LA MAISON DU DÉLICE
Yellow. Glass. Suitcases. Security. Attendants. Announcements. Signs. News. Departures. Planes.
“You don’t recognise me?”
“Are you high?”
Sometimes I don’t know where I am. I’ll be transferring planes, in the intra-national-no-man’s-land, and it’s as if I’m in a trance: following arrows, carried by travelators, monorails, shuttle buses.
“I most certainly am not high!”
We hug. I hold on that little bit longer. Need to gather myself. He pulls back to scrutinise my beady eyes. “Good God, you look terrible.”
“You know I never can lie to you, Patric. Let me guess, one too many steins at the Magic Circle? It’s good to see you. Where are you headed?” He lifts a boarding pass from my breast pocket. “China? Très intrigant. Come, you have time for a drink. Are you with Rudolph?”
“Then I shall be your guest.”
Rudolphs: a chain of invite-only lounges and private terminals. Their clean, dark, meditative interiors offer an antidote to the brusqueness of airports. My mood improves every time I step inside one. I am so grateful for their existence.
We are greeted at the door by the maître d’. He escorts us to a booth. “Can I get you gentlemen anything?”
“I’d like a G&T. Very large. Double. Triple. Maybe bring me two.”
“Bring the man a pint of gin-tonic,” says Sami, “and one for me, also.” Sami smiles. He knows I’m on a comedown. (Full disclosure: I have also taken a Xanax.) He and I go way back, there’s no pressure to put on a show of propriety. “It is good to see you, Patric. It’s been a minute.”
“May I ask what trip you’re currently taking?”
“I told you, I’m not high.”
“No, to China. What is your business there?”
I nod in assent, wary to expand.
“All is well in the empire of Verbekes?”
“Ruscha next, non?”
“Yes, September 13th we open.”
“We shipped the pieces from LA.”
The smallest of small talk. Icy, stilted. Between two who were once the closest of friends. Our sizable drinks arrive. I take a large slug - mmm, perfection - I’m overdue a hit of sugar, bubbles, ice, spirit.
I wish I could talk freely, gossip about Renée and the island and helicopter ride, but that would be rubbing Sami’s nose in it.
Silence extends into awkward silence.
“You are now managing-director at Montandon-Ramseyer, no?”
“All is well there?”
“Oui. It is not what I dreamed of but…I do my bit where I can. Some advising on the side.”
“You always were an on-the-side kind of guy,” I say, an attempt at lightness.
“I used to have Samia on my side but now there is only emptiness.” Sami sobs. I don’t know what to say. I should offer comfort, but how? Put my hand on his? I think better of it, but when his sobbing gets louder, I force myself. I give him a little squeeze and he grips me tightly. “Merci. It never gets easier. I am just filling…how do you say le vide?”
“Mon vide est très grand.”
Samia was his dog. A beautiful shar-pei. She died because...it’s a terrible story. Those of a sensitive nature may do well to skip ahead to this symbol:
Sami took Samia everywhere - Sami and Samia, Samia and Sami - they were a thing. They even wore matching tailored outfits. Collectors, curators, artists – everyone loved Samia. She was an asset in business: if Sami brought her to the negotiation table, who could resist? With their ripples of sausagey fat, it is impossible to not love a shar-pei. To not want to cuddle and smush their pudgy bodies and kiss those helpless faces, one must have a heart of iron.
Sami and I were colleagues at Sotheby’s Paris. We joined the intern programme together and quickly became rising stars there.
We once made a work trip to meet Anselm Kiefer. His studios outside Paris were spread across a vast property. Barracks is a more apt description. He owned hundreds of acres in which he created military scenes, a hellish playground of trenches, watchtowers, prisons and barbed wire. Kiefer used the environment to excavate the war - memories, nightmares, the inheritance of grief - translating these into painting and sculpture.
Our visit was to verify some works. One of Kiefer’s agents met us at the entrance and escorted us through the grounds. It was an eerie place. Made more perverse by the hundreds of assistants. They lived and worked on site. All wore the same uniform: blue overalls. All wore the same expression: haunted. Which I suppose came from being surrounded by such terrible scenography. It resembled a cult.
We were taken inside a storage facility. There was a tower built of wood and corrugated sheets, several sculptural piles of rubble, and what looked like a shed made of solid lead.
The inmates were threading cable through a gin wheel on the ceiling. They went about their duties oblivious to the flamboyant gallery folk. How they could ignore adorable Samia, however, I did not know. The cable was attached to the shed. The shed was hoisted off the ground and—
I shan’t spin a yarn: the lead shed fell.
Samia must have heard the cable snap first with her doggy hearing, for she let out a bark, and I felt a shove, “Patric, move!” and heard a woof, curtailed.
“Scheisse!” someone bellowed. “Etwas hat passiert!”
It was the great man himself. Anselm Kiefer was stood at the top of a staircase, surveying at the scene.
The shed had impacted the floor so heavily it partially sunk into the ground.
That was six years ago.
Sami spiralled. His joie de vivre became façade. He drank too much, spent too much. He broke up with Piedro, his long-term partner. He got sloppy at work - coming in late and getting drunk at openings, foolish errors. He was ultimately done for by trading works independently of Sotheby’s, i.e. using the great empire’s connections to take deals privately. This was - still is - the ultimate sin. Artworld encourages a pioneer adventurism but some lines must never be crossed. He had betrayed his professional allegiance to Sotheby’s, and the behemoth took the severest of reprisals: issuing a blackball through the Magic Circle.
One dismal February morning, I helped him move out of his apartment on the Rue de Babylone. He had found a new job in Frankfurt and, to my shame, I was relieved to see the back of him. My good friend, my partner in crime, was long gone, and I had grown tired of his depressed and destructive replacement.
After Frankfurt, he went to Seville, Den Haag, Lyon. A spiral of diminishing galleries that swiftly taught Sami just how small Artworld was: no sooner had he settled in a new job than he would be asked to leave. Finally Sami crash-landed at New Modern Contemporary, a Chelsea showroom for furniture and interiors, with a little sideline of decorative art, originally bought by a Libyan exile for his wife who - soon bored of the job - installed Sami as manager. Sami turned it around. He removed the furniture, rebranded as NMC, and programmed an exciting series of exhibitions.
Sami was a gifted discoverer of young talent. Working with emerging artists is a role akin to midwife: one guides safe and healthy passage into Artworld. Transforming the minnow to middling to mega earner is essential to our community, but I never had a knack for it. Emerging artists were too needy, too idealistic. They pestered and micromanaged and fixated on irrelevancies e.g. endless formatting of email-invites. They could not cede control. There comes a point where you must let go...let go, and trust in your dealer.
Dealing with Dealers: Some Tips for Artists
Charlatans, crooks, incompetents, amateurs. Artworld’s full of ’em. These bad eggs burn artists time after time, turning many away from the industry completely. An artist, ideally, should find a good guy, a saint, an angel amongst the fallen - someone like...me - to make them millions. The million-dollar question: how do you get a good dealer?
Well, firstly, the artist needs to be DEALER-READY. Part of becoming and remaining dealer-ready is to learn this simple truth: BETTER TO BE SINGLE THAN IN A BAD RELATIONSHIP. One of the great myths is that it is preferable to be with a gallery than without. This is false, it’s a lie and it’s stupid. When we are alone, we work harder. We hustle. Hustle is everything. Hustle is what will move the artist towards that dreamstate LIVING OFF YOUR ART. Getting there comes in increments. Prices don’t leap up. In the early days, an artist should pursue any sale - to friends, grandmothers, at car-boot sales, open studios - as it gives them a taste for selling and, vitally, KEEPS ART MOVING.
(A spirit-crushing malaise can take hold of the artist when years of production accumulate around them. Their studios become mausoleums and they are eventually buried alive under the weight of their history. An associated disorder is the insanity of artists growing too attached to their work. Not wanting to let go, they wildly overprice, and pursue screwball notions of ‘the right buyer’. The healthy artist does all they can to move art out of the studio and into new homes.)
Only once these matters are resolved, should an artist consider dating. (I will pursue this analogy because the knowledge one gains dating can be applied to most business relationships.) Never forget that eternal lesson of modern romance: HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. If that dealer isn’t receptive to your needs, isn’t replying to emails, isn’t planning a future together, then they most definitely are not the one. Walk away. BEWARE EXCUSES ‘Next year will be your year’, ‘the market isn’t quite right at the moment’, ‘he loved the painting, but he’s downsizing apartments’. I can reveal these lines are as old as the hills: the bottom line is $$$. Does the dealer make money? That is the ultimate question an artist should ask when wondering if their dealer is the one. A dealer doesn’t need to be a friend or nice or charismatic: they need to earn you a few quid. Exhibitions and press are important, but dollars keep this show on the road.
Extra defence against the aforementioned miscreants: TEST THEM When dealers first sniff around, make them sing for their supper and prove they can flog a painting before you jump into bed. Too many artists sign over their whole stock before discovering maybe this isn’t a happily-ever-after match. Therefore, PROTECT YOURSELF. Avoid contracts. Never pay to play. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Keep an inventory of who has what and where it is - you’d be amazed how much work goes ‘missing’ (especially when a relationship sours). If things do go south and your career is a checklist of bad mistakes, take comfort: NOTHING EVER LASTS FOREVER. We can all come unstuck and derailed - just pick yourself up, avoid bitterness, and remember in Artworld you are only dead until you’re alive again.
As you can see, this is stuff I know. But I’m no teacher or mentor or sage. The Samis of this Artworld are welcome to the young: I prefer working with dead artists, who are so much more professional.
Happily, the trend has been towards posthumous career development of artists. There being only so many superstars - your Twomblys, Bacons, Warhols - galleries hunt lesser-known figures - say, Ken Price, or Michael Andrews - artists who might not have had Tate or Met retrospectives during their lifetimes, but consistently produced quality. We buy up the lot - work, licensing, the whole kit and caboodle.
When forced to work with living artists, my preference is for the barely-living. The Septuagenarian Plus - those who know how to say ¥€$. They get it. Studios, staff, divorces, kids, a place in the Hamptons: the basics require a dealer who pays the bills.
My favourite artist is one such elder statesperson: Alex Katz. This guy’s still churning out the masterpieces in his nineties. He is an example of the productivity that can be achieved in old age. Not that he was a late-bloomer. He found his mature style early and stuck with it - evolving, yes, but with a clear throughline. Katz’s paintings are figurative and abstract. Figurative abstraction. He simplifies faces down to bold colour fields. This could look cold or anonymous, but his paintings always convey so much character, life, humour. His colours embody an old-school American optimism. Compare Katz to, say, Lucian Freud. A portrait by Freud is musty - one can smell the damp - the paint handled with the most turgid suffering. That is the difference between Brits and Americans. Katz doesn’t have that material struggle - or doesn’t need to show us the struggle. His knowledge over colour and viscosity is intrinsic to the pleasure of looking at one of his canvases. There is comfort, a sense of ease, one experiences in the presence of a master. And it helps on our side that his paintings are big. The Rule of the Art Market: bigger canvas, bigger price tag. In the secondary market, opinions of ‘significance’ and ‘quality’ come into play, but when a work first goes on sale, size matters.
Whereas Katz has had success throughout his life, it is not uncommon in older artists for there to be an urgent hunger to achieve fame. (One could say they finally become ‘Dealer-Ready’.) Indeed, it is legacy-building, they are playing catch-up: once death signals its approach, the artist strives to take their good name to the standing they always believed it should be. Art is decent that way: you are never too old to be discovered. You may go in and out of fashion, disappoint, alienate, make enemies, but things come around. All you must do is Keep Working.
While my preference (if I must deal with the still-breathing) is end-of-life representation, Sami had the knack for working with the living young. It’s what he specialised in at NMC. Sami knew how to polish rough diamonds - administering that leap from degree show to commercial gallery. He hosted a series of successful debuts that put NMC on the map. Once that happened, however, the Magic Circle cottoned on and it was goodbye Sami.
Was the Magic Circle ruthless? Should they have allowed Sami a second chance? That is not for me to say. Like any powerful body, they are fiercely protective and self-serving. And so Sami found himself at the end of the line. That inevitable last stop in Artworld: logistics.
Storage, packaging, transport. Vital work. Requiring massive knowledge – and, my goodness, there’s money in it – but it is invisible. Thankless. Definitively unglamorous: no one invites the van man to the opening.
This descent in his quality of life led to Sami’s grieving for Samia to shift to obsession. What money he had he spent on portrait commissions of her. He couldn’t let go. On the occasions we crossed paths, conversation always turned to his deceased dog.And so it is, years later, as he weeps for his late friend in the Rudolph.
“Pardonne-moi. I am convinced it would be different if I was in a position of stature. Too long as a nobody, one forgets every being somebody. How long can I go on at Montandon-Ramseyer? I am a servant to this beautiful feast watching beautiful people, but I am hidden.”
“A change of jobs perhaps?”
“Perhaps Death is hiring? ”
“I must accept that I am no longer of service to this world.”
“Do not talk that way.”
“I used to rub pâté on my cheek that she would lick away. Sometimes I dream that she still does. I wake and my cheek is wet…with tears.” The waterworks resume. He sobs for some time, dabbing his eyes with a silk handkerchief, before he composes himself and says, “There is one idea I’ve had…”
Are there three more deadly words than ‘I owe you’? As the dust settled in Kiefer’s studio with Kiefer running around screaming his head off, I had told Sami, “You saved my life.” And then his face, ravaged and deformed by grief, changed as I said: “I owe you.” I remember again that look as he rambles, “Patric, we are united by a bond that spans life and death. How I wish I myself could transcend those worlds. If I could pass through, just for a visit, to the land of departed pets. Oh, imagine such a place! The fortunes some would spend for a day pass. To hold Samia once more. To tell her I love her. And to tell her how sorry I am. I’m sorry I let her…” (Tears.) “Sometimes, I confess, I wish it was you who had died.” (I just nod. It is possibly the sanest thing he’s said today.) “Why did I push you to safety? I’ve played that moment over and over in my head. Why? Why not Samia? You were – you are – my friend, but I loved Samia. I loved that petit chien more than my mother. Here. An Elizabeth Peyton.” He pushes his phone across the table. It shows an exquisite portrait. Just a few strokes that capture Samia, her haughty bonhomie, entirely. “There’s a lab in Seattle that utilises intelligence artificielle…”
Here we go again with the AI - and why not? Having observed the miracles of Noa Lupukina, who am I to consider Sami insane as he goes on, and on, about AI, bio-tech, DNA-splicing and dead pets being ‘re-lifed’.
“...but where am I to find ten million dollars?”
I’ll lend it to you.
Is what I should say. What is ten million? A trifle, peanuts, a paltry sum. But I am going through...I’m loath to call them money troubles.
Patric Farmer’s Financial Outgoings
‘Infinity Cruise’ I installed my parents on what is essentially an apartment aboard a boat. It has been so good for our relationship! My parents love to cruise and we catch up occasionally when they are on shore leave - in Cannes or Curaçao - for lunch or a cappuccino. I perceive their gratitude that I am funding happiness in their golden years.
‘Family Home’ I bought a glorious semi-detached family home for my son and his incredible mother. Neither asked for nor needed this but I remain determined to prove my mettle as a father.
‘You-Know-What’ Covering the costs of the clean-up, compensation to a local farmer, fines from emergency services, settlements for several injury claims and damages to a Dior dress.
For the first time in my life, I’m in debt. Am I worried? Nope.
The Secret taught me there’s no use worrying about the filthy lucre. A sentiment reinforced by Roland. During one of our early meetings in Bishop’s Stortford, Roland showed me a projection of the cash I can expect to generate over the course of my life. Huuuuge sum. He explained there will be moments when the availability of that money is diminished. The lesson is to not allow myself to lose confidence in these instances, either in the short or long term. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
But $10 million.
As I watch Sami weep across the table from me, I just want out. But when he leaves the topic of AI dogs, and my interest is piqued...
“You are familiar with Peter Krühl?” (expert in early 20th Century European painting regularly used at Sotheby’s for verification.) “He is about to publish the catalogue raisonné for Modigliani.”
“But the Ceroni?” (Ambrogio Ceroni, Italian appraiser and critic, who in the seventies published the Modigliani catalogue raisonné that remains the Bible for that artist.)
“A mess, as well you know, riddled with gaps.”
“Nevertheless, no auction house will touch a work that isn’t in the Ceroni.”
“Krühl has the support of the Modigliani estate.”
I take a sip of G&T. “That could be a game-changer...if true.”
Modigliani is an artist close to our hearts. Sami and I essentially discovered him. Sure, he died before either of us was a twinkle in any eyes of any of our grandparents, but it was Sami and I who elevated Modigliani’s into the premier leagues. There was a sale at Sotheby’s where a Modigliani painting expected to fetch 50 went for 110. We did that. We got him entry into one of Artworld’s most hallowed havens: The $100 Million Dollar Club.
It was at Sotheby’s that I learned the secret of the sell is desire. With every weird and wonderful object that came through our door, it was our task to concoct the story that would inspire the desire.
The nebulous, abstract, always-on-your-mind itch that whispers you can’t live without me - that is desire.
Desire is scarcity. Desire is zeitgeist. Desire is mystery. Desire is discovery. Desire is rediscovery. Desire is victory. Desire is manufactured.
The $100 Million Club remains exclusive. The likes of Picasso, Warhol, and Bacon reside there, yet none foresaw Modigliani joining the ranks. But when a major painting of his landed at Sotheby’s, Sami and I shared a feeling his time had come. Buyers for early 20th Century painting were increasing, there were a number of Modigliani museum retrospectives scheduled...and he was - still in - an artist with that ineffable something.
It stems from his being a ‘problem child’ for Artworld. One of those wayfaring turn-of-the-century Parisians that died young and left troves of sketches, rolled canvases, and unsigned masterworks. Most unprofessional, by today’s standards, as new Modiglianis kept being ‘discovered’.
To this day, Modigliani seems to attract an undercurrent of shady dealers who work in the gaps of plausible deniability. He has sustained the twin industries of historians verifying and fraudsters faking. Problematic as this can be, it does conjure that which is so essential to the sale of art.
Desire is magique.
Once Sami and I got him above $100 million, he never came back down. It was the highpoint of our partnership.
“A new Modigliani catalogue raisonné...I smell blood.”
“And lots and lots of money, Patric. It is still a half year from publication. A half year before the value of unverified works is obliterated. I have had, how to say...
The tiniest nod of assent.
Montandon-Ramseyer is a vast Genevan freeport. Sami’s work there means he is part and not part of Artworld. No glamour or gratitude comes attached to his activities, yet he oversees it all – who owns what and where it is going – and is, therefore, privy to gossip. Gossip being divorces, deaths, lawsuits, disputed inheritances: the very stuff that makes art move.
“You wouldn’t, per chance, have access to any elephants in the room?”
(Elephants: the name used in auction houses to describe buyers whose paddles represent millions.)
“I am toxic. You know very well I cannot sell a postcard in Artworld.”
“I am not the man to bring you back.”
He ignores me, and continues, “I have a collector with a number of Modiglianis.”
“Included in the Ceroni?”
“Oui. However, my man, he has animosity with Krühl.” Sami downs the last of his G&T. “Krühl is a descendant of Nazis. My collector had the works returned to his family in the nineties and now, well, the Nazi wants revenge. Don’t give me that puzzled expression, Patric. The Nazi wants to render them worthless. La honte!”
“Sami, any such catalogue will be authenticated by countless academics, this is preposterous.”
“Absolument. The thought of a secret cabal of anti-Semites is preposterous.” He slaps the table: “Come, Patric!”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“There are less than sixty. Just 58. 58. What is that? You and I know these people. They amass thousands upon thousands d’objets in their vaults. 58 pieces could be discreetly moved to a new home.”
What Sami’s driving at is the practice of ‘Dark Storage’. Oftentimes, Super Collectors have such gargantuan inventories, to catalogue and maintain collections is a business in itself. An Artunderworld has therefore developed where works are secretly traded or ‘disappeared’. Dark Storage is commonly utilised during divorce or inheritance disputes, but also by gallerists in a pickle e.g. needing to circumvent taxes.
It’s not strictly legal, but as close to a victimless as you can get. Right? Wrong. Crime is crime. Or is it? When the criminal act is fleeting, I am inclined to turn a blind eye. Let us say you stole some money from your gran and ran it along to a bookmaker to place a bet. You win big and return the money, gran’s none the wiser. Is that wrong? The opinion instilled in me by my beloved money manager Roland is that when money moves, it is never a bad thing. Problems arise when wealth just sits there.
“None of the collectors have any clue about half of what they own, and our commission would be enough for me to get a mind clone of Samia and you to establish your gallery.”
“Who says I want to establish a gallery?”
“It is time, Patric,” Sami answers. “Where you are at 30 is who you are.”
“I’m no longer 30,” is all I can muster. Something about those words hits home. I imagine them as a meme. Something I might scroll upon on social media that would stop me in my tracks and plummet me into a trench of introspection. A photo of a whitesand paradise, someone silhouetted, arms outstretched, and the words, all caps, WHERE YOU ARE AT 30 IS WHO YOU ARE.
“Do you want to be in service or being served? Verbeke and Verbeke, they are legends, no question, but they are elderly. When that aircraft crash-landed, it was a metaphor. The old world destroyed. Do not hold on to the past. Let go.”
I have let go! I wish I could confess all and tell him: I am destined for Freerland.
I go through life following clues that light the way. It is no accident that Sami and I crossed paths at this juncture, and that he is expressing such daring sentiments to me, a man at this exact moment changing his entire life. But...
“Sami, I don’t know.”
“I can keep the money safe while you get your shop in order and, think, next year Samia and I will greet you at the opening of Galerie Farmer.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“Farmer Arts then.”
“How about...PF Projects?”
“It’s insider trading.”
“This is art, Patric. It is all insider trading. For you, that is. Moi, I am just a warehouse manager.”
I reach inside my breast pocket and check the boarding pass. I have a plane to catch. I down my drink and as I stand Sami grabs my arm: “Patric, I need this.” That is desperation in his eyes. “I hate to say it, but you owe me.”