Art as a game

By Felix Salmon
April 27, 2011
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Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan make a great couple: they’re both immersed in the upper reaches of the art market, with Adam mostly buying and Amalia mostly selling. I spoke to them at the Artelligence conference — an entire event devoted to the dubious concept of “art as an asset class” — after they presented a slideshow of works which were sold at auction in 1973 and which are worth lots of money today.

Lindemann is a fascinating character: he treats the art world as a game, with the score kept in dollars. And Dayan, of course, is a great enabler — the lesson of looking at the current value of those works sold in 1973, she said, is that “if you buy great, great art, and the right work by the right artist at the right time, you win huge time.”

But of course that argument is fundamentally tautological, since Dayan’s definition of “great, great art” is precisely whatever art is most expensive right now. Similarly, when Dayan says that Picasso and Warhol are “quite consistently good, always,” that statement only really makes sense once you realize that in her mind, “good” is a synonym for “expensive.”

I asked Lindemann for the maximum amount of money he would ever spend on a work of art if he knew its value was going to zero, since I thought that might be a good proxy for the aesthetic value of great art, as opposed to its speculative value. But he was honest enough to tell me that he’d never buy such a work, no matter how cheap it was. When Lindemann collects art, he wants his work to be valuable and important to others — his own aesthetic enjoyment in the work isn’t enough.

There’s a telling back-and-forth at one point in the interview, when I ask Lindemann about late Jasper Johns, and Lindemann starts sneering about the polite, established artist living in Caribbean luxury and selling new paintings for $3.5 million apiece at Matthew Marks. Lindemann’s a provocateur, but when Dayan says, laughing, that now he’s said that “we can not buy anything at Matthew Marks any more,” she’s not entirely joking. The art world is all about building and establishing relationships, and being rude about a major gallerist’s biggest-name artist is never particularly endearing.

And Lindemann’s view of Robert Scull, the collector who sold his collection at that 1973 auction and was pilloried for it, has to be put in the context of Lindemann’s own brush with infamy when he allegedly flipped Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart back to the gallerist he bought it from for a profit of almost $20 million. (“Our role is against the dealers,” says Lindemann at one point. “We try to get one over on the dealers.”)

Lindemann refuses to comment on the Koons deal specifically, saying only that “I never bought anything I intended to resell” while his wife looks on with a priceless look of skepticism. And he does then admit that he has flipped art in the past. But the bigger message of this interview, I think, is that what we’re seeing here is a plutocrat at play. Lindemann loves buying and selling art — probably more than he loves the art itself. And he can easily afford to lose millions of dollars if a deal goes wrong. It’s a fun game for him. But it does ultimately put the lie to the idea that art is some kind of long-term store of value, rather than a plaything for plutocrats.

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One comment so far

What do you think are the biggest mistakes an amateur artist can make to blow there chances with a dealer, or is just how impossible is it for a new artist to break into the market and get recognized. I have noticed that there are quite a few artist, and artworks traded on the high end. How do you as dealers keep from being bored to death seeing the same pieces at auctions all the time. Is their room for some fresh blood.

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