Dealers Hand – Why are so many people paying so much money for art? A profile of David Zwirner

Dec 4th, 2013 | By | Category: Journal
David Zwirner

David Zwirner in front of a work by Raymond Pittibon

An interesting profile of David Zwirner has been published in the New Yorker which gives an insight into the background and dealing practice of one today’s leading contemporary art dealers.

Dealers Hand – Why are so many people paying so much money for art?  Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker, Dec 2 2013.

Very important people line up differently from you and me. They don’t want to stand behind anyone else, or to acknowledge wanting something that can’t immediately be had. If there’s a door they’re eager to pass through, and hundreds of equally or even more important people are there, too, they get as close to the door as they can, claim a patch of available space as though it had been reserved for them, and maintain enough distance to pretend that they are not in a line.

Prior to the official opening of Art Basel, the annual fair in Switzerland, there is a two-day V.I.P. preview. In many respects, the preview is the fair. It’s when the collectors who can afford the good stuff are allowed in to buy it. After those two days, there isn’t much left for sale, and it becomes less a fair than a kind of pop-up museum, as the V.I.P.s, many of whom have come to Basel from the Biennale in Venice, continue on, perhaps to London for the auctions there. The international art circuit can be gruelling, which is why pretty much everyone who participates in it takes off the month of August, to recuperate.

The Basel preview began at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in June. The meat of the fair was in a gigantic convention center on the east side of the Rhine. The dealers’ booths were arrayed along two vast rectangular grids, which enclosed a circular courtyard that resembled a panopticon. The fair occupied two floors. The bottom one featured blue-chip art, offered by the powerhouse dealers; Picassos and Warhols could be seen among more contemporary work. Upstairs, for the most part, was younger work, exhibited by smaller galleries.

On the morning of the preview, after a champagne breakfast in the panopticon, the V.I.P.s gathered at the doors, under the watchful eye of guards in berets and dark crewneck sweaters. Through a window in the door, you could see, down the hall, the dealer David Zwirner, with his sales staff huddled around him, as though for a pep talk. The Zwirner booth was just past the Fondation Beyeler’s. (The Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler, who died in 2010, was one of Art Basel’s founders and its presiding spirit.) Zwirner comes in force: he had about a dozen salespeople with him, a mixture of partners, directors, and associates, as well as a platoon of assistants and art handlers. A few minutes before the doors opened, they took up positions in a sales-floor spread defense. Bellatrix Hubert, a Zwirner partner, pantomimed a gesture of being slammed by an incoming flood. The doors parted, and the buyers poured in.

Within moments, most of the Zwirner directors had paired off with collectors, as at an officers’-club dance. Some strolled over to this or that work of art. The Zwirner booth was about the size of a couple of shipping containers, with work mounted on both sides of various walls. There were paintings by Elizabeth Peyton, Neo Rauch, Martin Kippenberger, On Kawara, Yayoi Kusama, Luc Tuymans, and Lisa Yuskavage, among others, and sculpture by John McCracken and Donald Judd.

A trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago was interested in a Twombly drawing, and a curator from the museum was there to advise her (the museum could not afford to buy it), so Zwirner led them into a side room to view it. The directors were expecting visits from clients with whom they had previously discussed specific works, sharing high-resolution images and market intelligence. Many pieces were already on reserve, meaning that clients had indicated an intention to buy them, without having seen them in person.

Zwirner tended to collectors and checked in with his staff at a corner table, where an assistant collated sales and inventory information, which directors could track on their iPads. One director, a dapper Spaniard named Ales Ortuzar, sidled up to the table. “The second Kusama is sold,” he said. The price was four hundred and twenty thousand dollars. Zwirner dropped by and reported the sale, to an undisclosed buyer at an undisclosed price, of a Blinky Palermo painting, a last-minute addition to the fair, after a Georg Baselitz picture had got delayed in French customs. Important people stopped by the booth: the commodities trader Marc Rich, looking frail in a wheelchair (he died soon afterward); the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and his girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova; Leonardo DiCaprio, whom Zwirner greeted with the exclamation “Movie star!,” as though saying aloud what he’d meant only to think.

Zwirner is forty-nine, tall and fit, with a Caesar haircut and a brisk, forthright manner. He wore, as he usually does, unfaded bluejeans, a blue button-down shirt, and a navy sports coat. He has a slight German accent—he was born in Cologne—and a particular way of not pronouncing his “r”s and “l”s. The word “gallery,” which he uses a lot, has traces of Elmer Fudd and Colonel Klink. His cheeks and neck tend to flush when he is angry or stressed, but he generally cultivates an affable, regular-guy air, and listens with a tilted head, genuinely curious. When he has decided that a conversation has reached its logical end, he punctuates it with a quick sideways nod. He has what seems to be a guileless way of asserting art-world pedigree while acting as though he stood outside it all—he’s of it and yet not.

Zwirner, the son of a famous German dealer, opened his first gallery in 1993, in SoHo. Since then, he has risen to be one of the most prominent dealers in the world. He is not really a pioneer, in terms of the art he has championed, or the style in which he has presented it, or the people he has sold it to. He is, in many respects, one more boat on a rising tide. Still, the brightwork gleams. People often say that he’s angling to be his generation’s Larry Gagosian—every era has its dealer-king—but his approach is really nothing like Gagosian’s, or anyone else’s. He brings the calculating eye of an efficiency expert to the historically improvised hustle of buying and selling art objects. “He’s the new dynasty,” Gavin Brown, the New York gallerist, told me. “It’s the Norman conquest.”

“The action is on!” Zwirner whispered, in a mock-dramatic voice. “Can you smell the money?” Selling at fairs, immensely profitable as it may be, is perhaps his least favorite element of art dealing. “This is the most commercial part of what we do,” he said. “It’s almost perverse.”

On one wall was a Gerhard Richter painting from 1971, an abstract swirl of color that looked to my untutored eye a little like a screen-saver pattern. Zwirner was selling it, on consignment, for a European collector. The sale prices for Richter are higher than for any other living painter, but this one, an early work, was priced low, at $3.5 million. (A later work of its size might sell for five times that.) It had attracted the interest of an American collector in black hiking pants and a black short-sleeved shirt, with a jacket folded over one arm. He kept moving to new vantages, perhaps to test his enthusiasm. At one point, Zwirner’s art handlers took the painting down from the wall, and the collector asked for the condition report. Then he abruptly left, saying that he’d be back. Zwirner told him that he’d give him until one-thirty. After that, he’d have to take it off reserve.

Another man stood studying the painting, from a distance of thirty feet. He had the build of a Rolling Stone, long frizzy gray-flecked hair, and a brown front tooth. “I’m trying to buy a painting,” he told me. It was Ivor Braka, a private dealer from London, known for his early collecting of—and lucrative trade in—the work of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. He was in Basel as an adviser to another collector, but he coveted the Richter for himself. He was, at present, the backup reserve buyer. If the American collector dithered, it would be his. Zwirner gestured toward Braka and said, “He’s seeing what I’m seeing, an undervalued work.”

Braka had been coming to Basel since 1977. “You used to be able to look around in a leisurely way, but now it’s a scrum,” he said. He had decided to wait and see if the collector would come back. Perhaps his lurking presence would compel Zwirner to enforce the one-thirty deadline.

“It’s tricky,” Zwirner said. “My ultimate responsibility here is to the consignor.” That is, his job was to sell the Richter—it didn’t really matter to whom—yet he also had to treat the American collector with the consideration due a client of importance. The situation was complicated by the fact that one of Zwirner’s partners (Hanna Schouwink) was working with the American and a director (Ales Ortuzar) was handling Braka. Each client belongs to a salesperson. The sales staff are paid on commission, so technically they were competing with each other, although at Zwirner’s gallery, to stave off conflict, they are bound by a written code of conduct, which Zwirner guards as a trade secret. He kept an eye on the progress of the Richter.

By one-thirty, there was no sign of the American collector. Braka and Ortuzar huddled, and Ortuzar said, “I’m on it.” At one-fifty-two, the American appeared and resumed scrutinizing the painting. “Look at him sweating,” Zwirner whispered. After a while, he gave the collector a now-or-never gesture. The man borrowed a chair, sat down, and stared at the Richter for a while, chin in hand. Braka stood ten feet behind him. Soon the American got into what appeared to be a heated discussion with Schouwink. Ortuzar approached Braka, and Braka, with a pained smile, nodded and walked away. Zwirner joined the collector and Schouwink. He spoke emphatically to each of them, slapping the knuckles of one hand against the palm of the other. Everything is negotiable. At two-fourteen, the collector shook Zwirner’s hand and bent to kiss Schouwink’s. The Richter was his, and Zwirner had earned three hundred thousand dollars, enough to cover more than half the cost of the gallery’s booth in Basel.

One of the reasons there’s so much talk about money is that it’s so much easier to talk about than the art,” Zwirner told me one day. You meet a lot of people in the art world who are exhausted and dismayed by the focus on money, and by its dominance. It distracts from the work, they say. It distorts curatorial instincts, critical appraisals, and young artists’ careers. It scares away civilians, who begin to lump art in with other symptoms of excess and dismiss it as another garish plaything of the rich. Of course, many of those who complain—dealers, artists, curators—are complicit. The culture industry, which supports them in one way or another, and which hardly existed a generation ago, subsists on all that money—mostly on the largesse and folly of wealthy art lovers, whether their motivations are lofty or base.

Since the doldrums of the early nineties, the market for contemporary art, which has various definitions (work created after the Second World War, or during “our” lifetime, or post-1960, or post-1970), has rocketed up, year after year, flattening out briefly amid the financial crisis and global recession of 2008-09, before resuming its climb. Big annual returns have attracted more people to buying art, which has raised prices further. It is no coincidence that this steep rise, in recent decades, coincides with the increasing financialization of the world economy. The accumulation of greater wealth in the hands of a smaller percentage of the world’s population has created immense fortunes with a limitless capacity to pursue a limited supply of art work. The globalization of the art market—the interest in contemporary art among newly wealthy Asians, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Russians—has furnished it with scores of new buyers, and perhaps fresh supplies of greater fools. Once you have hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s hard to know where to put it all. Art is transportable, unregulated, glamorous, arcane, beautiful, difficult. It is easier to store than oil, more esoteric than diamonds, more durable than political influence. Its elusive valuation makes it conducive to extremely creative tax accounting.

“These are the highest-luxury goods man has ever known,” a dealer told me. “If you’re in the business of selling art, you’re an idiot if you don’t respond to that.”

“Nobody’s selling expensive stuff like we do with the frequency we do,” Zwirner said. “This is an industry in its golden age. When I opened, in 1993, we had a couple of hundred galleries and a few hundred collectors. And now we have, what, a couple of thousand galleries and a couple of thousand collectors. You want to grow a viable business in this climate. The wind is at your back.”

Zwirner often refers to “our industry,” as though he were talking about copper mining. For the most part, though, the art world comes off less as business than as bazaar. The social life that has sprung up around contemporary art, the year-round hajj to improbable meccas for fairs and openings and installations—this life of Documenta, Marfa, moca, and Kunst—this, too, has proved seductive to a certain kind of aspirational, cosmopolitan entrepreneur or heir. “It’s a super-cool club,” Zwirner said. “In 2009, everything fell apart, values came down, and I thought, Shit, this is going to be rough, this is going to last years. But the structures of the art world were absolutely intact. We all flew to the fairs, showed up for the dinners. Collectors weren’t buying, but they were there, they were in our net. When I saw the mechanisms in place, and I saw the pull that what we do has on people’s lives, they don’t want to miss out. It’s the greatest couples therapy. You see the most wonderful marriages.”

The art world is small. Everyone throws around first names. Larry, Paula, Marian, Massimiliano. Last names are for artists. At Basel, you see the same people over and over, as though on a wedding weekend. But there are many habitats, each with its own array of flora and fauna. Larry Gagosian, the world’s biggest dealer, occupies an ecosystem of his own. He’s the key link in a food chain of buyers, sellers, speculators, and hangers-on.

When the migrations pass through Basel, they water up at the Hotel Les Trois Rois. After the second V.I.P. day, the V.I.P.s converged on the bar there. Golden solstice sunlight glinted off watches and jewels. Outside, the Rhine was surging, nearly cresting its banks. (Elsewhere in Europe, cities were inundated by record floods.) To sit in the bar on a couch facing the entrance was to be on art-world safari; here were the big predators and ungulates lapping at their kirs and kleineUeli Biers under gilded ceilings and arched doorways. They came in ones or twos, pausing at the entrance, perhaps to plot their way into the rarefied corners or else to allow an invisible valet to whisper their names. Nicolas Berggruen, Tico Mugrabi, Tony Shafrazi, Stellan Holm in purple slippers, Peter Brant in double-breasted blazer. Larry himself, eyes darting around the room. People arrived with anxious, sour expressions but once inside got caught up in the post-transactional thrum. “There’s a chemical reaction when you buy something—it’s intoxicating,” Kenny Schachter, a private dealer and curator who lives in London, told me. “I bought a painting at 1 a.m. the other night on the elevator in my hotel.”

The market regularly furnishes new symbols of extravagance, with record-breaking auction prices, and the provocations of artists like Damien Hirst, whose work dares you to conclude that the whole thing is a scam. But even ordinary commerce astounds. You see paintings by dozens of artists you’ve hardly heard of selling for more than a million, or hear about billionaires who’ve otherwise been discreet during their decades of wealth accumulation opening museums. There’s a lot you don’t hear about, too: it is possible to make a very fine living speculating in contemporary art, if you know what to buy when, and have some ability to control supply.

In recent years, the big galleries have expanded aggressively, opening outposts around the world. Gagosian alone has a dozen galleries. (Zwirner has three.) This expansion has put tremendous pressure on medium-size operations: artists gravitate toward the scale, pricing power, and full-service treatment of the top gallerists, and buyers, perhaps insecure in their tastes and susceptible to the lure of the familiar, herd along. It’s hard for smaller galleries to afford the overhead or the relentless circuit of international fairs, the hubs nowadays of transactional activity. Meanwhile, many of the most established and esteemed gallerists (Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, Paula Cooper) are over seventy. Gagosian is sixty-eight. These people control many of the world’s best, or best-selling, artists, and someone will eventually inherit them. Very few galleries have thrived into a second generation. Pace is trying, Marlborough is fading, and Knoedler & Company went under, after it sold multimillion-dollar pieces that turned out to be forgeries painted by a Chinese immigrant in Queens. Zwirner’s “industry” has really never been much more than an assembly of improvised and ultimately ephemeral ventures. Dealers come and go, their names and enterprises soon forgotten. All that survives is the detritus of their influence and taste—what they sold and whom they sold it to. The biggest dealers are like Ice Age mega-glaciers, leaving behind vast moraines of art work they’d borne aloft and finally deposited in mansions and museums before melting away.

Last month, ArtReview published its annual list of the most powerful people in the art world. Zwirner was No. 2, after the sheikha who runs the Qatar Museums Authority, which reportedly spends a billion dollars a year on art. Gagosian, who was No. 2 last year, dropped to No. 4. Zwirner’s recent prominence is a product of many things: new gallery spaces, an expanding program (as a gallery’s stable of artists is called), canny brand management, and a latent void in the marketplace. Earlier this year, three Gagosian artists appeared in Zwirner’s exhibitions, which occasioned suggestions that Zwirner was poised to challenge Gagosian’s place at the top. In this scenario, there was both signal and noise. The volume of Gagosian’s business dwarfs that of any and all comers. He doesn’t lie awake at night fretting about David Zwirner. And the threesome was circumstantial. One was Richard Serra, who merely coöperated with Zwirner on an exhibition of his early work. Another was Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese painter, who had been looking for new representation. The third was Jeff Koons, peerlessly lucrative and famous and therefore empowered to be as free an agent as he’d like. Koons wanted to do a show of new sculpture, and Zwirner was happy to fund it. (Koons’s production costs are notoriously high.) That Zwirner’s Koons show coincided with another show of predominantly older work, at Gagosian—well, it was hard for either man to maintain that this was a coincidence.

“The narrative became a battle of the bands,” Zwirner told me. “It almost looked as if it was planned. They’re running a very strong gallery, I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing. It’s not like I wake up in the morning thinking, I’ve gotta bring this empire down. . . . I want to be No. 1 or No. 2, right? Isn’t that natural? No. 1!”

The first international contemporary-art fair, the model for Basel, was the Kölner Kunstmarkt, in Cologne, in 1967. It was co-founded by Rudolf Zwirner, David’s father, who had moved to Cologne in 1963 and opened a gallery with his wife, Ursula, David’s mother. Rudolf, a tall, dashing figure, was for decades one of the most prominent art dealers in Europe, and among the first wave of them to find a market there—or anywhere, really—for a generation of American artists who were eventually grouped under the headings of Minimalism and Pop. The Zwirners lived in a house with the gallery on the ground floor. In the dining room, there was a stack of about forty Warhol Brillo boxes, which Rudolf had a hard time selling and which David used as a hiding place in games of hide-and-seek.

Zwirner remembers his father explaining things to him. His father does not. “We never discussed art,” Rudolf Zwirner told me. “David was interested in music only.” He studied jazz and played drums.

When Zwirner was ten, his parents got a divorce, and his father remarried (another Ursula). Four years later, amid a global recession and an art-market slump, his father took the family to New York for a year. They lived in a loft in SoHo. At the suggestion of the art dealer Harold Diamond (the father of Mike D, from the Beastie Boys), Rudolf sent David and his sister to the Walden School, on the Upper West Side, which David recalls as “ultraliberal, super-Jewish.” He became the school’s soccer star. “You could take the ball from anywhere and score, because no one knew how to play the game,” he said.

Back in Germany, David, at sixteen, got an apartment of his own. “I had a car, and drove myself to school. I had all kinds of interesting businesses going—we won’t talk about that.” There were no openings in the music program at the university in Cologne, so he sent an audition tape to New York University of him playing the melody of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” on the drums. He got in.

In New York, he studied music, played some gigs, and lived on St. Mark’s Place with an eccentric Austrian architect. One day on the street, he bumped into Monica Seeman, whom he’d known at Walden and who was working as a stylist for the designer Patricia Field. He moved in with her, and four years later they were married. (She is a designer and co-owner of MZ Wallace, a handbag-and-accessories company. They have three children, aged twenty-two, twenty-one, and sixteen.) After he graduated, he tried to make it as a musician but found himself outclassed. His father connected him with a client in Hamburg, a collector named Siegfried Loch, who had started a record company. Zwirner went to work for him as a gofer and A. & R. man. Loch was a tyrant, the label was struggling, and Zwirner was miserable. “If you had success, the band would sue the label to get a better deal,” he said. “If you had no success, the label would try to get rid of the band.” Zwirner quit.

Meanwhile, he’d been poking around the art galleries in Hamburg. He began buying art, mainly photographs. “I was alarmed,” Rudolf told me. “He came to talk to me. I asked him, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘I can’t become a dealer, because you are one already.’ ” The father told the son that he could venture into the art business as long as he went about it his own way. “The moment he started, I quit,” Rudolf told me. “I had a feeling, I don’t want any competition with my son. I’d be the loser, this was quite clear.” Rudolf put David in touch with a friend in New York, the dealer Brooke Alexander, who took him on as an apprentice.

Zwirner was thrilled to be back in New York. It was the fall of 1991. The art market had collapsed again—another recession. Alexander had two galleries, one just for prints. Zwirner, observing that the only clients left were museums, rented a minivan and began driving around the Northeast and the Midwest to sell them prints. He got to know the curators and learned how to talk about the work. Rudolf recalled, “These curators, mostly ladies, liked him, because he had a European education.”

By “education,” he meant that David had absorbed Rudolf’s world. “From the age of one to ten, he rode on my shoulder going to galleries and museums, looking at art,” Rudolf said. “His visual memory was enormous. Unconsciously, he understood what contemporary art should be. He doesn’t like to hear this—he likes to think he invented the wheel. Nobody wants to hear that the father was something.”

“Look, that’s an advantage that was unbeatable,” Zwirner said. “The analogy would be, you’re a musician and your mom’s in the church choir and your dad is a jazz musician and you hit the clubs on weekends and by fourteen you’re sitting in with Miles Davis. When I was trying to be a musician, I felt the disadvantage. These guys were not only better, but they were steeped in it.”

Some of Zwirner’s art-world contemporaries grouse about the advantages of his patrimony. The name alone was a boon. When Zwirner opened his gallery, on Greene Street, Barbara Gladstone, an established dealer, trusted him with a Richter painting to sell on consignment. (Gladstone says that she sold it to him.) He had a buyer for it, a young collector named Iwan Wirth. The sale helped finance some of his early attempts to sell work by his own artists. Zwirner’s first show was of sculptures by the Austrian Franz West, who at the time was an obscure name in the United States. (Zwirner sold only one piece, to the collectors Susan and Michael Hort, who went on to buy at nearly all of Zwirner’s shows in the nineties.)

People speculate, as they will, that Zwirner’s ambition arises out of a compulsion to surpass his father. Rudolf concedes that his son has already done so, at least in some respects. “Really, it was a totally different business when I did it,” he said. “What we did was sell sausage to whoever was hungry. We had twelve collectors, maybe. I was very prominent, but my turnover was ten to twelve million a year. David’s is, what, two hundred million?” Forbes last year estimated two hundred and twenty-five million dollars in revenue. Zwirner told me only that that estimate is low. Forbes credited Gagosian with nine hundred and twenty-five million.

In the beginning, Zwirner’s program was fairly radical and rigorous, with a roster of under-recognized, experimental artists, such as the film and video artists Stan Douglas and Diana Thater and the installation artist Jason Rhoades. His gallery was a lean operation, with an emphasis on work from Europe and the West Coast. He and Monica lived nearby. Sometimes he skateboarded to work.

As he grew, he took on artists from other galleries and brought in some rising stars from Europe, like Neo Rauch. He lost only one—Franz West, to Gagosian, in 2001. In 2002, he followed the art world’s migration up to Chelsea. “His approach seemed to shift when Franz West went to Gagosian,” another dealer told me. “That sparked something competitive in him. He fell in love with selling. And what’s easiest to sell? Paintings.” He poached big sellers like Lisa Yuskavage and Marlene Dumas.

Since the late eighties, Dumas, a South African painter who lives in Holland, had been represented by the prominent New York dealer Jack Tilton. Zwirner began courting her in the early two-thousands. A methodology of a kind came to light when Craig Robins, a Miami real-estate developer, sued Zwirner in federal court, in 2010. Robins was fond of Dumas’s work and had collected dozens of her paintings. He also occasionally sold pieces that he’d bought on the secondary market—that is, not directly from the artist or her dealer but on resale from a third party. In 2004, he wanted to sell a Dumas painting, supposedly to pay for a divorce, and he and Tilton approached Zwirner, who had a buyer. Robins asked that the deal be kept confidential; he didn’t want Dumas to find out. Dumas and her studio manager maintained a so-called “blacklist” of collectors to whom they would not sell her work, owing to these collectors’ supposed habit of flipping the work for profit. (An artist, or her dealer, likes to control where the work ends up, to cultivate prestige and manage price. Speculation is frowned upon and profited upon equally.) The lawsuit alleged that, in spite of this confidentiality agreement, Zwirner told Dumas about the sale, in order to curry favor with her. Zwirner countered that there had been no agreement to keep the deal confidential after the sale was completed.

In 2008, Dumas defected to Zwirner. During her first show with him, in 2010, Robins couldn’t get the paintings he wanted, since Zwirner had allocated them to other collectors. Robins alleged that Zwirner had promised him first choice, after museums. (Zwirner said that he’d made no such promise.) Art, like love, can’t always be had just for money. This was a question of status, or the perception of it. The affront, and the yearning, can get the blood boiling. As Kenny Schachter, the London dealer, told me, “When people want an artist, they’ll kill for it.” Or they’ll sue.

Ultimately, the suit was dismissed, owing, in part, to an absence of written evidence. Art dealing, for better and worse, remains very much a handshake business. Still, Zwirner got a lesson in the American way of tactical litigation and the billable hour, and the public got a glimpse into the opaque, cliquish workings of art allocation—“a realm of self-proclaimed royalty full of ‘blacklists,’ ‘graylists,’ and astonishing chicanery,” the presiding judge declared. Auctions, in theory anyway, determine price and possession in accordance with the laws of supply and demand, and adhere, again in theory, to some measure of transparency: if you want something, you just pay more for it than anyone else will, and the price—but not the purchaser—will be a matter of public record. Gallerists, by contrast, unilaterally determine a sale price, and then anoint a buyer, based on their own arcane calculations of what’s best for their artists, their clients, or themselves. They rarely reveal the buyer or the sale price, making that information almost as valuable as the work itself. There are few industries with information as asymmetrical as that of the art business.

Tilton had been one of Zwirner’s first buyers when he opened on Greene Street. After the lawsuit, they continued to do business together, even with work by Dumas. “The art world is too small to exclude enemies,” Schachter said. “You get stabbed in the front, not the back, and then you go to dinner.”

The difference between a gallerist and a dealer is that a gallerist has a space and shows primary work, and a dealer just sells art, be it primary or secondary, old or new, hard-won or ill-gotten, out of an office, a closet, or a cell phone. Zwirner is both. He has gallery space where he shows only his artists’ new work, and he also traffics in the secondary market, selling objects he’s either bought himself or been given on consignment.

In many respects, the job, either way, is to find and control supply. You don’t need so much to sell as to have things to sell. There are two ways to do this. One is to hire people (artists) to make these things. When it’s time for a show, you set prices, allot works to buyers, and take a portion of each sale—typically, fifty per cent. At Zwirner, the staff will discuss pricing at the gallery’s weekly sales meeting. Often, everyone puts a number on a piece of paper. And then they use these numbers to get to a price. “It’s crazy,” Zwirner said. “You have fifteen different numbers, and you know it’s good when they’re in a twelve-to-fifteen-per-cent range of each other. This is where an art dealer’s talent comes to bear.”

You act as a kind of manager to the artist. This can involve bookkeeping, archiving, publishing, marketing, shipping, storage, framing, financing, and all-around hand-holding. Sometimes the gallerist is agent, editor, publisher, store, and shrink, rolled into one.

Last year, Zwirner hired a London gallerist named Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal to help run his new gallery in Mayfair. When Zwirner was in London in March, Hofmannsthal took him to see the work of the twenty-seven-year-old Oscar Murillo. Zwirner was looking for a young artist “who wasn’t easy,” Hofmannsthal said. Murillo’s parents had worked in a candy factory and a sugarcane mill in Colombia, and moved to East London when he was eleven, to join a network of relatives who clean office buildings and private homes. His art—paintings, installations, happenings—often incorporates dozens of these relatives.

Murillo met Zwirner and Hofmannsthal at a small gallery in the East End. It was bitter cold, and the place wasn’t heated. Zwirner, his breath steaming, felt intrepid, authentic. After looking at the work, they all stood around to talk.

Murillo had become the hottest young artist in London. Not long afterward, a painting of his sold at auction for almost four hundred thousand dollars, more than eight times the high estimate. An installation at the Art Unlimited exhibition, in Basel, was a hit, and word had gone around that the bigger galleries were trying to court him. In July, Zwirner asked Murillo to join the gallery. The intention, for now anyway, is to allow him to show some work with his gallery in London. “We didn’t want to come across as a gallery that just pinches younger artists,” Hofmannsthal said.

Hofmannsthal included two paintings of Murillo’s in a group show he curated this summer in New York, at Zwirner’s Nineteenth Street gallery. Murillo came to town for the opening and went to dinner at Zwirner’s house, with most of the directors from the gallery, to celebrate. “It sounds like a cliché, but it did feel like a family,” Murillo told me. “One of the first things I saw was that he has the work of the gallery’s artists in his house. It was like going to a Chinese restaurant and seeing Chinese people there.”

A few months before, Murillo had been to dinner at the home of Susan and Michael Hort, Zwirner’s longtime supporters. They’d been wanting to buy Murillo’s work for more than a year. At the opening, the Horts stood with Murillo. He was playing it cool. “David’s too expensive for us,” Michael Hort told me. “We try to get things before David does!”

The Horts wound up buying the two Murillos at the show. Zwirner explained, “They’ve been priced out of my gallery. I had twenty people who wanted these paintings. But I wanted Rodolphe to have a connection to Susan and Michael. So I let him sell the pieces to them. I jumped the protocol here.” The pieces went for seventy-five thousand each. They were consigned works. Zwirner wasn’t sure yet how his gallery was going to price new work of Murillo’s. Sometimes an artist’s prices can go up too fast.

“Hopefully, the gallery can drain some of that speculative thing out of it,” Hofmannsthal said.

The other source of supply is the secondary market. You find art work on resale, and you seek a buyer for it, and take a percentage. The consignor is the client. Or else you have a buyer who covets something, and you track it down and pry it loose. One prominent collector referred to Zwirner as his top “go-get guy.” To go and get, you have to know who owns what, how he or his heirs feel about it, how desperately they may need money. Dealers, like auction houses, thrive on the Three “Ds”: debt, death, and divorce. Serious collectors often spend seven or eight years pursuing a single work of art.

From the outset, Zwirner was dabbling in the secondary market, but in 1999 he and the Swiss dealer Iwan Wirth opened a gallery together, Zwirner & Wirth, on the Upper East Side, in a town house that in the sixties was the home of the avant-garde Martha Jackson Gallery, and later belonged to the boxing promoter Don King. It became a staging ground for the exhibition and sale of secondary-market work, and for both men’s rapid rise to prominence. In the beginning, in Zwirner’s telling, Wirth—whose wife, Manuela, is the daughter of a Swiss retail magnate and collector named Ursula Hauser—provided the money and the rich buyers, while Zwirner developed the supply chain, particularly American work for European collectors. (Wirth disputes this: “We both did all of it.”) One of their biggest clients, in those years, was Friedrich Christian Flick, a German industrial heir. Known as Mick Flick, he was a flamboyant collector of Old Masters who in the eighties began to amass a collection of Minimalist and conceptual art. Wirth and Zwirner were among his principal go-getters. Over time, Zwirner got to know where the treasures were. Zwirner and Wirth sold Flick work by their own artists as well. “Just selling is one thing,” Zwirner told me. “But strategically building a collection is completely different. It’s great when you’re one of the biggest buyers. Great work finds you.”

Once Flick had established his collection, he sought to build a museum to house it, but various proposals fell through before he settled, controversially, on loaning it to the Hamburger Bahnhof, in Berlin. His grandfather Friedrich Flick was a Nazi war criminal, convicted at Nuremberg of, among other things, employing slave labor in the manufacture of munitions. After three years in prison, he rebuilt his industrial conglomerate and became the richest man in Germany. Critics complained that the Flick Collection was the product of “blood money.” Zwirner felt that all this was irrelevant and unfair. “Mick was born in 1944,” he said. “It’s just guilt by association.”

Zwirner and Wirth also made out well when they secured the rights to handle a big piece of the Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection, one of Europe’s finest assemblages of contemporary art. Over several years, they reportedly sold about eighty million dollars’ worth of the Lauffs Collection. (Sotheby’s got the rest.) This was a boon to one of Zwirner’s biggest clients, Mitch Rales, a billionaire conglomerator who, with his wife, Emily, an art historian and curator, has been amassing a contemporary collection that is the basis for a sprawling new museum in suburban Maryland, called Glenstone. Other big clients are Eli Broad, the Los Angeles philanthropist, and Steven A. Cohen, the hedge-fund manager, whose firm recently agreed to plead guilty to insider-trading charges, and who in mid-November sold more than eighty million dollars’ worth of art at auction. Cohen had bought one of the works for sale, a Judd, from Zwirner. “I think that guy is great,” Zwirner told me. “I really do.”

In 2009, Zwirner and Wirth parted ways, apparently without rancor, as Wirth decided, with his wife and his mother-in-law, to bring Hauser & Wirth, their primary-market gallery, to New York. They opened a new branch in a giant Chelsea space that once housed the Roxy roller rink. He and Zwirner were now competitors.

Zwirner began to plan a secondary-market gallery of his own. It made sense to do it in a space separate from the primary work. He said that he didn’t want to divert the attention of his clients away from his artists. In 2009, he bought an old parking garage on West Twentieth Street, a block north of his gallery. He cleared the lot and spent two years building a new exhibition space: five floors, thirty thousand square feet, built to leed specs, with an expanse of skylights and half a dozen exhibition areas, both large and small. It opened this February, presenting a well-windowed wall of poured-in-place concrete to a street of old brick and rusting steel. The architect, Annabelle Selldorf, a childhood acquaintance of Zwirner’s, has done eighteen projects for him. (The expansion to his East Village town house inspired a disgruntled neighbor to set up an anonymous Web site, Dear David Zwirner, with a photograph of him and the tagline “Isn’t being an art dealer evil enough?”)

The new gallery, though widely praised, was a proclamation of clout and, therefore, a provocation to colleagues who have grown increasingly uneasy over the art-world arms race. Some faulted it on aesthetic grounds, for its incongruous spiffiness in a district of old warehouses. “Zwirner’s new space feels like a hotel,” Richard Prince, an artist who shows with Gagosian, wrote on his blog. “The door to get in feels like something out of a high-end health spa.”

Others felt a kind of ideological unease in the presence of a collaboration between the art world and the real-estate industry. “That building is a real sign of the times,” the gallerist Gavin Brown said. “Galleries are like hermit crabs. This purpose-driven architecture violates the spirit of the thing. It’s an industry that isn’t supposed to have a place. David built a physical symptom of this bizarre late-capitalist moment.”

The art world is full of pirates, rogues, eccentrics, bullies, and snobs, or, if you prefer, passionate aesthetes. It is, infamously, the last big unregulated industry, full of shady dealings and questionable practices, unwritten and often broken agreements, forgeries and price manipulations, wild tales of fortunes made and lost. The most successful dealers have often had a touch of drama about them, a swashbuckling idiosyncratic style. Zwirner, by design and by temperament, strives to quell drama. He has set out to systematize art dealing, to give the endeavor a measure of efficiency, transparency, and order. “He has all the integrity he can afford to have,” Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim, said. Some competitors see a wolf beneath the fleece. They call him Larry Nice—a mercenary camouflaged by good manners and a European pedigree—or, somewhat contradictorily, a “frat boy,” for his enthusiasm and bonhomie. Or else, Dionysian at heart, they resent the Apollonian incursion. “By the laws of physics, the more systemization there is in the business, the more boring the art,” Gavin Brown declared.

Some of this, of course, is just resentment of success, masquerading as aesthetic discernment, or aesthetic discernment blown up into moral alarm. If it’s hard to dislike the man, you criticize the program, or his position as an avatar of big-money art. The art world, as Armstrong said, is “the most opinionated group of people short of the Vatican.”

“He’s like a big dog walking by—he doesn’t even notice,” the painter Lisa Yuskavage said. “He has this presumption of collegiality. He doesn’t get caught up in little skirmishes. I think it’s worth taking note: why is he doing such a good job?”

A 2008 Flash Art poll found Zwirner’s gallery to be the most popular gallery with artists. His own artists speak admiringly about what he does for them. He is not the type of dealer who regularly bids up his own artists at auction. (He says it’s more important to him where his artists’ work ends up than at what price.) He also has a frugal streak. A couple of other dealers used to refer to him behind his back as Deli Dave, for his attention to nickels and dimes. Collectors, advisers, fellow-dealers, and curators praise the “user experience” at Zwirner, the atmosphere of competence and credibility. They often cite the structure of his business. He enlisted the expertise of a management consultant named Suki Larson, who worked in mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs and then, after getting a Stanford M.B.A., as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. Larson helped Zwirner restructure the organization and served as consigliere. When she worked on her first project with Zwirner, in 2006, there were twenty employees. Now there are a hundred and twenty.

Leo Castelli, whose original gallery, as one dealer told me, would have fit inside Zwirner’s office, wouldn’t recognize the business. “This doesn’t come easy to this industry,” Zwirner said. “The mom-and-pop mentality is such that a very senior colleague of mine still opens her mail every day.”

He went on, “At other galleries, there is often an intense dislike between colleagues—backstabbing and client stealing.” Gagosian favors the trading-desk model, encouraging his salespeople to compete with each other—it’s a gallerina-eat-gallerina world. (During the financial crisis, in 2008, Flash Art reported that Gagosian had told his staff, “If you would like to continue working for Gagosian, I suggest you start to sell some art.”) Zwirner is intent on cultivating a congenial atmosphere, so much so that it can occasionally seem eerie. “Obviously, I’ve done something right, if you keep in mind all these people who’ve stayed,” Zwirner said.

When one speaks of Zwirner the gallerist, one is speaking as much of a handful of women in their forties who have been with the gallery fifteen or more years. Zwirner has made them partners, meaning, he says, that they “will participate in profits as the gallery does well.” They are Angela Choon, who runs the London gallery; Hanna Schouwink, from Holland; Bellatrix Hubert, from France; and Kristine Bell, from outside Buffalo. Seeing them all together, at an opening or a dinner, brings to mind David Carradine’s gang of glamorous assassins in “Kill Bill.” Last winter, Zwirner added a man to the partner ranks, Chris D’Amelio, who had his own gallery for fifteen years and had been struggling to keep pace with the bigger ones. His capitulation was taken as a bad omen for midsize galleries.

Zwirner spent part of the summer brainstorming with Suki Larson to figure out how best to restructure the way his top people get paid. “I’ve reached this magic moment where everything has lined up really nicely, and I want to make sure I don’t fuck it up,” he said. “For example, compensation and recruiting tools are crucial, and our industry isn’t set up like that. The banking industry, other industries, you have a gazillion titles. What do we have? We have the title of ‘director.’ ” This is the stuff that occupies Zwirner’s mind during the dead weeks of August, when his peers are in Majorca and Antibes.

Five years ago, Julia Joern, a P.R. and marketing consultant who had worked at Phaidon, came to run Zwirner’s media office. Art-world cynics express amazement that he has a dozen employees dedicated to public relations, and attribute Zwirner’s media ubiquity to this. But Joern’s group also maintains the artists’ archives (both analogue and digital), publishes catalogues and books, handles art-work photography, conducts research, plans events, and produces video segments about the gallery’s exhibitions.

Zwirner’s in-house secondary-market research department, a museum-calibre band of Ph.D.s, ferrets out the particulars (provenance, context, the whereabouts of other editions or analogues, and so on) of each work that passes through the gallery. “The research we do is better than Christie’s and Sotheby’s,” Zwirner told me. “It’s so the best in the business it’s not even funny. Yes, it costs money, but, for every dollar you put in there, you get a return.”

It all falls under “marketing,” a term that the gallery’s staff had trouble swallowing at first. As Schouwink recalled, “ ‘Marketing’? We all looked at each other and said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

“You had to watch your words, in the context of art,” Larson said. She had to explain to the staff that when they put together an exhibition of work that did not yield as many dollars per square foot as another might, or that consisted of hardly any salable objects, they were, in business terms, and regardless of their passion for the work, burnishing the Zwirner name. “That’s all brand building,” she said. “That’s what it is.”

It can make a gallerist wince. “When art dealers do these brave shows, we’redreaming,” D’Amelio said. “It’s not marketing.”

One way that deep research, fancy catalogues, and exhibitions without much for sale have paid off has been in attracting artists’ estates. Zwirner represents a number of prominent dead artists, most notably the American Minimalists Donald Judd, Fred Sandback, Dan Flavin, Ad Reinhardt, and John McCracken (a Zwirner artist before his death, in 2011). Often this means there’s inventory for Zwirner to sell, or it simply provides him with an informational advantage—a prime seat in air-traffic control. The Twentieth Street gallery, in many respects, is a temple to Minimalism—“Effectively, he built this building for Judd and Flavin,” Selldorf told me—and an architectural pitch to living Minimalists as well. The reclusive light artist Doug Wheeler, who, at seventy-two, had never had a solo show with a gallery in New York, has joined the Zwirner gallery and has a second show coming up in February. Zwirner said of Minimalism, “It was the last really great newness. These were true giants, true modernists. I found it strange that Judd and Flavin were selling for a fraction of Lichtenstein and Warhol. In absolute terms, I can’t imagine a museum director saying, ‘I don’t need a Flavin or a Judd.’ ”

This, too, has rankled some of his colleagues who were contemporaries, and often representatives, of the artists Zwirner now controls. “It’s a little annoying when you’ve had a personal relationship with the artists,” Paula Cooper told me one afternoon, when I dropped by her gallery, a block away. A crew from the Sol LeWitt estate was installing a show of one of his wall drawings downstairs. “At first, you feel possessive of these artists whom you’ve known your whole life, but I’m getting over that. I can get disdainful toward someone who doesn’t know the work, didn’t have experience with it, didn’t know the artists. David’s trying to do it in a good, big, professional way. But it’s not anywhere near my idea of things.” She felt that he sometimes presented the work inappropriately: “Too crowded. Just wrong. Wrong works next to the wrong works.”

Zwirner and Cooper have tangled over Flavin, who created abstract sculptures out of fluorescent light tubes. In 2008, Zwirner and Kristine Bell arranged an exhibition at Zwirner & Wirth to commemorate a famous 1964 Flavin exhibition at the Green Gallery, on Fifty-seventh Street. (At Green, none of the works, priced at a thousand dollars each, sold. Now they would go for one to two million each.) There was nothing for sale at the tribute show, either. Works were loaned by the Dia Art Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the Flavin estate, and a collector or two. The gallery produced a beautiful catalogue—come-hither plumage. After the show, Flavin’s son, Stephen, the estate’s executor, decided to join forces with Zwirner.

Flavin had planned to make multiple versions of various works, generally in editions of three or five, but in many cases he fabricated only one or two. When he died, in 1996, there remained numerous unrealized editions. The artist’s intentions for what would become of these, after his death, were unclear. The estate had the right, by law and by custom, to complete those editions. So far, it has sold about two dozen such works, all through Zwirner.

This development came as an unpleasant surprise to some collectors who’d bought Flavins believing that theirs were one of a set of, say, two, as well as to the dealers who’d sold them these works, under the same understanding. Cooper, who was a friend of Flavin’s, and who exhibited his work, was one. “Now all the things we sold as unique won’t be unique but will be one of five,” she said. Cooper had been on a panel of experts convened to assess the Flavin estate’s value shortly after his death, and it had been her understanding that the estate would not produce additional works. The Pace gallery, which had exhibited Flavin at the end of his life, had the same impression. Douglas Baxter, the president of Pace, who was also on the panel of experts, said, “Absolutely, it was our understanding that there would be no posthumous work.”

Apparently, the estate changed its mind. It may seem that there is no real reason to make more, except to make money. “David talked Stephen into it, because Stephen needed money, I guess,” Cooper said. The estate says that it had reached the decision before it began working with Zwirner. “But it would have behooved David to at least make it public,” Cooper said. “We only just found out, when something was sold that was thought to be unique.” Zwirner and the estate insist that none of this was a secret. And Zwirner says that, above all, when it comes to completing the editions, the more, the merrier, for the sake of art history. Works are now accessible to many institutions that would not otherwise have access. “You can’t tell me it’s not better that there are more,” he said.

A Flavin isn’t a Flavin unless a certificate affirming its provenance comes with it. If you have a Flavin and no certificate, it is no longer a Flavin. It is a fluorescent light. Monetarily, there is little difference in value, at present, between those which come with certificates signed by Flavin and those signed by the estate. “Most new collectors don’t care or know any better,” Cooper said.

Sometimes the fluorescent tubes burn out and need to be replaced. As it happens, to get new ones, you have to order them through David Zwirner, who orders them in bulk from the same manufacturer that made them during Flavin’s lifetime. “A lot of us who worked with Flavin still have the old bulbs,” Cooper said, with a sly smile. You got the feeling that someone would soon be making a market in those, too.

In the fall, the frenzied pace picked up again. Around two dozen Zwirner artists and estates had exhibitions in his galleries or at museums: a whirl of openings and dinners, logistical crises and thoughtful remarks. Zwirner delegated the details. After trips to Houston, London, Antwerp, Ghent, and Qatar, he returned to New York for the gallery’s first show of work by Kusama, on Nineteenth Street, and its first of Ad Reinhardt, on Twentieth Street. Earlier in the year, he had wrested the Reinhardt estate away from the Pace gallery. Reinhardt, a member of the New York School and a proto-Minimalist, had a show of his so-called “black paintings” at the Jewish Museum in 1967, the year he died, at the age of fifty-three; his widow and his daughter had for years dreamed of doing one again, but the paintings were dispersed among museums and collectors disinclined to lend them out. “The black paintings are famously fragile,” Zwirner said. “Reinhardt sucked most of the oil out of the pigment to give it this dry quality. They don’t reflect—they absorb. That makes them difficult to restore, and so people are reluctant to let them go.” Still, through guile, pull, and persistence, Zwirner and Bell, in conjunction with the estate and the curator Robert Storr, managed to round up thirteen of them, from twelve lenders, to create the kind of blockbuster museum-calibre exhibition for which the Twentieth Street gallery was conceived and designed. None of the works are for sale. “People will walk in here and say, ‘How the hell did he do this?’ ” Zwirner said. “This is as extraordinary a room as you’ll find in New York right now.” It had taken gallery staff almost a week to get the lighting right and five tries to settle on the right color for the varnish on the benches in the middle of the room. “It’s one thing to bring the paintings all together, and it’s another to make them look really good, to create perfect viewing conditions,” Zwirner said. “And all of this is for free, for the benefit of the public. So much for all the complaining, you know?”

The paintings aren’t merely black. They contain squares suffused with such subtle shadings of blue or red that it can take a few moments for the eye to notice. “What Reinhardt wanted to do was slow you down,” Zwirner said. He stood in front of a painting on the gallery’s east wall. “This is one of the darkest ones. You can see there’s some red in there, but you have to really, really strain until the shapes come.” He stared awhile. “So mysterious.”

The contemporary auctions were the following week. Christie’s was holding one on a Tuesday evening, at the company’s headquarters, in Rockefeller Center. Among the lots for sale was one of five editions of Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Dog,” the orange one, owned by Peter Brant. It was installed near the entrance to Christie’s, a big shiny thumb-of-the-nose to its dour environs. Zwirner arrived late, just as the auction was about to begin, and made his way to a seat in front of the auctioneer, about ten rows back. To the auctioneer’s right was a kind of forecastle jammed with Christie’s representatives conveying bids from clients on the phone, facing in a variety of directions, like flowers in a vase.

The first lot was an ink-jet painting by the forty-one-year-old art star Wade Guyton. It went for $2.4 million (including the buyer’s premium), several times the high estimate. Soon afterward, there was a painting by Christopher Wool, called “Apocalypse Now,” a black-on-white stencil of a line from the film: “Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids.” In this setting, it seemed a cleansing rebuke, of a kind that entices rather than offends art collectors. It sold for $26.5 million, a record for Wool. The next lot was a triptych by Francis Bacon, of portraits of his contemporary Lucian Freud. They hung on the wall to the auctioneer’s left, over a dock of other buyers’ proxies from around the world. The bidding opened at eighty million dollars. The numbers rose fast at first, with the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkänen, pointing gently to left and right and coaxing commitments. “Lady on the aisle. . . . Sure, sir. . . . At a hundred million for the triptych. Would you like to come back in here, sir? . . . Beautiful thing. Not yours, I’m afraid.” The bidders fell away, and the pace slowed. This was no cattle auction, with its torrent of syllables. The room was hushed, reverential. Pylkkänen seemed to transmute all the longing, envy, and wonder coursing through it into a gentle and orderly serenade. “A hundred twenty-six million: a surprise, but a welcome one,” he said. He waited patiently for the bidders to decide, or, rather, for their proxies, in the room, to relay these decisions. (The actual bidders were anonymous. Price transparency does little to clear the murk of ownership, or to dispel the whiff of manipulation. “Very conspicuous consumption, very private gratification,” Zwirner said afterward.) When the hammer fell, the sale price for the Bacon, with fees, was $142.4 million, higher than that of any art work ever sold at auction.

Zwirner hadn’t bid on anything yet, but soon “Balloon Dog (Orange)” came up, and he had an eager client. The price climbed in increments of three million dollars, then two. Zwirner, a cell phone to his right ear, bid thirty-nine million dollars, then forty-one, forty-three, forty-five, and forty-nine. The only other bidder, across the room, went to fifty. “What about fifty-two, sir?” the auctioneer asked Zwirner. “It might work.” He waited as Zwirner, or his client, agonized. Zwirner was shaking his head, his neck reddening. The auctioneer asked, “Is that a definite no or a maybe no?” Zwirner kept shaking his head. The gavel rose. Zwirner’s left hand shot up. He was in at fifty-one. His opponent went to fifty-two. The process repeated itself, Zwirner on the phone, his head bowed, as if receiving sad family news, while Pylkkänen stalled, eager, it seemed, to give him the time and consideration due to the art world’s second most powerful man. This time, Zwirner’s left hand did not come up. Sold. Beautiful thing. Not his. It was the most ever paid for a work by a living artist.

One day, I went to see Zwirner in Montauk, where he spends the month of August. He’d just returned from a hiking trip in Corsica. During the financial crisis in 2009, he bought the Montauk house from Bruce Ratner, the developer of the Atlantic Yards project, in Brooklyn. “Fortune favors the brave,” he said.

The house is one of about only a dozen on the cliffs between the village and the point, a wild, moorish stretch colonized a generation ago by entertainers and artists. Zwirner’s neighbor to the west is the financial trader David (Tiger) Williams and to the east is Adam Lindemann, an art collector who ran afoul of his neighbors when he installed on his front lawn a gigantic pink phallic sculpture by Franz West. “I own ultra sculpture, too, but this isn’t the place for it,” Zwirner told me. The house is spare. There’s hardly any art—a Marlene Dumas painting of an olive tree in his bedroom, a Raymond Pettibon mural of a surfer in one daughter’s room—or even furniture. “I don’t like furniture that much,” he said. He was wearing cargo shorts, Reef sandals, and a blue T-shirt. He has the same thing for breakfast every day: granola and fruit and Monica’s homemade yogurt. When they’re in Montauk, they do yoga together. He swims. He surfs. He reads. He drives around in a Prius. He doesn’t socialize much.

On our way to buy a striped bass for lunch, he pulled into a lot at the beach to get a look at the surf, and ran into another gallery owner who’d just finished surfing, and whom he talked about afterward as a member of a clique of cool art people and surfers whom he doesn’t really hang out with in Montauk. He has the air of a family man who is resigned to being a square—let ’em laugh. He complained about hipsters taking over the town and took me to Gosman’s, a fish market, where a fleet of commercial trawlers were docked. “This is real, and that’s what’s good about Montauk,” he said. He had a romantic attraction to the rusting, gear-strewn vessels and to the idea, at least, of good hard labor at sea—and he rued the trawlers’ eventual obsolescence. “You just know we’ll all be eating farm fish soon,” he said. He went inside and stood in line to buy a wild striper. ♦

Tags: Art Basel, art world, contemporary art market, David Zwirner, High art prices

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