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The Trials of Art Superdealer Larry Gagosian

“Hey, Larry.” 

Alberto Mugrabi was having a drink in the lobby at Claridge’s Hotel when his cell phone flashed to tell him Larry Gagosian was calling. It was June 2009, and they were in London for a week of auctions. Gagosian and Mugrabi are among the richest and most powerful figures in the art world, though the two function differently. Working primarily as a gallerist, Gagosian puts on exhibitions for several dozen artists and is responsible for building their careers—or, in the case of the deceased artists he also shows, representing their estates. Mugrabi, along with his father and brother, operates a private art dealership and trades with other collectors behind a cloak of relative obscurity. Gagosian and the Mugrabis collect several of the same artists and sometimes purchase pictures together as a way not so much of halving their own respective costs but of ensuring that they are committed to the same investments.

That was why Gagosian was phoning. In a couple of hours, Sotheby’s big evening contemporary sale would begin at the auction house’s Mayfair headquarters. There were three paintings by Andy Warhol on the block that Gagosian and the Mugrabis were following closely, offerings from, according to the catalogue, “an important European collection.” The owner was Josef Froehlich, a wealthy engineer of automotive parts from Stuttgart, who since the early eighties had painstakingly built a formidable Samm­lung of German and American artists: Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Frank Stella, and Warhol, among others. But, Mugrabi told Gagosian, he’d just been informed by a Sotheby’s executive that at least two of the three Warhols might not sell—which meant that Mugrabi and Gagosian could have to buy them themselves.

Larry Gagosian essentially created the posthumous market for mid- and late-career Warhols, defining them as a subcategory and hugely raising their value. This is arguably his signal accomplishment, paving the way for everything else he’s done. But, as for all his artists, the market still requires careful husbanding.

Gagosian and the Mugrabis weren’t so much looking for a bargain as they were intent on protecting the value of the other Warhols they own. The Mugrabis, Colombian Jews by way of Trump Tower—where the family patriarch, Jose, and his wife raised the boys—possess more than 800 Warhol artworks (in addition to at least 100 works each by Damien Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat and numerous large pieces by Jeff Koons and Richard Prince). They didn’t want to see anything “bought in” by the auction house—which is what occurs when bidding doesn’t reach the reserve price the auction house had privately set for a piece, the artwork being returned to the seller. If that happens, says Richard Polsky, a private dealer in California and the author of the books I Bought Andy Warhol and I Sold Andy Warhol—Too Soon, the public reads that “three Warhols failed to sell last night,” and it can trigger some kind of panic: “Maybe prices for Warhol begin to slowly drop, maybe there’s a sell-off.” The effect on the Mugrabis’ or Gagosian’s collection would be like what happens to a hedge fund with a composition overweighted to a given commodity when that commodity’s price goes into a sudden free fall. There might be a ripple effect. Sarah Thornton, a writer for The Economist, has described the Warhol market as a bellwether for the entire contemporary-art market. And the prices for Warhols, as for most of the artists that Gagosian has handled, are set at auction. Which means Gagosian tries to manage what goes on there as closely as possible.

While auction houses are forbidden from explicitly sharing certain details prior to the sale of a lot, such as the reserve price, a good deal of information gets signaled to a favored collector—particularly if interests align. This was certainly the case for Gagosian and Mugrabi, who were told by Sotheby’s not to worry about the most valuable of Froehlich’s three Warhols, Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown (Tunafish Disaster), a 1963 painting—of two suburban housewives whose deaths from food poisoning had briefly been the subject of tabloid notoriety—with an estimate of £3.5 million to £4.5 million. Sotheby’s already had interest in it, Mugrabi told Gagosian: “The Tunafish Disaster is pretty covered. That’s going to sell.”

As for Froehlich’s two remaining Warhols, they were late-career works. One, a large Hammer and Sickle painting, had been produced in 1976 and was estimated at £2 million to £3 million. The other, a glittering silvery image of women’s pumps titled Diamond Dust Shoes, was made in 1980 and carried an estimate of £600,000 to £800,000. “Do you like the shoe painting or not really?” Mugrabi asked Gagosian. “I’m gonna try to buy it cheap if I can.” Gagosian was apparently interested. “Okay, we’ll always give you an option,” Mugrabi assured him, and also ran through some of the other lots. He suggested Gagosian bid on an Andreas Gursky photograph of Dubai (“the blue one”) that he thought was unlikely to sell above its estimated price range—“especially if you want to try to lure this guy in.” Gagosian was eager to represent Gursky, and has since signed him. But two Alexander Calder mobiles, a large Jean-Michel Basquiat work painted in the year of his death, and “the European art—like the [Lucio] Fontana and the Yves Klein, all that stuff”—would probably do well without their help, Mugrabi said. “I hate that Basquiat, you?” he added. “I like the ones we got so much better than that.”

Finally, according to a word-for-word record of Mugrabi’s end of the conversation, witnessed and transcribed by an associate who was at Claridge’s, he agreed to phone Sotheby’s again to negotiate. It appears that Gagosian told Mugrabi to try to float by Sotheby’s a price of £350,000, for one particular work with an estimate of £500,000, and then call Gagosian back.

What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road. When Mugrabi got off the phone with Gagosian, he immediately phoned Alexander Rotter, a Sotheby’s director. “The Hammer and Sickle will be difficult,” Mugrabi said. “This painting should be much less than that, you know?” He told Rotter that “at the height of the market,” he had sold “a painting like this” for $3 million. “But it’s insane that the market has gone down and I have to pay the same price because there is some stubborn guy?”—meaning Froehlich—“That’s surrealist. He’s a surrealist.” When Rotter attempted to say his piece about the consignor’s attachment to the painting, Mugrabi got agitated. “Obviously, he’s putting the painting because he wants to fucking sell it, not because he wants to, you know? If he wants to sell the picture, tell him to be realistic … Which is only better for him and better for me.”

Rotter doesn’t remember the specifics of the deal, but says that “as a rule we don’t disclose the reserve to a buyer. We have conversations with the seller throughout the process. The buyer can’t say, ‘I’ll give you this’ and make it a sure thing, but we can relay that information to the consignor and say, ‘This is a good price, you might consider lowering your reserve.’ ”

Mugrabi—along with many other art-world denizens—describes a kind of Dance of the Seven Veils. “Of course I want to have the auction house lower their reserves. They’ll tell you where the reserves will be—within a range.”

The conversation at Claridge’s is an unusually intimate window into how the art market is shaped at its highest levels by Larry Gagosian and his associates. Gagosian has been, for the past two decades, the most powerful gallerist in the world, by a wide margin. In 2011, a survey of dealers in The Wall Street Journal estimated that his annual sales approached $1 billion. That May, roughly half the works for sale by the major auction houses in New York (evening sales only) were by artists on Gagosian’s roster. In addition to his three gallery spaces in New York, he owns two in London, two in Paris, and one each in Beverly Hills, Rome, Geneva, Athens, and Hong Kong. “In many ways, having a show with him is synonymous with having a show at MoMA or the Tate Modern,” says Eric Shiner, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Gagosian is as responsible as anyone for the globalization of the art market—chasing new collectors in Russia, China, the Middle East. He and the Mugrabis, working as a sort of tag team, are widely considered the force that, by purchasing in bulk, has driven a Warhol boom along with a group of like-minded investors that includes Peter Brant and Bruno Bischofberger. And he’s continually driven into new markets by applying it—as a buyer and a seller—not only to the ­oeuvres of Warhol, Koons, Hirst, and Basquiat but also Urs Fischer, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Prince, John Currin, and Takashi Murakami (not to mention Pollock, Lichtenstein, and Picasso).

There’s been resentment of Gagosian’s tight management of these markets for decades, but lately, along with talk of an art bubble, it’s reached new levels of intensity. And, in what amounts to a sort of court rebellion, some of his most dependably high-value sources of income have shown their displeasure at constituting, well, sources of income. As a result, Gagosian’s control may have begun to slip. In December, Hirst announced that after seventeen years with the gallery (and following Gagosian’s decision to give over the entirety of his eleven gallery spaces to a retrospective show of Hirst’s “dot” paintings), he was severing ties. That came just a week after The Art Newspaper reported that Jeff Koons was planning to hold a major exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in New York. In a statement sent from his studio, Koons says simply: “As an artist, I’ve always worked with multiple galleries. Gagosian Gallery has represented my work since 2001 and continues to do so. I enjoy working with Larry and at the present time plan to have an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery New York in May.” Richard Serra also gave word that he’ll be exhibiting with Zwirner this spring, a show of sculptures made between 1966 and 1971. It was also reported that Yayoi Kusama, who just last year had large retrospective shows at the Tate and Whitney museums, was in the process of quitting Gagosian. Serra dismisses the insinuation that’s he’s bolting. “I have no intention of leaving Larry,” he says, and adds that the art-world preoccupation of talking about which artist shows with which gallery turns artists into “horses in their stalls.”

In the past year, two major collectors have also filed lawsuits against Gagosian for profiteering at their expense via deals that defied common practice. One is Ronald Perelman, the corporate raider, who sued Gagosian in September in part over “secret contract provisions” that the dealer had attached to a $4 million as yet uncreated Koons sculpture titled Popeye—stipulations that Perelman felt would make it difficult for him to resell the work. His suit makes much of his decades-long “close relationship” with Gagosian and the fact that they invested together as partners in the Blue Parrot restaurant in East Hampton. “They have been guests in each other’s homes, have met often for dinner or drinks, and have attended the same social events,” the complaint reads, then accuses Gagosian of having “abused his position of trust.”

The other is Jan Cowles, a 94-year-old collector, who has been involved in two legal disputes with Gagosian. First, Gagosian sold a work from her collection that had hung at the Met, because her son Charles, evidently hard up for money, claimed he had the authority to sell it—even though one of Gagosian’s gallery directors has testified that he believed at the time that the painting was owned by the Met, until Cowles convinced him otherwise. The buyer had to return it. Now Mrs. Cowles is suing Gagosian for a similar transaction involving a Roy Lichtenstein epoxy enamel on metal.

Gagosian’s rise over the past 25 years, concurrent with the development of modern Wall Street, certainly shares a strand of its philosophical double-helix with the hedge-fund approach to investing. The idea is to leave as little to chance—or, in his case, taste—as possible in order to put a value of his own choosing on his assets. Auctions are a crucial mechanism not merely of selling pictures but of establishing and maintaining the value of art that may change hands privately. It makes sense that many of Gagosian’s biggest clients are self-appointed titans of high finance, money management, and global megaretail: Leon Black, François Pinault, Victor Pinchuk, Eli Broad, and especially the embattled hedge-fund king Steve Cohen. Whatever their bona fides as patrons of culture, these are people who wouldn’t allow themselves to buy art as a bad investment. It’s another market to be played—and mastered.

Cohen has at times acted as a bank for Gagosian. In one deal Gagosian brokered, Cohen paid a reported $80 million in 2007 for a turquoise-hued Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe. And he was believed to be one of two backers in 2008 when Gagosian spent $200 million on ten Warhol paintings from the estate of Ileana Sonnabend, a widow of Warhol’s longtime gallerist Leo Castelli. Gagosian has since struggled to sell the works—he exhibited some of them in Abu Dhabi in 2010 to little avail. Cohen’s collecting pace, meanwhile, is believed to have slowed in the past year as prosecutors have brought cases against his employees for insider trading.

Gagosian is 67, block-jawed, silver-haired, pale-eyed. He bought the former Harkness Mansion, an enormous townhouse on East 75th Street, in 2011, and also owns Toad Hall, a 1983 compound in East Hampton that was designed by Charles Gwathmey for François de Menil. He grew up in Southern California, where his father was an accountant and his mother worked as a bit-part movie actress. He graduated from UCLA in 1969 with a degree in English, then held a series of odd jobs: in a record store, a bookstore, and a supermarket, and as Michael Ovitz’s secretary at the William Morris Agency. By the mid-seventies, he had started selling posters on a sidewalk in Westwood. “It wasn’t my assumption that this would lead me to a career as an art dealer,” he said in a deposition in October. “I didn’t really consider it—if you saw the posters, you wouldn’t think it was art.”

He often says that his earliest business triumph was the realization that his profits multiplied the moment he offered the posters pre-framed. It wasn’t long before he abandoned the West Coast to start a gallery in Chelsea. In 1980, there was a deal that set in motion Gagosian’s ascent, though he played no part in it. The Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher brokered the sale of Jasper Johns’s large Three Flags painting to the Whitney for $1 million, a record for a living artist that merited front-page coverage in the Times. The owners of the painting, Burton and Emily Tremaine of Connecticut, had bought it in 1959 from Castelli for $900—plus $15 for delivery. Dealers who knew them recall that Castelli considered Glimcher’s gambit, persuading the Tremaines to offer the work to the Whitney, poor form. Why hadn’t they brought it back to Castelli to let him sell it? It was the beginning of a new market, as a number of dealers set out to resell Castelli’s artists. Gagosian came along and began to work with Castelli, who was happy to have someone to fend off his rivals. Soon, Gagosian was in the news for helping Si Newhouse to acquire Johns’s False Start for $17 million and Mondrian’s Victory Boogie-Woogie for a reported $11 million (from the Tremaines).

Gagosian had courted Castelli since his arrival in New York in 1979, and made an acolyte of himself—they even shared a gallery on Thompson Street for a time—but in truth Gagosian was something new. The Castelli model was to get the best young artists and nurture their careers without pushing their prices too high too quickly. The Gagosian model is to ratchet up their prices, encourage them to produce as much as possible (there has been less risk, with a burgeoning global economy, in flooding the market; there is a need, as new constituencies present themselves among Russian oligarchs and Qatari sultans, to feed the collecting beast), and keep artists, collectors, and estates away from his competition—“to make a market,” in the words of someone who knew both men, who adds: “Leo wouldn’t have done well in the current era—the money is too tempting—and Larry wouldn’t have done well in the Castelli era.”

One day in 1985 or 1986, Gagosian recently told Interview, he found himself having lunch at the Factory, Warhol’s studio on 33rd Street. On the floor were several canvases, which when he unrolled them for Gagosian turned out to be striking: up to 25 feet long and full of abstract green and gold splotches, pools, and squiggling, metallic lines. Warhol called them his “Piss paintings” and explained that the effect had been achieved by using copper paint, which was then “oxidized”—when the paint was still wet, the artist had employed several people, most notably his assistant Ronnie Cutrone and Halston’s boyfriend, Victor Hugo, to urinate on them.

The works were nearly a decade old, and Warhol said nobody had ever thought much of them—particularly not Castelli. But Gagosian persuaded Warhol to let him show them in his upstart gallery in late 1986—one of Warhol’s last exhibitions in New York (he died in February 1987). Gagosian saw Warhol—and large portions of his oeuvre—as an undervalued commodity. Speaking of Warhol and Cy Twombly, whom he also went on to work with, Gagosian said, “They were both represented by Leo, but neither of them were, in my opinion, given the attention they deserved.” He mentioned the way Castelli was so dismissive of Warhol’s dollar-sign paintings—they seemed “vulgar,” Gagosian said—that he would only display them in his Greene Street gallery’s basement. “It pissed Andy off,” Gagosian added. “I know, because he told me.”

“What Larry started doing with the ‘Piss paintings’ was an extraordinary thing: He had the idea to find overlooked areas of Andy’s inventory and create a market for them by giving them a show that identified them together as an important body of work,” says Vincent Fremont, a founding director of the Andy Warhol Foundation. Over the years, Gagosian’s galleries have held more than two dozen posthumous shows for Warhol. Sometimes they’ve consisted of art that wasn’t even for sale—though he likes to say that any piece has its price—and sometimes Gagosian himself had to purchase the works up front in order to sell them, but he has always kept an eye on increasing the perceived worth of Warhol’s output.

These were the circumstances by which both Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes series and the Hammer and Sickle paintings entered the canon. In 1999, Gagosian got hold of and exhibited some 60 canvases Warhol had done of women’s shoes in 1980, using acrylic, silk-screen ink, and finely ground glass that made the surfaces glitter. Tim Hunt, an art agent for the Warhol Foundation, recalled an early attempt to use real diamond dust from the cutting-room floors of John Reinhold, a diamond dealer and Warhol’s good friend. “But it didn’t quite stick, so Andy went to the synthetic option,” Hunt said. The Diamond Dust Shoes painting that Froehlich purchased directly from Castelli in 1992 was apparently never in Gagosian’s galleries. But his Hammer and Sickle, which Froehlich bought in 1991 from Joshua Mack, a collector in New York, had been loaned to Gagosian in 2006 for the gallery’s “Warhol: Cast a Cold Eye” exhibition. 

Even before Herr Froehlich acquired the two pieces, they had a sort of shared lineage. Reinhold, the diamond merchant, had been the initial owner of the Hammer and Sickle. “Andy let me have my pick from a whole pile of Hammer and Sickles, and my cousin said to take that one because it was the strongest by far,” Reinhold says. His cousin, the late Henry Geldzahler, was a scenester and a cultural-affairs commissioner for New York City. “It was red and black and white. It had a certain power to it. I do remember Henry saying, ‘You must eventually give this to a museum,’ but I sold it around 1984. I remember seeing it in the Sotheby’s catalogue a few years ago, and it bothers me that it’s not mine anymore, so I didn’t really want to know what happened to it.”

When collectors and dealers describe Gagosian as “brash,” “shameless,” and “ruthless”—his own publicist lauds him as “a real killer”—what they really seem to be talking about is not only his drive but how different he is from many of his peers. Fellow gallerists complain that he poaches artists and spikes prices, and that he has a history of offering to sell paintings that aren’t for sale on the promise of photos he’s torn from a catalogue or surreptitiously snapped when visiting a collector’s house. More than a decade ago, his name was mentioned in discussions for the Art Dealers Association of America, but he has never been admitted.

“Temperament-wise, Larry’s got a lot more in common with some of his ­collectors—the uncouth, winner-take-all big shots and the foreign oligarchs—than he does with other dealers,” says a man who has bought and sold dozens of major artworks through transactions with Gagosian over the past two decades. “He can be extraordinarily eloquent and ridiculously charming, with, say, a curator from the Modern—especially if the curator is there with a rich collector. He can woo artists, but it’s a great effort. What comes naturally is being a bully. Most of the time, he talks like a thug: ‘Tell him I’m very interested.’ ‘Why would I want to do that?’ Or, ‘That’s a million-dollar picture: It’s colorful, it has tits, and the guy’s a good painter.’ ”

Noam Gottesman, a billionaire investor who has been collecting through Gagosian and other dealers for twenty years, praises his ability to obtain works not previously for sale: “When you do a deal with him, there’s no hemming and hawing. He’s very aggressive, but the good part of that is that it means you get a deal done.” 

During Gagosian’s deposition in the ­Lichtenstein case, Mrs. Cowles’s lawyer kept trying to get him to acknowledge his absence of allegiances—neither toward artists (as many blue-chip gallerists pledge), nor collectors (the satisfied-­customer model), nor even to the seller in a two-client deal in which he’s the broker, but simply to his own dominance. Cowles’s lawyer, David Baum, asked, “Do you believe that under a consignment agreement with a seller you have a duty to be loyal to the seller?”

“I don’t know what ‘loyal’ means,” Gagosian said, adding that a common consignment arrangement might involve “where the seller says I want X, and there is no stipulation about what the gallery makes. And in fact conversations involving those very often will be: ‘I want a million dollars. Whatever you make is your business.’ ”

Later in the deposition, Gagosian was asked if he knew Sam Waksal—the ImClone head who was at the center of the Martha Stewart insider-trading case. Waksal is an avid collector who bought a number of artworks through him, including a large Mark Rothko. One person familiar with the purchase recalled him laughing at Waksal’s willingness to pay $3.5 million for the painting, which he derided as “hard-edged,” “in bad condition,” and “shit-brown.”

Gagosian makes a healthy profit from his living artists—he typically takes 30 to 50 percent from a sale where many in his cohort take less. His gallery staff work mostly on commission. Many artists have thrived from the relationship. Cy Twombly, for example, was considered the painterly equivalent of a midlist author when he came to Gagosian—shunned by the New York Establishment and major collections, he had moved to Italy and was not producing much new work. “I think Larry helped Twombly enormously, and it was exciting to watch,” says Richard Serra. “He helped get that work out into the world. He gave him new potential and possibilities to show, and the last years of his life were remarkable.”

For younger artists—John Currin, Richard Phillips, Tom Sachs—their names take on a heightened level of value. “Larry makes their work worth more, in the same way that he sold a dollar poster for a fifteenfold profit when he put it in a metal frame,” says the artist Mark Kostabi, who first met Gagosian in the early eighties and quickly sold him more than 100 of his works. “He doesn’t want to be the first person to discover major talent. He wants to be the second. But he became the context. He’s the frame.” 

That the Gagosian imprimatur has come to suggest ever-rising prices seems to be at the core of his dispute with Ronald Perelman. Perelman may well be an important collector, possessed, as his friends claim, of “a great eye” and a list of cultural institutions that have benefited from his charitable and brand-burnishing write-offs, but he is above all a money person. His collection is an investment vehicle, an “art fund,” actually, within an umbrella company that also owns large stakes in the biotechnology, gaming, and financial-services industries. Perelman claims in the complaint that he agreed to purchase the Koons from Gagosian in May 2010, but before he even took possession decided he wanted to exchange it for a major painting, and to receive credit for more than the $4 million he’d paid for it—essentially flipping the work and hoping to turn a profit, assuming its value had risen while he waited for Koons to finish making it. When Gagosian told Perelman that he had little incentive to take the sculpture back because he had promised Koons 80 percent of any profit from a resale before the piece was actually finished, Perelman apparently felt he’d been had. In a countersuit he later dropped, Gagosian alleged that Perelman had failed to pay for two artworks and failed to follow a payment schedule for a third.

The Cowles case, by contract, represents an instance of Gagosian coming under siege from art-world true believers, for treating the members of an old-guard art family as chumps. Jan Cowles is an honorary trustee at MoMA. Charles Cowles is a former publisher of Artforum magazine and an art dealer whose gallery closed in 2009. They’re the sort of people who put their art on a wall. The suit alleges that Gagosian breached his fiduciary duties. The two sides have agreed to go to mediation out of court. But more illuminating, perhaps, is the tone the principals took as they went about making the deal.

“Hi Tom Dean! Seller now in terrible straits and needs cash,” Deborah McLeod, a Gagosian gallery director in Los Angeles, wrote to the eventual buyer, Thompson Dean, in July 2009. “Are you interested in making a cruel and offensive offer? Come on, want to try?”

When Dean replied that “liquidity is an issue,” and later asked how an offer of $2 million “would be received,” McLeod wrote back: “That’s approximately half price, so I like it!” The offer would’ve apparently been more than enough for poor Charles Cowles, who’d been persuaded by Gagosian to accept a price of $1 million—enabling the gallery to keep half of Dean’s $2 million as a commission but without telling Cowles what the commission was. McLeod wrote to Dean from Los Angeles that the gallery could only secure him the deal by having Dean pay 25 percent up front. On July 30, Dean replied that he could make it up to Gagosian within a few months: “I am selling a big company with the deal expected to close in December ($50 mm to me!) at which time I could pay the whole amount.”

Gagosian was asked during his deposition if he had ever solicited a bid “of a ‘cruel and offensive offer.’ ” He replied that McLeod’s language in the e-mail to Dean “was based on, I think, the nature of their repartee and that he is a distressed-asset guy and private equity and maybe she was trying to appeal to his animal instincts … I find it amusing, to be honest with you … because it was so hyperbolic, kind of excessive to the point of being amusing.”

The negotiations among Gagosian, Mugrabi, and the Sotheby’s team reflect the sort of favored-client privileges many gallerists who don’t speculate in the secondary market claim can be dangerous to collectors and artists. Mugrabi told Rotter that if Froehlich, the seller, didn’t agree to their price, he ought to take the piece off the market rather than risk a buy-in. “I’ll tell you what the bottom price is, and if the guy wants it, we can at least have a secure bid on it,” he told Rotter. “And if he doesn’t, then maybe he withdraws it from the sale.” 

Then Mugrabi called his father. “Froehlich está muy stubborn,” he complained. He proceeded to have a conversation, mostly in Spanish, about which pictures were covered (“El Tuna, sí. El Hammer and Sickle, no. Los Zapatos tampoco…”). He took his father’s remarks as instructions to make an offer “por los dos.” When Mugrabi called back to Rotter at Sotheby’s, he said, “What’s up, Alex? My dad said that he can pay for the two pictures—for the Hammer and Sickle and the shoes—£2 million, all-inclusive.” Then he said, “Okay, cool. Okay, okay.” They hung up.

All that remained was to hold the auction. At Sotheby’s, Gagosian and Mugrabi sat next to each other and, reporters in the room noted, took turns raising their hands to bid on both paintings until they reached the final price (Gagosian’s lawyer says he did not bid on the Hammer and Sickle.) It appeared to others in the room that there were no other bidders. The prices for the two works were roughly £2 million and over £600,000.

Mugrabi says that a few days after the auction, Gagosian decided not to co-­purchase the Hammer and Sickle piece with him, but took sole possession of the shoe painting. The larger piece sat in a warehouse until “about a year or two later,” when the Mugrabis gave it to a European dealer.

“We have several other Hammer and Sickles—three, four, I think—and this was the one we were willing to sell,” Mugrabi said. How much did it go for? Mugrabi laughed. “More than we paid for it, of course.”

Hirst’s decision to leave Gagosian followed the defections of a number of somewhat less high-profile artists over the past couple of years—Tom Friedman (Luhring-Augustine), Philip Taaffe. It turns out that Yayoi Kusama’s representative informed the gallery last summer of the artist’s plans to end their relationship. Kusama, who has iconic status in Japan and a following of wealthy collectors—her market footprint was enhanced by a large-scale collaboration with Louis Vuitton stores—had apparently been frustrated by the gallery’s treatment for a couple of years. People close to her have complained privately that Gagosian left them out of major decisions, such as how her work would be exhibited and which pieces would be shown, and raised prices without her knowledge.

As Kusama attempted to quietly retrieve her artworks from Gagosian’s storage facilities, her studio was said to be surprised in late November to receive an e-mail invitation from the gallery announcing an exhibition—alongside Koons—of some of that very work at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills space, to be held the following week.

People consider the German-born Zwirner just as financially ambitious as Gagosian, though with a more refined manner. Gagosian’s colleagues speculate all manner of things—that Richard Prince may be leaving next, that artists whose careers were considered “made” by Gagosian decided this was not so much of a gift. “Larry and Richard Prince exploited the crap out of Richard’s market for several years, and it began to backfire,” an auction-house executive says. Gagosian used to make fun of Prince’s earlier paintings as “curator art,” though he decided he was a big fan when the nurse paintings began to sell for more money, and he eventually poached Prince from Barbara Gladstone. Prices rose under his stewardship, from six figures in 2003 to $6 million in 2008, but now hover in the low millions. “Once it stops working, the artist gets upset, and Larry’s not going to be the gallerist who holds his hand and says, ‘Just because your market has dropped by more than 50 percent, I believe in your work more than ever.’ Larry says, ‘I’ll take 30 percent of whatever you’re making and ignore you unless you start to sell for more again.’ ”

Hirst’s prices have fallen recently, but that doesn’t seem to be the reason for the breakup. “You don’t put on a show for an artist and give him all of your eleven galleries if you don’t have a good relationship,” said James Kelly, Hirst’s business manager (the artist employs a team of some 160 people—spread among his six studios and Science, Ltd.). But, he went on, there has been a discernible disconnect forming between the two in recent years. “Larry has a very, very large machine, that’s part of it.” He cited Gagosian’s persistent growth and preoccupation with the secondary ­market—“He’s representing a lot more estates now, dead artists”—and Hirst’s desire to produce fewer artworks. “Damien told me, ‘I want to slow down, and therefore there’s no point in staying with Gagosian.’ He’s got to the point in life—his collector following is very loyal—where he doesn’t need it.”

From the beginning of his career, Hirst has also shown with Jay Jopling of London’s White Cube Gallery, the pioneer dealer of the Young British Artists movement. Kelly said Hirst would continue to be represented by White Cube. “The difference between Larry and Jay is that Damien grew up with Jay, they are part of something together. It’s a very different relationship there, which Damien has no intention of severing.” He added that while Hirst never minded the treatment, an artist’s interactions with Gagosian himself are all business. “Larry has his staff look after artists—I dealt with Larry, while Millicent Wilner in London is who Damien worked with.”

In the marriage of art and money that’s taken place over the past quarter-century, Hirst and Gagosian have been the groom and bride (with Andy Warhol, hovering over, blessing all, as paterfamilias). The fact that Hirst and Gagosian are getting divorced, and the reasons they’ve grown apart—Gagosian too controlling, too focused on his own upside; Hirst wanting his space, tiring of a certain kind of dealmaking—may represent a turning point in the fraught relations between dealers and artists. Hirst had always treated wealth as a theme of his art, partly a subject of comedy, even as he amassed a reputed fortune of more than $300 million and bought a Downton Abbey–size estate. The shark in formaldehyde, the diamond-encrusted skull are remarks on the culture he and Gagosian helped to create; the works’ prices themselves were somehow part of their aesthetic import. But Hirst’s flight from his comfortable position is bound to be a cautionary tale for artists entering into such relationships. 

Still, there’s something about Larry Gagosian that’s thrilling to certain artists. He’s a force of nature, a predator—a shark. “He’s a player,” says Richard Serra. “I mean, nothing frightens the guy.” 

*This article originally appeared in the January 28, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Illustration by hitandrun