A Q&A with Richard Polsky
Question: In 1987, you set aside $100,000 to buy an Andy Warhol painting. Your 2003 memoir I Bought Andy Warhol chronicled your search to acquire that painting, which ended in the purchase of a "Fright Wig." I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) is the story of what happened when you sold your beloved Warhol. Why did you sell? Was it worth it?
Richard Polsky: As you know, I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) is about selling my hard-won Andy Warhol “Fright Wig” painting, which was a direct result of being under financial pressure from my former wife. As she put it, "Would you rather look at me or your painting?" The question of whether it was worth it is far more complex. From the standpoint of personal self-esteem, absolutely not. I felt like I had let myself down and in an odd way had let Warhol himself down. Financially, though, it was the right thing to do. I sold at what I thought was an opportune time and got what seemed like a strong price. I had paid $47,500 and sold it for $375,000. The irony to the situation, and hence the title to the book, was if I had only waited two years I might have gotten as much as $2 million.
Question: You take the art world to task in your new book, calling the business of buying and selling art "high school with money." What do you mean by this and where do you fit in?
Richard Polsky: Referring to the art world as "high school with money" may have been too generous. At times, it feels more like “grade school with money.” What I mean by this is that there is an inordinate amount of juvenile behavior in my industry. Because anyone can become an art dealer, since there are no qualifying exams to take, the business attracts plenty of people that are under qualified. Often, they are misfit children of the rich, or worse yet, children of art dealers. They lack a background in art history and the history of art dealing, as well. This may sound self-serving, but I happen to be one of the few exceptions, in that I don’t come from a privileged upbringing and I’ve worked hard to become knowledgeable in both the art itself and the history of the art business.
Question: You write lovingly of your "Fright Wig," calling it "more than just an investment; it was part of my soul." As a dealer, how do you balance your appreciation of art for art’s sake with the business of selling art?
Richard Polsky: A dealer’s biggest quandary is balancing his love of art with the reality of having to make a living (that is to say those few souls who actually need to earn money). In my case, I used to collect the artists I dealt and at one time owned a major Joseph Cornell "Aviary" (bird box), a John Chamberlain crushed auto-metal sculpture from the 1960s, and an Andy Warhol portrait of Chairman Mao. It was a mixed blessing, but the art appreciated and I decided it was prudent to cash out--and greatly missed the art. Having learned my lesson, I now only collect work by artists who I don’t deal in. Most of what I own are paintings by friends--emerging and mid-career talent. Since the work has negligible resale value, I can enjoy it and don’t feel compelled to rush out and sell it.
Question: There is the public perception that the art world is elitist and therefore inaccessible to the average American, and yet it’s getting its own reality show thanks to Sarah Jessica Parker. How would you wish to see both public perception change and the industry itself change?
Richard Polsky: It’s not so much that the art market needs to change. Serious art by its very nature can’t be for everyone in much the same way serious literature, wine, food, dance, and music can’t be. Enjoying art requires that the viewer educate himself. It’s kind of like learning about wine--you have to drink a lot. Art is the same way--you have to look a lot. That means going to museums, galleries, and reading art books. I just don’t think most people are curious enough to do that. I would like to see the industry itself change. Ideally, I would love for art dealers to have to become certified and pass a serious exam, much like an attorney passing the bar or a physician taking the medical boards. If that happened, I think it would expand the art market by giving a wider swath of potential collectors greater confidence in it.
Question: What interests you today, as a collector and as a dealer?
Richard Polsky: My personal interests as a collector includes collecting fossils, minerals, and natural history specimens. I’m also interested in the work of the woodcut artist Gustave Baumann. Briefly, he worked in Santa Fe during the twenties and thirties and produced the most extraordinary woodcut prints imaginable. His subject matter varied from the Southwest landscape, especially the Grand Canyon, to American Indian iconography, often abandoned pueblos--Baumann’s work breathed nature and was filled with soul. My interest as a dealer remains the Pop artists. They come from an authentic place in the art world--the days where it was still about making art rather than building careers. There’s also something about how they drew inspiration from popular culture that still rings true.
In 2005, art dealer Polsky's prized Andy Warhol fright wig self-portrait sold at auction for $320,000. If he had waited just a couple of more years to sell, Polsky would likely have garnered millions: in 2007, Warhol's Green Car Crash
sold for $71 million. In this instructive, irreverent and often uproarious memoir, Polsky explains the capricious functioning of the art market and the economic and cultural forces that have transformed it from the 1980s, when art dealers fostered relationships with artists and other dealers, into today's market when dealers cultivate stronger relationships with auction houses than with collectors and artists. Polsky (I Bought Andy Warhol
) is a high-spirited and self-deprecating raconteur who relishes exposing the idiosyncrasies, absurdities and hypocrisies of his industry and its biggest players. A highly enjoyable and informative insider's guide to a milieu to which few are privy, this will be of interest to the general reader seeking to understand the art world's economic evolution and cultural impact, told through a delightfully vital mixture of memoir, reportage and social satire. (Sept.)
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