Policy Review Banner

The Most Elegant Thieves of All

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Tod Volpe.
Framed: Tales of the Art Underworld.
Cutting Edge Press (Edinburgh). 271 pages. £15.99

Over the past couple of years has come a steady flow of revelations about that perennially glamorous subject, the international art scene: stories of boardroom intrigues and of illegal price-fixing between the two auction giants, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, of bid-rigging and of “death patrols,” the distasteful practice of monitoring society death notices in order to contact the bereaved families concerning possible sales before the deceased has even been laid to rest.

Add to that the contributions of Tod Volpe, a key figure in the art market for more than two decades. He was responsible for launching the Mission arts and crafts craze in the 1970s, which turned a style into an international phenomenon. This made him one of the most successful postwar art dealers, with clients including Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson, and Andy Warhol.

Successful, that is, until the day in 1997 when the police entered his house in the Hamptons and arrested him. He was charged with 38 allegations of fraud and embezzlement that could have landed him a sentence of 10 to 12 years in prison. In the event he served two, but his career as an art dealer and consultant was clearly over.

Now he has published his memoir, Framed: Tales of the Art Underworld, one of the most revealing and useful books about the art world that has been published since Robert Lacey’s classic Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class. Like the latter, Framed is one these books that deserve the epithet “delightfully scandalous.” It is also a cautionary tale of greed and stupidity that will make you think twice about ever again entering an antiques store alone and unarmed.

 

Volpe’s background for entering the art world is somewhat unusual. He came by way of the funeral business. Coming from a poor Italian background, he started as an embalmer’s apprentice with a prominent New York mortician. Here he became an expert at drumming up business: He learned to carefully cultivate cops, nursing homes, and hospitals to furnish him with customers. One scene finds him in a rowboat on Christmas Eve, picking up floaters from the Hudson River in the middle of a snowstorm. And most important, he learned how to handle grieving relatives, developing a soothing and unctuous manner which would prove very useful later on.

These passages are Dickensian in their ghoulish hilarity, told with great gusto. For his twenty-first birthday, Volpe was presented with a 400-pound corpse wrapped in a red ribbon, the preservation of which was the task of the day.

For an ambitious man, the funeral business was clearly a bit of a dead end, and after a while he shifted to reading art history at New York University and working as a stagehand at the Met in the evenings. His aim was to become an art dealer. On weekends, he scavenged the flea markets for antique finds, for which he had a keen eye. He financed his purchases by stealing from the stagehand coffee fund of which he was in charge, instead buying discount doughnuts and coffee. When people complained, he would shut them up by saying it was their alcohol habits that had dulled their tastebuds.

His great model and inspiration was the art rogue Joseph Duveen, who in the 1920s and 30s provided plutocrats and Hollywood moguls with choice European paintings and old aristocratic portraits at astronomical prices. The buyers could then point to them as their European ancestors. Duveen would stop at nothing: If the lady in a portrait was a little too old and wrinkled, his restorers would tart her up to be a delightful young girl. Lord Duveen’s exploits included bribing servants and once supplying two little orphaned Japanese boys to satisfy a client’s sexual peccadilloes.

Together with his cousin, Volpe bought an old warehouse in the SoHo section of New York in 1968 and opened the Jordan Volpe Galley. The gallery was founded on a bright idea: At a friend’s house he had seen an old recliner, which he bought for $75. It was marked with a joiner’s compass and the words “Als ik kan,” which means “the best that I can,” the mark of the furniture maker Gustav Stickley, who at the start of the twentieth century rebelled against Victorian opulence in favor of simpler, more puritan designs. The design intrigued him.

Volpe and his cousin then proceeded to amass huge amounts of this type of arts and crafts furniture, which went under the name of “Mission” and which until then was perhaps better known for its secondary utility as firewood. It was Volpe’s genius to envision it and market it as something new and deeply desirable. Suddenly everybody wanted a piece of Stickley furniture.

Volpe’s innovation was in the presentation of objects. He could make pieces of modest value look like priceless artifacts. Lit in surprising ways, a banal object could be transformed into sculpture. If ever there was a style that could do with a bit of fancy extra lighting, it is Mission. Volpe’s methods of presentation have since been imitated all over the world.

His prices were also innovative. He realized that if you are going to designate something as a masterpiece of American design, you have to price it accordingly. Which he proceeded to do with a vengeance.

To Volpe selling art became theater, open 24 hours day. And people came flocking to his store: Andy Warhol, Mario Coumo, Richard Mapplethorpe, Malcolm Forbes, Thomas Hoving became customers. Then came the day Jack Nicholson sauntered in. The Hollywood crowd was certainly different. They did not fidget like the New Yorkers over a small object, but bought in bulk. As Volpe notes, Barbra Streisand and Hollywood collectors like her would in 10 years acquire a collection that it would take others a lifetime to amass — and then sell it all again when they grew tired of it.

Some of these scenes are pure comedy. Action hero Bruce Willis comes off the set of a car chase covered in fire retardant grease to discuss the finer points of a particularly desirable piece of Stickley furniture he has seen in a nearby antique store. In another instance, tough guy actor Harvey Keitel of Bad Lieutenant fame has 12 Stickley rocking chairs delivered to his West Village apartment. He proceeds to test them for hours, with great brooding intensity, until he finds the one with the right rhythm.

The greatest fear of the rich is to be taken advantage of. By insinuating himself into their circle, becoming known as “the art guy,” Volpe came to wield great influence in the film community. The credulousness of these people is enormous. “Is this the best price, cutes?” Nicholson asks him at one point. The answer to that one is No, probably not.

 

Stories of Hollywood foibles are always amusing, but the great value of the book lies in the light it sheds on the whole hidden art world, which is notorious for its lax bookkeeping. The possibilities for cheating, stealing, and money laundering are enormous.

Framed details how dealers unscrupulously restore damaged paintings and furniture — in much the same way Volpe and his colleagues made the corpses look good in the morgue. Actually, careful restoration is not the problem; withholding the information or downright lying about it to the customer is.

Even more important are his revelations of financial manipulations — the rigging of bids, the pooling of money, and the fixing of prices. Often dealers will bid on things not because they want them, but just to keep prices high, thereby protecting their own inventory. Or conversely, they will keep prices low by agreeing beforehand to let one of them do the bidding, so as not to compete with each other. Afterwards the real action will occur among the dealers themselves. This amounts to breaking federal fair-price regulations, as it prevents the object from realizing its true market value at auction.

Volpe is particularly illuminating on the nexus between the art dealers and the auction houses. The auction houses are no longer neutral clearinghouses between buyers and sellers but play a very active part in the game through their money-lending activities. They have in fact become banks and brokerage houses. The auction house will often finance and favor certain players and dealers, much as casinos do.

The most famous example of this occurred in 1987, when Sotheby’s financed Australian entrepreneur Allan Bond’s purchase of Van Gogh’s “Irises” to the tune of $49 million. The purpose of this little exercise was to drive up the prices of Impressionist paintings, which it certainly did. In fact, it inflated the whole worldwide art market. These practices are also almost impossible to root out. Everybody knows they go on, but only in the really crass cases, as when Sotheby’s and Christie’s form a cartel, can the law intervene. The police would have to become both art experts and financial wizards, which is demanding a lot.

Volpe’s downfall was caused by the early 1990s bursting of the art market bubble, which he himself had done so much to help create. In this environment, his attempt to keep up with the lifestyle of his customers was doomed. Having groundskeepers on hand to tend his Japanese garden and mechanics to maintain his Aston Martin Lagonda is not cheap. Neither is walking around in $2,000 crocodile shoes. In 20 years as a dealer, he spent over $28 million on art and fine living.

Trying to keep up appearances, he resorted to tricks like borrowing money from investors and auction houses against pieces of art that belonged to other people. He raided trust funds he was in charge of by taking out items and replacing them with inferior ones whose paper value he had just increased, pumping up the appraisals. His life became a nightmare of eluding dealers, lenders, and collection agencies. To keep his nerves steady, he sought refuge in cocaine.

 

At this point the memoir assumes a rather unpleasant whining voice. You cannot both revel in the cleverness of your swindles and, once you are caught, go on to say you did not mean them and you deeply regret what you have done. And with Volpe, swindling was not a matter of giving into temptation once. Rather, it was second nature. He simply does not know the difference between right and wrong. There is a certain Uriah Heepishness about him, at once subservient and groveling and at the same time stealing the shirt off your back. His nickname from the funeral business days, Toad, seems rather appropriate.

So this is what people are up against when bidding at auction or entering an antiques store. What makes the swindles of the art world so unpleasant is that while you would expect this kind of behavior from a used-car salesman, you do not expect it from people who kiss you on both cheeks and play Mozart in the background. They seem so nice and civilized. One almost waxes nostalgic for the good old days of relative innocence, as when a Christie’s curator, in an enormous fit of boredom, started attributing indifferent seventeenth-century Italian paintings to that little- known Italian artist Urini — and sometimes to his more forceful cousin Stronzo. It may be a little wicked, but at least it’s wickedly funny.

About the Author

More from Policy Review