Every June they fly in like an air force of contemporary art: the world’s top dealers and collectors landing in Basel, Switzerland, for the year’s most significant fair. Of that glittering throng, four figures stand apart. The mega-dealers occupy booths no different from the rest. They just sell a lot more art: not a million dollars here at Art Basel, but tens of millions. Not tens of millions over the course of a year, but hundreds of millions. Or, in the case of Larry Gagosian, $1 billion. If, that is, you believe those numbers: the mega-dealers may boast of a particular sale, but all are private, and they stay mum on profits in what is, notoriously, the world’s largest unregulated market of legal goods.
At 48, Swiss-born Iwan Wirth, of Hauser & Wirth, is the youngest of the four. Oldest, at 80, is Arne Glimcher, who opened New York City’s Pace Gallery in 1963. Glimcher has notched many of the top sales of the last half-century, and remains a force. But he is openly weary of the global bazaar that contemporary art has become. “This market has nothing to do with art,” he says. “It’s all about how fast one can make money.” Glimcher has made his son, Marc, 55, his successor, and it is Marc who comes to Basel now, while his father keeps to his small, lamp-lit office on Manhattan’s 57th Street—the street where contemporary art began.
The other two Megas—Gagosian, 73, and David Zwirner, 54—are the ones most carefully watched at Art Basel. Gagosian, while powerful, is less given to the rages that once defined him. The German-born Zwirner is calmer, more genial. But the two are still so competitive that for all the events they have attended together—the art fairs and gallery openings and ceaseless art-world parties—they have never “broken bread” with each other, says Zwirner. Not one face-to-face meal or drink, not one cheery chat. Theirs is an art-world cold war that has helped shape the entire marketplace. It is no exaggeration to say that the deals made by this pair of adversaries can alter the fates and fortunes of their numerous allies and challengers.
All dealers, of course, vie with one another, and tensions rise and fall. But Gagosian and Zwirner have had an especially bitter history, epitomized by their fight over a now deceased, hard-drinking Viennese artist once relatively unknown—whose estate is now worth more than $50 million. The story of Franz West is the story of how Gagosian and Zwirner became arch-rivals and then, through proxies, became entangled in a seven-year court battle that is only now awaiting a final verdict.
Some dealers, like Gagosian, start with nothing. Most start with family money and connections. David Zwirner is one of those. His father, Rudolf, was a well-known German dealer and intellectual. David grew up above his father’s gallery in Cologne, hanging out with houseguests like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Cy Twombly.
David was 10 when his parents divorced; four years later he moved with his father to SoHo. Briefly he nursed dreams of becoming a jazz drummer. He was 28 in 1993 when he opened a gallery of his own, on SoHo’s Greene Street. His timing was propitious: the art-market recession of 1990 was ebbing. Zwirner had no fixed ideas about what he wanted to show. “I didn’t care what medium: painters, sculptors, video—no parameters,” he recalls. “Authenticity was what I was after.”
Zwirner knew he would have to build his business in the secondary market: works already sold at least once by artists established or on their way. But discovering new artists—the primary market—was what made his heart race. To find new talent, he went to then small European fairs such as Documenta. He came back with, among others, a video artist named Stan Douglas, who made short, noir-ish movies; a figurative painter named Luc Tuymans; and a young, carousing dynamo named Franz West.
West was a multi-media artist much admired in Europe for his collages, made of papier-mâché, plaster, and aluminum. Some of his works resembled small boulders; others were masks of varying sizes; later sculptures suggested sausages—or phalluses. As a teenager, West had hung out at bars with an older set of artists known as the Viennese Actionists. A debauched bunch, they made performance art meant to shock and revolt the authorities: from public masturbation to rubbing themselves with the blood of slaughtered animals. “He was a young guy sitting with them and drinking all the time,” recalls Eva Presenhuber, his Swiss dealer. “It was a rock ’n’ roll story: They did a lot of drugs, went to Afghanistan. You got opium and got high because you wanted to ‘grow.’ ”
Zwirner dedicated his first show to West—a bold stroke. West’s work wasn’t easy to love, but love it Zwirner did. Already he was showing he had an eye as keen as anyone’s in contemporary art.
“It was a rock ’n’ roll story: They went to Afghanistan. You got opium and got high because you wanted to ‘grow.’ ”
West seemed pleased, too. But as Presenhuber noted, the artist was acutely aware of his own talent, which in time would lead to tensions. “Zwirner was a young gallerist, maybe a little too ambitious—he told Franz what to do all the time,” Presenhuber explains. “Franz started to hate that.” Through the 1990s, though, he held his tongue and enjoyed the stretch limos Zwirner provided on opening nights.
Zwirner had no doubt he could make West a major name in the United States. It was just a matter of keeping him on track as an artist and not letting his demons get the better of him. Zwirner acknowledges that he sometimes tried to monitor West’s behavior and keep him from engaging in excesses. That was a challenge, for West already had alcohol-related liver damage and at some point contracted hepatitis C.
When Zwirner opened his gallery, the most propulsive force in the contemporary-art market was Larry Gagosian. Everyone knew his story: his Armenian roots; his modest upbringing as an accountant’s son working his way through U.C.L.A.; his starting job in the William Morris mail room, from which he was fired after a year; the period of low-level gigs—record store, bookstore, supermarket—until, as a parking-lot manager, he noticed a man selling posters out of the trunk of his car and thought he could do that, too.
A poster-framing shop in L.A. led to a gallery, and then a fancier one, along with another in New York. He charmed dealer Leo Castelli, the prince of Pop art, while hustling sales with a brute force never before seen in the market. By 1991 he had a gallery on West 23rd Street—the Chelsea frontier—another in SoHo, and a block-size flagship on Madison Avenue.
For all his success in the roller-coaster 1980s—recognizing the genius of a young Jean-Michel Basquiat before almost anyone else, selling modern masterpieces in excess of $10 million to publisher S. I. Newhouse (who resurrected VANITY FAIR in 1983), then reselling some of the paintings for even more to entertainment mogul David Geffen—Gagosian had a secret longing. He wanted his own primary artists. Basquiat, for all the still-wet canvases Gagosian bought and sold, was represented by Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger and later by Mary Boone; the rest of Gagosian’s triumphs were secondary sales.
One of his early breakthroughs was Cy Twombly, the artist whose elegant abstract paintings of hand-drawn scribbles and flower-like shapes weren’t yet astronomically valued, in part because Twombly had left the New York art scene years before to reside in Italy. At first, as Gagosian made his pitch to represent him, Twombly seemed standoffish, and the dealer feared his effort had been in vain. In desperation, he blurted out, “Why don’t you give the Armenian a chance?” Twombly found that hilarious and signed on.
Gagosian went from peak to peak in the 90s, taking on Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, among other enormously lucrative artists. Poaching Franz West from David Zwirner in 2001 was, for Gagosian, a modest move, almost an afterthought. One of his senior directors in London, Stefan Ratibor, had suggested West would be a good—and profitable—fit. “He was the architect of that,” Gagosian says.
West’s motives were mixed. He liked the prospect of joining the gallery that had Cy Twombly. Also, in addition to Ratibor, West knew and liked a Gagosian director named Ealan Wingate. But for West, as for Gagosian, this marriage was mostly about power, prestige, and money. Gagosian was well on his way to global dominance, with a foothold in London to complement his three New York galleries. He had his detractors, rough as he could sometimes be in his business dealings. But none could deny the beauty of his shows, from his clean, Castelli-like exhibition spaces to the gorgeous frames and museum-quality catalogues. There was, perhaps, one more reason for West to bolt. Gagosian was no schoolmarm; he wasn’t going to tell West how to live. For Zwirner, West’s departure was a devastating and baffling blow. “I loved him as a person as well as an artist,” Zwirner recalls, “and we had worked so hard for him.” What more could the dealer have done? Slowly it sank in: nothing. Gagosian simply had more money and clout.
West’s departure changed everything for Zwirner. “It made clear to me that I had to grow,” he explains. Zwirner needed a space big enough to excite artists with its exhibition potential and to draw talent from other galleries. He leased one, in 2002, in the heart of Chelsea.
Zwirner’s record by now was remarkable, one hot primary artist after another: Diana Thater, who made site-specific video installations depicting the contrasts between nature and modern culture, and Jason Rhoades, whose anti-social installations were tinged with wry humor—the first, CHERRY Makita, depicted the artist as mechanic in a body shop, working on a car engine that actually turned on, its toxic fumes piped out of the gallery to keep from killing the curious. For secondary sales, where the most profits lay, Zwirner teamed up with dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth, smoothing their way to New York from Switzerland while they helped him reach European collectors: not until 2009 would the two parties split.
Yet for all his success, Zwirner nursed a grudge against Gagosian, who, in turn, had his own grievances. He bridled at Zwirner’s public pique, expressed after Gagosian wooed away portraitist John Currin from dealer Andrea Rosen with a brusqueness that startled the art world. “Our generation doesn’t have that aggressive behavior,” Zwirner declared. Gagosian was furious. “If the tables were turned, he’d do the same thing,” Gagosian now says. “Zwirner had a lot of nerve trying to burnish his ethics on my hide.”
Oddly enough, the two dealers were alike in many ways. Both were tall—over six feet—tightly coiled, and fit. Perhaps Zwirner was in better shape, given his passion for surfing off Montauk, but Gagosian, nearly two decades older, was no slouch. Both had close-cropped silvery hair and wore a uniform of casual shirts and jeans. Both had a keen eye for art, both were tough bargainers, and both thrilled to the art of the deal. Both, as it happened, were jazz aficionados.
The contrasts were just as striking. Zwirner was a family man, devoted to his wife and three young children. His circle of friends came mainly from the art community. Gagosian’s personal life involved a succession of girlfriends, lavish parties, and luxurious stays on the yachts of friends who were also business partners.
Unlike Zwirner, Gagosian had been a pioneer of “historical” shows of works not for sale: museum-like exhibitions of artists such as Edward Hopper, Yves Klein, and Andy Warhol, curated by world-class experts like the late Picasso biographer and VANITY FAIR contributor John Richardson. Also unlike Zwirner, Gagosian had generally stayed away from new artists. No emerging talents just out of art school. No brilliant discoveries in their 20s. “I like it when there’s some momentum—the artist has some traction,” he says. “The economics of it [are] more attractive.” Also, as he notes, “when they’re up the food chain, and their prices are up, they tend to be better artists.” But, he adds with a laugh, “sometimes you see a young artist who’s really a genius and you have to resist the temptation to do anything!”
As they signed on with the older dealer, the artists experienced a new phenomenon: the Gagosian effect. His wealthy collectors stood ready to buy what Gagosian suggested they buy. Newly signed artists, as a result, tended to see their work spike in price over the course of a year or two. (Gagosian would be accused in one high-profile lawsuit of misrepresenting the worth of an artwork to cosmetics billionaire Ron Perelman, only to have the suit dismissed. Gagosian is currently named in two suits regarding the supposed non-delivery of Jeff Koons sculptures. Gagosian has said the works will be handed over when they’re ready.)
Collectors, more than artists, seemed to make Gagosian’s world go round. The dealer gave elegant dinners, either at one of his homes or his favorite restaurant, Mr. Chow, on East 57th Street. Art-market lawyer Aaron Richard Golub, who had started as a social acquaintance of Gagosian’s and ended up fighting him in court, attended a number of those parties and appreciated the dynamic involved. The guests, he noted, were nearly all male and, of course, quite wealthy.
For collectors who might be a bit insecure, being invited to Gagosian’s soirées conferred a heady validation. They could drop Gagosian’s name in art circles—just “Larry” to them—and tell friends that this or that painting had been bought from him. The Gagosian brand name was now nearly as important as the artists’.
These gatherings were often sprinkled with a few of Gagosian’s artists. “The artists just stand in one place; they’re stationary,” Golub explains. “You can talk to them and shake their hands.” But not just anyone could stroll up to them. “Those who get that privilege have either bought Gagosian art or are about to do so. The handshake is very helpful.”
The guests had one thing in common: they’d bought art from Larry. And so, to make conversation, they talked about what artworks they had. They visited one another’s vast homes to see each others’ collections, and often saw works by the same artists. The “Larry collection,” as Golub puts it, would typically feature a Damien Hirst. Also a Mark Grotjahn, a Richard Prince, an Ed Ruscha, a Cy Twombly, and a Rudolf Stingel. And, if the collector had outdoor space, a Richard Serra and, of course, a Koons sculpture.
As a Gagosian artist, Franz West saw his star rise, both in Europe and in the U.S. Along with his rough-hewn sculpture, he designed lines of playful furniture; Gagosian sold those, too. West had no quarrel with his dealer, or his principal go-between, Ealan Wingate—not yet, at least. His personal life was where the complications lay.
Shortly after signing on with Gagosian, West hired a pixie-ish studio assistant 24 years his junior, and the two fell in love. Tbilisi-born Tamuna Sirbiladze was an artist herself—a good one—and loved West enough to become his wife. But when a young writer named Benedikt Ledebur began working with West on the books that arose from his art, Sirbiladze was drawn to him as well. Ledebur was likewise smitten, despite the fact that he, too, was married, and had two children.
An open relationship ensued. From this unconventional arrangement came a son, Lazaré Otto, born in 2008, and a daughter, Emily Anouk, born in 2009. The identity of the biological father was an issue but not one that any of the three cared to pursue. “I did have a relationship with Tamuna at the same time,” Ledebur says. “When she had children, Franz said he wanted them as his own.” As West’s Swiss dealer, Eva Presenhuber, puts it, it was a very Viennese tale. “Franz liked complicated situations,” she contends. “He provoked things like this.”
Presenhuber observes that family life failed to bring West the happiness he sought. “I always said to Franz, ‘It’s interesting you have these children,’ ” she recalls. “He said, ‘I’m more like the grandfather to them.’ ” Presenhuber says West often spoke of seeking a divorce. Ledebur admits the troika had “difficult phases” but says West always fell back in love with his family—and kept working with Ledebur.
With an eye toward his legacy, West began talking to Gagosian’s Wingate about how to safeguard his art. West had formed a nonprofit archive some years before, but he had come to regret the power he’d ceded to its director. What he needed, he felt, was a repository for his art, from which it could be shown and sold, and into which he could put the archive. “I know that Franz wanted to have this foundation,” Presenhuber says. “He had been in touch with lawyers two years before.”
With Sirbiladze’s help, West had stopped drinking. But he had lived too hard in his youth to escape the consequences. By early 2012 he was losing his fight against hepatitis C and cirrhosis. Hoping the Italian sun would help, West moved to Naples to live and work while Sirbiladze tended to the children in Vienna. Soon, however, he fell into a coma and was checked into a private clinic.
West had stabilized by the time Ealan Wingate dispatched a private plane to Naples. The urgent message, says Ledebur, was that West return with doctors to Vienna. Only there could they sign all the documents needed to ratify the foundation West had planned on. Ledebur says West protested: he wanted to stay in Naples and had managed to line up a potential liver transplant in Nice.
Wingate, according to Ledebur, insisted on bringing West home to Vienna: the jet was already booked. Erich Gibel, who would become one of the foundation’s lawyers, disputes that version: “West was flown to Vienna at his own request. So it is not true that Ealan Wingate [pushed] to bring West home.” West’s friends saw the tussle as a sign of the Gagosian camp asserting itself, possibly against its artist’s personal wishes. Others saw yet another chapter in the West-family drama. Some even wondered if Zwirner, in some way, might enter the fray; he remained close to the archive’s director and made a point of staying in touch.
Soon after checking into a Viennese hospital, West was visited by Wingate. With him were the putative members of the new Franz West foundation. Wingate had brought along a notary public and documents for West to sign. Christoph Kerres, who would serve as lawyer for Benedikt Ledebur and West’s estate until 2017, suggests that West was no longer in his right mind when he signed the documents. “When the notary was present in the hospital, Franz West was about to be taken into intensive care,” he says. “It remains questionable if Franz West understood the consequences of the notarial deed.”
Why otherwise would West assign all of his art and assets to a foundation, Kerres notes, leaving nothing of his work to his widow and children? For into the foundation would go all of West’s royalties, copyrights, art, and assets, including all the holdings in the nonprofit archive. Foundation lawyer Erich Gibel takes issue with this interpretation of West’s intentions. He maintains that West—not Gagosian and not Wingate—“had the clear desire to establish the foundation and wanted to bring in his whole oeuvre.” It was, says Gibel, West’s “dying wish: the artist’s way of protecting his assets.”
Less than a week later—on July 25, 2012—West was dead. His widow was shown the foundation documents: a fait accompli. “The night after Franz died,” Ledebur recalls, “Ealan was standing in [the artist’s] flat, telling Tamuna that all this art now belongs to the foundation”—not to West’s two children, his direct heirs. Wingate, in Ledebur’s telling, conveyed it as good news, supposedly saying, “You don’t have to live in a museum. We can get you furniture you like.” Wingate, according to Ledebur, added that he would send someone from the foundation over to make a list of the works before the foundation took possession of them. Ledebur recalls Sirbiladze being stunned.
According to West foundation lawyer David Stockhammer, “Ealan Wingate did not go to the apartment of Franz West. Nor would he indicate anything regarding ownership or possession of any of Franz’s works. Language like ‘you don’t have to live in a museum, we can get you furniture you like’ is not anything that Ealan Wingate would say. On the contrary, Ealan Wingate had been with Tamuna for the previous days and was providing her lots of support.”
So began the years-long court battle. Sirbiladze sued the foundation, claiming it had sucked up all of her late husband’s work without her permission. The Gagosian gallery was not named in the suit, but Sirbiladze had concerns that the man chosen to oversee the foundation was a Gagosian director, Ealan Wingate. His title was “protector” of the foundation—a lifetime appointment. According to the documents, he had the power to name all board members under him and to sell or consign West’s work to galleries. One indicator was the foundation’s selection of consignee for the late artist’s playful lines of furniture. For its U.S. distributor, the foundation chose the Gagosian gallery.Gibel, the foundation lawyer, says that despite Wingate’s title and authority, the Gagosian gallery had nothing to do with the court case “and also … nothing to do with the foundation.” That wasn’t how some in the art market saw it. “Zwirner and Gagosian fight,” suggested collector and dealer Adam Lindemann, and West’s reputation “always suffers.”
Through West’s last years, Zwirner had had little contact with the artist. “We bumped into each other a couple of times, but there was no love lost on either side after he left,” Zwirner admits. Yet he appeared to be playing the long game. Quietly, he kept buying West’s work whenever he could and, at the same time, kept ingratiating himself with the nonprofit archive, always eager to be of assistance.Two years after West’s death, Zwirner, who had effectively been frozen out, staged a major show of his work in New York—much of it with art Zwirner owned—and invited West’s widow, Sirbiladze, along with Ledebur and the two West children. “It was during this trip that the family ended up staying in the gallery’s artist/guest apartment, and I got to know Benedikt and Tamuna well,” Zwirner recalls. “Tamuna was gregarious, an engaged mother, a very interesting artist in her own right, and full of fond memories of her life with Franz. She was devastated and appalled by the goings-on.”
Christoph Kerres says he found one clause of the new foundation’s documents mind-boggling—and motivating. The legal papers West had signed called for all of his artworks to be put in the foundation. That violated a fundamental legal tenet in Austria, where children are entitled to 50 percent of a parent’s inheritance, period.“The foundation has so far never denied or contested that the children of Franz West are entitled to 50 percent,” says Gibel. As far as the foundation was concerned, West’s wife and children had come out well. They were inheriting, as Gibel put it, a luxurious villa, five apartments in Vienna, five cars, cash, and West’s private collection of other artists’ work. All this, Gibel says, added up to $17 million. Kerres begs to differ. The children got two apartments, he declares, and the villa, which was more like “a cottage.” The cars were a modest substitute for paintings and sculptures. As for West’s collection of other artists’ work, it was, Kerres acknowledges, of meaningful worth—so much so that the foundation reclaimed it, according to Kerres, after having it appraised at $10 million.
A settlement seemed close in early 2016, one in which the children might get a substantial chunk of their father’s estate and the foundation the rest. Then came a tragic twist: Tamuna Sirbiladze’s death from cancer at age 45. One of her last legal efforts was to question the fees that some foundation board members were paid. That June, the Austrian Supreme Court found that the foundation’s three-person secondary board had paid themselves “suspicious” sums: salaries totaling more than $560,000 over a five-month period in 2012, followed in 2013 by payments of some $900,000. The secondary board members were expelled by the court. No such sums were associated with Wingate, who remained in charge. But now one court decision after another went against the West foundation.“I think Ealan was a bit too nosy, too clever,” suggests Presenhuber. “He should have drawn Tamuna in and told her 50 percent would go to the kids.” Instead, the foundation hung tough. Even after the Austrian Appellate Court quashed its appeal in June 2017, the foundation asked for an appeal to the Supreme Court. The foundation also threw the estate a curve: Franz West had had a sister. The foundation lawyer became her lawyer, too, asserting on her behalf that she—though not named in any of West’s wills, according to two sources—was the rightful heir, not West’s children.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, when it came in, this January, was a mortal blow to the foundation. The court ruled that it had had no right to take West’s art. It was ordered to give all its assets back to West’s estate, and back they have been coming, piecemeal.
Two months ago, however, another Austrian court found in favor of West’s sister, declaring her to be the rightful heir. While some insiders expect the court’s decision to be overturned, if the sister does prevail, she will inherit all of the art that has gone from the foundation back to the estate. Because of the 50 percent inheritance rule, she would have to give the children their half of the estate in cash. But she could still end up with tens of millions herself.
Over the years in this battle royal, all four mega-dealers have come to dominate the contemporary-art market. Hauser & Wirth is building a colossal space on West 22nd Street. Arne Glimcher, of Pace, is erecting an eight-story extravaganza on West 25th Street. Gagosian now has 16 outposts around the world; he was the first to build a supersize gallery in Chelsea. And Zwirner is putting up a $50 million space on West 21st Street. In it, he will be able to showcase one of his newest artists, if the court so rules: none other than Franz West.For some years now, the West estate and Benedikt Ledebur had hoped to switch representation of West’s works from Gagosian back to Zwirner. “Zwirner,” says Presenhuber, “always knew he would show West again.” And now it has come to pass: the late artist is technically back with the dealer whose admiration, if unreciprocated, has been constant all these years.
Last fall, in Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou staged a major West retrospective, which then moved to London’s Tate Modern, where it remains until June 2; at the same time Zwirner proudly opened a separate West show at his London gallery, with works from his private collection. Two floors are dedicated to the artist and a third to his ill-starred wife, Tamuna Sirbiladze, a show curated by her lover Benedikt Ledebur. “Is it a triumph?” Ledebur reflects. “Yes, but a tragedy, too. Franz dead, Tamuna dead—the cost is too high.”
With the disposition of West’s work still uncertain, Zwirner will have to wait to learn how much of it he can take on, even as West’s legacy continues to flower.Gagosian is hopeful, too. For there, in the dealer’s unparalleled online roster of global greats—roughly 100 artists in all—is Franz West. Gagosian has access to his own cache of West works, acquired by the gallery over the years. Win, lose, or draw, he’s still selling the master’s bounty.
Adapted from Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, by Michael Shnayerson, to be published on May 21, 2019, by PublicAffairs. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Shnayerson.