Cult of Personality

Dealers of Castelli’s ilk, erudite and with experience in areas other than art—Castelli started as a banker—guided collections as well as careers. Another of these larger-than-life figures was Sidney Janis, the trendsetting 57th Street, New York, dealer and onetime vaudevillian who in the 1950s and ’60s promoted such American Abstract Expressionists as Rothko, de Kooning and Gorky, along with European modernists like Picasso, Mondrian and Klee. He was also one of the first anywhere to show Pop art.

“Sidney Janis was graduate school for me,” says the New York collector Barbara Jakobson, reminiscing about her initiation in art in the 1950s, when Janis inculcated her with his passion for it even though she was not yet prepared to become a client. “I was in my early 20s and he loved to teach,” she says. “Few art dealers now have time to spend with the merely curious.”

How about the world’s most powerful dealer in contemporary art today, Larry Gagosian, who claims all artists are naturally magnetic? Some say Gagosian is charming only as long as it takes to sign a check. Jakobson demurs, calling him “completely extraordinary … very intelligent and well-read.” While admitting that he can also be distant, she says that “what makes you decide to invest these people with magical power has to do with their sense of authority. A lot of the most successful have no charisma whatever. But they must be willing to act in loco parentis by taking on the artists, [who can be] narcissistic and more demanding than one’s children. They have to be incredibly good liars and say they love everything their artists do. And they have to be able to suffer fools instead of telling them to go home and write a check.”

Other old-school collectors grumble that high-powered gallerists today never sit still long enough to regale their clients with art stories the way Castelli and Janis did. But the brisk pace may be imposed by the new collectors, many of whom have time neither for leisurely conversation nor for prepurchase deliberation. Those who want top pieces snap them up quickly, particularly at art fairs, where discussions are not just brief but also impersonal.

Yet stories keep surfacing about dealers with a Rasputin-like influence on the people around them. One of these was Alexander Iolas. A significant force in Surrealism, Iolas had galleries in Paris, New York, Geneva and Milan before he retired to Athens, where the British-born collector Pauline Karpidas, who has spent most of her adult life in Greece, met him in 1975.

“He was like the Countess of Graumont,” says Karpidas, “trailing this Fortuny cape. I first found him having his hair dyed in the sink by his housekeeper. With the flick of a finger encircled by a 48-carat-diamond ring, he pulls a turban around his head like Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great and starts winding a diamond necklace around the turban. I was totally enamored. And he says, ‘Darling, do you have any idea what it takes to form a collection?’ Long story short, it took 10 years. But the fun we had!”

Karpidas played Eliza Doolittle to Iolas’s Henry Higgins. He not only started her collecting contemporary art but also introduced her to another aspiring patron, Dominique de Menil, and, later, to Charles Saatchi, as well as to Andy Warhol, who did her portrait. “If you’re going to collect a certain period, you have to buy in depth, and that’s where mentors come in,” says Karpidas, who includes among her tutors both Castelli and Robert Fraser, the rocking British Pop-art dealer who introduced Yoko Ono and John Lennon. “But the one who gave me real entrée into the world of art was Iolas. ‘You will always think of me,’ he said, ‘because I taught you how to focus.’ ”

The Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann is another whom many in the art world still regard with awe as well as affection. Famously discreet, he would never reveal the names of his blue-chip clients, although Giovanni Agnelli, Gustavo Cisneros and Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon are all linked with him. By the time he died, in 1993, Ammann had made a place for the early work of such modern masters as Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol and Brice Marden in European and American collections. (His sister Doris Ammann runs Thomas Ammann Fine Art today as a prominent secondary-market shop.)

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