In May 2013, German artist Gerhard Richter broke his own record when his 1968 painting “Domplatz, Mailand,” which looks like a fuzzy black-and-white photograph, sold at auction for $37 million, the highest amount for any living artist.

It was a record he held for six months, until Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” smashed it, selling for $58.4 million at Christie’s.

The number staggered even the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkanen. “We are in a new era of the art market,” he said.

The total sales that night at Christie’s: $495 million, setting yet another record for the highest single auction haul ever.

A new era is one way to put it; another would be a world gone mad. As the .00001 percent run out of mansions to buy, they’ve poured their wealth into art. And not art many would find, well, good.

While there’s been a run on blue-chip artists such as Picasso, Pollock, Lichtenstein and Johns, collectors are increasingly throwing out the old rules, spending millions on artists still alive who are producing art that is less and less accessible.

The newer and more outré, the more middle-aged billionaires believe they have modern tastes. It’s a cynical attempt to be cool by consumption, and increasingly, the artists they collect create work for them that verges on contemptuous. Would you like to buy a pile of dirt? One billionaire did.

“I have no idea” what makes a good collector, says author and art expert Don Thompson. But for wealthy buyers, nothing’s more appealing than contemporary art.

“You can collect branded artists,” he says, “and be seen as ­having cutting-edge taste.”



In his new book, “The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art” (Palgrave Macmillan), Thompson explores this peculiar, secretive, insular world in which the rich can’t consume fast enough, while their artists produce with a hint of mockery and the prices go ever skyward.

Among the world’s wealthiest and most avid collectors is ­Peter Brant, the billionaire industrialist also known for his tumultuous marriage to supermodel Stephanie Seymour. Because contemporary art lacks provenance (rarely is it a museum piece, nor has it passed the art-world metric of remaining relevant for 40 years after its creation), one of the greatest factors in burnishing work is back story.

Usually, the story is invented or embellished by the dealer — but that of Brant’s “Stephanie” needs no exaggeration.

In 2002, the couple had the great satirical Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan to dinner at their ­estate in Greenwich, Conn. Brant was looking to commission something, and as Cattelan surveyed the library, studded with stuffed and mounted animals Brant had killed on safari, he had an idea.

“Your real trophy, Peter,” he said, “is your wife.”

And so off Cattelan went, ­returning in 2003 with a waxwork sculpture of a topless Seymour, cut in half and mounted to look like a dead gazelle. He called it “Stephanie”; the art world called it “Trophy Wife.” It was made out of wax, so Brant couldn’t hang it over a fireplace without it melting. As is often the case with commissioned sculpture, the piece was done in an edition of four: one for the buyer, one for the artist, one for the dealer, and one to be sold.

The original buyer, French businessman Francois Pinault — owner of Christie’s and the luxury house Kerig with a net worth of $15 billion — sold the piece in 2010 for $2.4 million. The buyer was New York’s José Mugrabi, a self-made Israeli businessman worth an estimated $795 million.

Aside from briefly loaning “Stephanie” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012, Mugrabi has kept it hidden in one of his two vast storage facilities, in Zurich, Switzerland, and in Newark. Mugrabi owns 3,000 pieces of art, including 800 by Andy Warhol.

“For the Mugrabi family, it’s an investment,” Thompson says. “He bought ‘Stephanie’ with the expectation that he could sell it later for a lot more money. In a given auction season, a house may offer 40 Mugrabi pieces.”

Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with” — a quote often mistakenly attributed to that great appropriator, Andy Warhol. It’s never been more true than today, when the rush to possess and rig the art market has created a situation akin to “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Even elite collectors admit it.

After a November 2013 Christie’s auction that grossed $380.6 million, former talent agent Michael Ovitz was disgusted.

“I am an art collector. This is not about art collecting,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. “For a moment last night, I thought I was in the commodities market.”

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