Just this morning, The New York Times ran a feature on the artist Ed Ruscha, “He Up and Went Home,” by R.H. Miller. The article touched on how a Ruscha painting from 1964, Hurting the Word Radio #2, sold at Christie’s in 2019 for a numbing $52.5 million. The painting is best described as having a sky-blue background, with the word RADIO spelled out in yellow letters, and the letters “R” and “O” each being squeezed by a C-clamp. The story hit home because during the early 1990s, I owned a half-share of a similar painting from the same series, Securing the Last Letter (Boss). This painting was executed on an indigo background, with the word BOSS spelled out in orange letters, and the last letter “S” being scrunched with a C-clamp.
When I acquired the painting with a partner, in 1991, the art market was mired in a crushing recession. I originally came upon Boss hanging in a prominent Los Angeles Gallery. It had an asking price of $80,000 — which was highly optimistic at the time. Long story short, we bought the painting for $50,000. For almost a year, the Ruscha languished in our inventory. Most people don’t remember just how bad business was back then. Miraculously, my partner managed to finally sell the canvas to Leo Castelli (Ruscha’s New York dealer) for $75,000. Castelli, in turn, immediately sold Boss for a modest profit to Emily Fisher Landau. The painting still resides at the Fisher Landau Center.
At the time, with little income coming in, I was delighted by the sale and my $12,500 profit. Currently, after learning about what Hurting the Word Radio #2 brought, I had a hard time explaining to my wife how I could have been so foolish. But that’s the thing about the art market, Who knew? Ivan Karp, the dealer who discovered Andy Warhol, once told me about selling a classic Warhol “Marilyn” (Monroe) painting he was given as a gift by the artist — Red Marilyn — for only $18,000, in 1978. He used the proceeds for a down payment on his West Broadway loft in SoHo. Today the painting is probably worth around $50 million. As Ivan put it, in his inimitable style, “Polsky, it was inconceivable back then that a Warhol painting would ever be worth so much money!”
If you speak with any veteran art dealer, they all have similar stories to tell (though maybe not as extreme). This raises the question of how you mentally move on from “selling too soon.” How do you reconcile in your mind that you weren’t a schmuck?
I always try to remind myself about a story I read in Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. It recounted a conversation between Billy Beane (the subject of the book) and a pretty good ballplayer named Lenny Dykstra. To paraphrase the anecdote, the two teammates were sitting in the dugout watching the future Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton warm up. Apparently, Dykstra wasn’t familiar with Carlton’s resume. He cracked to Beane, “Hey, who’s that dumb ass out on the mound?” Beane’s eyes grew large, “That’s Steve Carlton — one of the greatest left-handers of all time.” Dykstra shrugged, “What’s he got?’’ Beane replied, “Are you kidding? He throws heat and has one of the nastiest sliders in the game.” Dykstra continued studying Carlton. A moment later he said, “Yeah? I’m going to stick him.” At the moment, Billy Beane said to himself, That’s what makes Dykstra so exceptional — he has no fear of failure.
The point is that when it comes to buying and selling blue-chip art, you have to adapt a similar mindset. If you sell a painting — and years later it appreciates exponentially — you can’t live in fear it was a blunder. You have to project an attitude of; “I’m going to stick the next deal.” Regardless, it sure would be nice to still have my old Ed Ruscha Boss painting.