Parting is such sweet spectacle: A collector sells his Hirst, Koons and Calder

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Parting is such sweet spectacle: A collector sells his Hirst, Koons and Calder
Jeff Koons’s “Ushering in Banality” (1988). In an unusual midseason, single-owner auction at Christie’s on March 9, Adam Lindemann is purging some of his prizes. (Jeff Koons Studio, via Christie’s via The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- The traditional reasons for an auction are death, divorce or debt. Adam Lindemann currently qualifies for none of these, but he’s selling anyway.

It is considered verboten for collectors to sell off works by living artists, lest they depress their markets. But Lindemann is doing this, too.

And while the identities of living sellers at auction are typically kept confidential, Lindemann is making no secret of his single-owner sale of about 40 lots coming up at Christie’s on March 9. In fact, he even finds amusing the namesake — somewhat egocentric — title the auction house chose for the sale of his cache of Alexander Calders, Andy Warhols, Takashi Murakamis and others: “Adam.”

But, then, in his long run as a collector and a dealer (he owns the New York City gallery Venus Over Manhattan), Lindemann has established himself as someone largely unconcerned with convention or potential criticism.

“People are going to make fun of me, and people are going to talk about it — that’s fine,” he said in a recent exclusive interview at his Upper East Side town house, which was designed by architect David Adjaye. “It’s the first time in a decade that I’ve done a big public spectacle. So I’m pretty excited about it.

“I just felt like it’s time,” he added. “I’ve got several works I’ve owned for over 20 years. I can turn the page here.”

A compact man with a round face, Lindemann, 61, is an unusual character in the art market, combining the passion and obsessiveness of an old-school collector steeped in art history with the cool pragmatism of a businessperson looking to profit off his assets.

He famously sold a 1982 canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Christie’s for $57.3 million in 2016, a high for the artist at auction at that time (Lindemann had bought the painting for $4.5 million in 2004). In 2007, he sold Jeff Koons’ bright red “Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)” at Sotheby’s for $23.5 million (he had bought it for about $1.2 million in 2003).

On the one hand, Lindemann has the bona fides of writing on art (including a column in the New York Observer for four years and a 2006 book, “Collecting Contemporary,” for which he interviewed collectors and dealers) and running his own gallery (he recently closed the Los Angeles branch of Venus because of neighborhood protests against gentrification).

He and his wife, art dealer Amalia Dayan, in 2021 established South Etna, a nonprofit organization that brings contemporary artists to Montauk, New York, and presents exhibitions. The couple own Eothen, Warhol’s former Montauk estate.

At the same time, some dealers won’t sell to Lindemann out of concern that he’ll turn around and flip, thus depreciating an artist’s value.

Nevertheless, Lindemann seems comfortable with being controversial. “The art world that I grew up in was all about studying and believing in connoisseurship,” he said. Since the economic crisis of 2008, he added, “people want to buy the new thing. Everyone wants the new car, the new watch. But at the end of the day, when this story is written, these things are the ones that are part of art history. And the other things are just stuff.”

Having the auction in March is unusual; New York evening sales usually take place in November and May. Lindemann said he “wanted to find a moment in the crazy art market where I was all alone.” (Well, nearly alone; Sotheby’s has a contemporary auction that morning.)

“Auctions that tell a story are very, very rare,” he added, citing as examples the estate sales of Yves Saint Laurent in 2009 or Paul G. Allen last year. “So I’ll make my auction tell a story, where the sum total of all the pieces actually gives you an idea of how the collector thinks, how these things were chosen, and that each thing has a personal relationship to me — that it means something,” he said. “I didn’t just buy because it’s cheap. I didn’t buy it because it’s expensive. I bought it because it was a discovery or a moment in my life.”

Lindemann said some of the proceeds will fund a major gift (Lindemann would only specify “seven figures”) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Michael C. Rockefeller wing, now under renovation, which includes the art of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and the ancient Americas. He is the head of the Rockefeller wing’s steering committee, on which he has served for 20 years.

“I love African, Oceanic and pre-Columbian art. I’ve studied it my entire life,” he said. “The first great work of art I bought was a fang from the French artist and collector Arman.”

The estimates in his Christie’s auction are relatively low, Lindemann said, priced to sell. “I’m not trying to test the waters,” he explained. “When I go to an auction, I’ve decided to part with the piece, and I know this is the end of my life with the piece.”

He added, “These are all A or A-plus versions of the artist, whether women, men, old, new, contemporary, estate.”

Some market experts will say Lindemann is simply selling off artists whose prices are on the downswing, such as Koons and Damien Hirst. But Julian Ehrlich, the head of Christie’s “Postwar to Present” sale, said the cache is first-rate, featuring works that typify the contemporary art market over the past 20 years as well as some that are “esoteric and intellectual — reflective of Adam’s far-flung taste.”

“You have unsung women artists like Miyoko Ito, who passed away nearly 40 years ago and really is only having her market moment now,” Ehrlich said, “as well as people kind of on the fringe, like Jim Nutt.”

For the most part, Lindemann said, the sale comprises pieces he bought on the secondary market — from fairs, auctions or dealers. “It’s not like I bought a bunch of young stuff at people’s galleries and now I’m flipping it,” he said.

He also challenged the taboo around selling the work of living artists, insisting that he has helped artists’ careers, not hurt them.

“No one sold Jeff Koons for $20 million before me. After me, it was all $20 million,” he said, adding that when he “set a world record for Murakami or for George Condo or for Lisa Yuskavage or for Damien Hirst — all those markets kept on going without me.”

Below are some of the lots in Lindemann’s sale, with the dealer’s comments, edited from a conversation.

Alexander Calder, “Black Disc With Flags,” c. 1939 (estimate $5 million to $7 million) The artist David Hammons once told me that Calder is the European American artist, and maybe that’s why I like him. He studied art in Paris. He was with Duchamp and Miró. And then he came to New York. Many years ago I bought an incredible mobile. It actually originally came from the Calder family: a 1939 tuning fork. There were six tuning forks that Calder made at the end of the ’30s, and this is the biggest, most important, most beautiful.

Andy Warhol, “Little Electric Chair,” 1964 ($4 million to $6 million) I think the little electric chair has more power than the big one. I’ve had that for 14 or 15 years. It has all the bells and whistles: It is signed by Andy Warhol and was sold by [the dealer] Leo Castelli to the Pincus Collection. It’s been in every museum in America.

Jeff Koons, “Ushering in Banality,” 1988 ($2.5 million to $3.5 million) I love Jeff and his work; I’m a fanatic. Once I sold the “Hanging Heart” [then the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction], I thought, I want to go backwards in the history of Jeff Koons and buy a monumental piece from 1989. “Ushering in Banality” is sort of the mantra of all of Jeff’s work.

Takashi Murakami, “The Castle of Tin Tin,” 1998 ($1.5 million to $2.5 million) In 2001, I think I was one of the largest Murakami collectors in the world. I went in and bought everything I could. Now someone like me doesn’t need to have 10 Murakamis. But I was just obsessed. I wanted to buy some early monumental Murakami from the hand-painted days. “The Castle of Tin Tin” is one of the greatest big paintings that’s been in all the retrospectives. I saw it at the Brooklyn Museum; I saw it in Qatar; I followed that painting its whole life, and then it was mine for a very long time. It’s more of a connoisseur’s choice as opposed to just the latest that came out of the studio with as much gold and stars and sparkles as possible.

Damien Hirst, “The Sleep of Reason,” 1997-98 ($1 million to $1.5 million) Damien Hirst is one of the greatest artists of his generation. He constantly reinvents himself. I don’t like everything that he does; some of the directions are not for me, let’s just say it politely. But this is a very important medicine cabinet from the Pharmacy series. In the ’90s, he had a restaurant in London called the Pharmacy, with three monumental medicine cabinets. He shut down the restaurant, and I bought this in the Pharmacy sale in 2002. There are only two of them because the third one he kept for himself.

These early medicine chests — they talk to Donald Judd, they speak to life, they speak to death, they speak to poetry. They speak to all the most important things that Damien Hirst brought to the art world.

Jean Royère, “Ours Polaire” Sofa and Pair of Armchairs, c. 1952 ($1 million to $1.5 million) This de rigueur Royère sofa set has become the bling thing that everybody wants. It’s comfortable, and it’s kind of sexy in its plumpness. This particular one was bought by Ronald Lauder over 22 years ago and has a provenance going back to the ’50s. It’s in the original fabric, and the color is this faded lime green called vert délavé.

Franz West, Set of Eight Kodu Chairs and Table (Oval), 2004 ($100,000 to $150,000) I bought it from Franz when he was alive and I was in Vienna visiting him for my birthday, so it’s a very cherished thing. I think that his furniture is amazing. I love it. I live with it.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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