, who’d filled the house with modernist furniture by the likes of Prouvé and Lelou, would have a heart attack if he brought home anything in an ornate gold frame.

Instead he watched. On one lot, he noticed an auction house employee on the telephone cajoling an absent bidder to keep increasing his bids. Pinky, a canny businessman, narrowed his eyes. He saw that no one else in the room seemed to be bidding, yet the price was still rising. The employee got his telephone client up another few bids and then the auctioneer, who had been giving a stellar performance taking bids from the chandelier, quickly brought down the gavel.

Pinky was new to this game, but he was a quick study.

“Shouldn’t the guy on the phone have stopped bidding, let the painting fail to sell, and try to buy it after the sale for less?” he asked his friend.

“Yeah, definitely,” Charlie replied. “But he’d have to know there were no other bidders, and the house sure wasn’t telling him.”

Pinky made a mental note to nix phone bids. He wasn’t going to get played that way.

The next morning at his corporation’s Park Avenue offices, Pinky had a visit from his lawyer Morrie, a portly older guy who fancied himself a serious collector.“You sat where???!!” Morrie howled as Pinky described his evening at the auction house.“You were in the cheap seats,” he scoffed. “Everyone who’s anyone sits in a skybox.”

Pinky, who’d seen Eli Broad sitting downstairs, was confused and quickly changed the subject to Morrie’s art collection.

“So, what have you bought recently?” he asked with feigned interest.

“Oh, I just bought something from Gagosian,” Morrie replied proudly. At first Pinky was confused because that wasn’t the question he’d asked. Then his eyes opened wide in recognition: dropping the name of an important dealer was more swell to Morrie than dropping the name of the important artist.

Pinky’d have to remember that. And he’d have to get a skybox.

As soon as Morrie left his office, Pinky called Shaeffer’s and asked for the head of the Contemporary Art department. “I’d like a skybox for next week’s sale,” he announced when the young man came onto the line.

“So sorry, sir,” came the haughty answer from Christian Spinks. “Those seats are reserved for our best customers.”

Pinky didn’t blink. “Translate that into dollars, please.”

Christian hesitated, not used to such directness. He quickly recovered and blurted out, “I guess about fifty a year ought to do it.” When Pinky didn’t flinch, Christian continued more smoothly. “Why don’t you come in after hours one night this week? We’ll show you some private treaty material — great pieces that don’t come to auction — and, of course, you can also view next weeks’ sale in privacy and comfort.”

Two evenings later, Pinky met Christian at Shaeffer’s side entrance and was quickly ushered into the bowels of the auction house. All around the two men were stacks of paintings and mounds of sculpture waiting to be catalogued for sale.

Christian was leading the way and paused before a watercolor of two fishermen in a canoe. “Isn’t this a splendid Homer?” he murmured, gazing reverently.

Pinky was fascinated. “You mean that Greek guy who wrote The Odyssey was also a painter?” he asked, eagerly.

“Actually, this work is by Winslow Homer, a 19th century American painter,” Christian gently corrected in his soothing British accent.

They continued down a corridor to a gallery where several works were displayed for viewing. “These won’t come to auction,” Cjristian explained. “Because some sellers don’t want to wait for a sale date, while others prefer an absolutely confidential transaction. So these pictures will be sold privately. After you’ve had a look at these, we’ll preview the works in next week’s sale.”

Pinky had memorized some big names and images, so a Franz Kline and a Gerhardt Richter immediately caught his eye. Christian validated the choices and then steered Pinky to a work by Robert Gober that looked like a giant urinal, and a huge photo of the New York Mercantile Exchange by Andreas Gursky. Pinky, who loved haggling, made an offer for all four. Christian was delighted and said he’d get back to him the next day.

Pinky kept very quiet while they next viewed the works in the upcoming sale. But before he left the building, Pinky told Christian that the de Kooning in the sale was number one on his list and it was going to be his, price no object. Christian said goodbye then immediately spread the news to his colleagues, who happily warned all the prospective buyers that they’d have to bid higher for the de Kooning or go home empty-handed.

A week later, proudly seated in one of the most coveted skyboxes, Pinky surveyed his new domain. Sipping champagne and munching hors d’oeuvres brought to him by uniformed waiters, he shifted in his seat and itched to do battle for the de Kooning. Looking down at the crowd, he noted that most attendees were younger and hipper than those he’d seen at the Impressionist and Modern Art sale the week earlier. Note to self: collecting contemporary paintings is more fun. In fact, the color black was so predominant that he thought the salesroom resembled a funeral parlor. Pinky hunched deeper into his inappropriately plaid sport coat and resolved to go shopping in the morning.

But first there was a de Kooning to buy, and suddenly there it was on the turntable. Pinky started to bid. The price escalated by hundreds of thousands. It was adding up pretty quickly.  Who’s that in the first row bidding against him? Ah yes, that’s the guy who heads a boutique Wall Street firm with a conservative investing approach and good track record. If he’s into this thing, it’s got to be good. So Pinky doubled down and when the smoke cleared he’d bought the de Kooning for $18 million — a little more than twice its published estimate.

High from his success, Pinky was leaving the auction room when he spotted Tony Riccio, an old friend from junior high school days whom he’d heard was an art dealer now.

“Hiya!” he greeted Tony, eager to crow about his recent purchase. “Who do you think just bought that de Kooning??!!”

But Tony was dismissive. “Sure, sure, very nice picture. But de Kooning is yesterday’s news. Come down to my gallery in Chelsea. I’ll show you what’s happening in the real art world.”

So the following Saturday, Pinky paid a visit to Tony’s gallery, which turned out to be an immaculate cube — cool, white, and quiet. Pinky felt like he’d walked into some kind of church, especially when the tall slim receptionist greeted him in hushed tones. She leaned over and rang a silent buzzer which summoned Tony.

Pinky was eager to see the art on offer, but as they walked around the exhibition, he wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was art at all. In the corner were rolls of toilet paper stacked in a triangular shape, a 10-foot length of chain link fence adorned the back wall, and in the middle of the floor was a bust of a crocodile made of rather bumpy slimy looking pre-chewed chocolate.

Tony explained that this was a group show of hot young artists, but he seemed most intent on steering Pinky to a private viewing room where, he explained, Pinky would see the “really good stuff.” How could Pinky know that Tony privately called it his “sting room”?

In a moment, Pinky was seated with Tony on a sofa opposite a velvet easel, while an art handler consulted a card and adjusted a bank of pink and white lights. Pinky remembered his mother’s dictum that “everything looks better in pink.” Art, too? Suddenly two more art handlers entered, moving silently in Prada loafers, and placed a six-foot-square canvas carefully on the easel. Pinky squinted at it. It was almost entirely blank, save for a few squiggles in a different shade of white.

Tony smiled. “This is something special, pal. It’s by the super hot new Chinese artist, Weng Fong. China’s where it’s all happening now and Fong is the happening guy.”

Pinky looked harder at the Fong, but saw only an expanse of blinding white. “There’s nothing on that canvas, Tony,” he said.

Tony assumed a professorial tone. “Of course there isn’t. The artist is pushing the conceptual envelope. He’s going where nobody has gone before. The whole point here is the latent force of his work. This is seminal. It’s called Pregnant. “

“How much?” Pinky found himself asking.

“Two million, but it’s already on reserve to the MFA in Boston,” Tony replied. Then he paused. “You know, museums are notorious for wanting long payouts, and I’d love you to have it. But I have to warn you, other museums have already asked to borrow it for shows.”

“Which museums?” asked Pinky warily.

“It’s all hush-hush,” Tony said, waving the question away with an airy gesture. “I can’t say till the PR breaks. But I can tell you that every major collector in town has or wants Weng’s work.”

“How about Ella Barry?” asked Pinky, naming the only collector whose name he knew.

Tony smiled the smile of an animal closing in on its prey: “Of course!” he said, “She wants me to take her to his studio in Beijing next week.”

Pinky considered. There was a wall in his den painted chocolate brown and this white picture might look good against it. Besides, back in Merrick, Tony had chosen Pinky for his basketball team when nobody else would. Loyalty was important to Pinky.

He bought the Weng Fong without negotiating. A month later, when Pinky’s accountant suggested that he get an outside appraisal for Pregnant, it came back at $1 million — half what he had paid. He’d lost that kind of money in the stock market before, but for this? Pinky wasn’t happy. He left the office early and went home to bed.

But he didn’t stay there long. Pinky’s name was “out there” now and invitations to art world events kept rolling in. The following week, Pinky dragged himself out of his Holmby Hills mansion and attended a swanky dinner party at a dealer’s house where he was seated next to Angie, an elegant sexy brunette. It seemed that Angie just loved Weng Fong. Could she come over to his place and take a peek?

The next night, as Pinky iced a bottle of champagne in preparation for Angie’s arrival, he realized he was feeling better. He may have overpaid for what he’d bought so far, but he’d also learned a lot. An education, he realized, always comes at a price. Besides, the night was young, the Weng Fong looked amazing against his chocolate wall, and Angie was ringing his front doorbell. Grinning happily, Pinky lit the light over his de Kooning, smoothed his black Armani jacket and went to greet her.

This short story first posted on October 17, 2015.


About The Author:
Barbara Guggenheim
Barbara Guggenheim is a partner in the renown art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher Associates. She holds a doctorate in art history from Columbia University, has taught in colleges, worked at Sotheby’s, headed two departments at Christie’s and lectured for years at the Whitney Museum. She writes articles and commentary for magazines. Her latest book, Art World: The New Rules Of The Game, comes out this fall.

About Barbara Guggenheim

Barbara Guggenheim is a partner in the renown art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher Associates. She holds a doctorate in art history from Columbia University, has taught in colleges, worked at Sotheby’s, headed two departments at Christie’s and lectured for years at the Whitney Museum. She writes articles and commentary for magazines. Her latest book, Art World: The New Rules Of The Game, comes out this fall.

  7 comments on “A Collector’s Tale

  1. Clever spoof, disturbing exposé, original and entertaining take on the behind-the-scenes of the art world. It’s a light-hearted romp, but is really so much more than it first seems. Poor naive Pinky. I don’t think it will end well for him.

  2. This is really a very disturbing story, on many different levels, not least of which is the mutual sexual exploitation depicted between art sellers and buyers, which puts everyone in a bad light. I clearly understand the intention of the author to remind us all that, like every other business these days, the art business is very much "caveat emptor", or, as W. C. Fields would put it, "Never give a sucker an even break". However, as some of the practices depicted are not only immoral, but also borderline illegal, I have to wonder if we, as a society, have fallen so far below the line of moral convention that we can no longer operate with any sense of fair dealing whatsoever. Of course, I recognize that I am, perhaps, just being naive. It’s more than possible that there was NEVER any such thing as "legit business". Except, perhaps, in a few old Frank Capra movies.

  3. OMG! I loved this compelling tale of Pinky, told with a Dashele Hammett flair it surprises at every turn. It’s bitingly funny, smart and sexy expose of the art for sale world and a story HBO would "die for"

  4. Bravo!!! A delightful story brilliantly told by a consummate art insider. Pinky needs a sequel.

  5. Brilliantly written story, OBVIOUSLY based on fact, about the kinds of men who think they know everything about everything — and don’t….

  6. Finally, the fine art angle explored, Brava & heard a true story once about the art tech/restorers who graffiti-ed their own art criticism inside a huge Jeff Koons balloon doggie, ps.

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