I recently viewed the documentary, The $50 Million Art Swindle — which I appeared in. The film recounts the story of the American art dealer Michel Cohen, who in 2001 fled the country with millions of dollars in cash and art. The FBI caught him in Rio de Janeiro and then transferred him to a prison while awaiting trial. In a scene reminiscent of the movie, Catch Me If You Can, Cohen made a daring escape from jail. Apparently, he faked a serious illness. While he was being driven by an ambulance to a hospital, he jumped out at a stoplight — and hadn’t been seen since.
The British filmmaker Vanessa Engle directed the movie, which debuted on the BBC, last December. What was so amazing was that she was able to track Michel Cohen down (he was found in his native France). I watched the film in disbelief; seeing Michel for the first time in almost twenty years was surreal. I was equally surprised by how he was in complete denial over the crimes he committed. He repeatedly claimed that he had merely “borrowed” money from Sotheby’s, and various dealers, and always intended to repay them. He blamed his misfortune on some bad bets he made in the stock market. Michel looked remarkably good, which belied the fact that he was now living on welfare (with his wife and two children).
Without going into all of the backstories, the bottom line was that Michel Cohen was able to borrow a lot of money, and take valuable Picasso paintings on consignment, merely on the strength of his word. As everyone knows, the art world is old school. There are rarely any contracts. Everything is based on your reputation in the industry.
After viewing the film, it occurred to me that it was probably time to regulate the art market. As I have often pointed out to my colleagues, it is the largest unregulated legitimate industry in the world. As everyone knows, to become a doctor you have to attend years of graduate school and pass the medical boards. To become an attorney, you also have to go graduate school and then pass the tough Bar exam. In addition, everyone from stock brokers to relators have to take a test in order to become licensed. Even individuals who cut hair or do nails need to be certified.
Yet, anyone can become an art dealer. Basically, all you have to do is find a space, paint the walls white, throw a plant in the corner, hang some pictures and — voila! — you’re in business. The public has no idea whether you know anything about art, have good taste, are ethical, etc.
This may sound radical, but I would love to see the art world become regulated. I envision a scenario where art dealers are required to pass a test in order to become certified. The examination would include sections on basic art history, contemporary art history, the history of art dealing, authenticity, conservation, and business ethics. The general idea would be to separate all of the posers, who become art dealers because their families or spouses have money, from those who are worthy of being called an art dealer. One of my favorite quotes about the business came from a Los Angeles gallerist, who once said, “Most people suffer from low self-esteem. But in the art world, everyone’s self-esteem is way too high.” Or put another way, most art dealers are born on third base and thought they hit a triple.
Think about it. If you don’t have to worry about making a living, owning a gallery can be quite enjoyable. You deal with beautiful objects on a daily basis in an equally beautiful environment. You also interact with artists and visit their studios — which is often a highly stimulating experience. Then there are the wealthy collectors and all of their off-the-wall behavior (I’ve often described the business as rich people behaving badly) — which can be quite entertaining. If you factor in all of the travel to international art fairs — and the accompanying five-star hotels and wonderful restaurants — you have the makings of an enviable lifestyle.
Yet, art dealers are frequently involved with scandals. And when they’re not, their lack of knowledge about the art they handle often leads to all sorts of unintentional misunderstandings — frequently involving stunning sums of money. The bottom line is that after spending over forty years in the art world, and having written several well-known books on the subject, I feel like I’m qualified to say, “The art market needs government regulation — and the sooner the better.”