Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Mar 2017

I Bought Andy Warhol by Richard Polsky

There’s a curious – but perhaps thankfully small – category of books that I call fascinating-but-unlovable. What I mean by that, is books that I have read with great interest, and sometimes more than once, but without any affection for either the book or its writer. Richard Polsky’s I Bought Andy Warhol falls into this category.

In the 1980s and 90s Polsky was an independent art dealer, specialising – when he could afford to – in Andy Warhol’s work. As well as himself, the book offers a gallery of pushy, boastful, status-obsessed materialists, all capable of financing art deals worth millions of dollars. What they share is an ability to spot work that they can ‘flip’ and turn a profit on. Whereas Martin Gayford’s book about sitting for Lucian Freud, which I reviewed here recently, is a thoughtful and sensitive insight into the creative process, this is a red in tooth and claw exploration of art-capitalism. And in a sense that is what makes it so fascinating. It’s a frankly grubby, thrusting world of deal-makers, and what marks Polsky out from the herd, I suppose, is his preparedness to tell it like it is.

The hook of the story is that Polsky develops not just an obsession for dealing Warhol: he wants to own a Warhol himself. And he sets out to buy one. Without spoiling what little ‘story’ there is, Polsky finds and buys one Warhol, but subsequently has to sell it when the art market goes into a nose-dive in the 90s recession and his personal life also begins to unravel.

But some years later, now writing books for the art market, he finds himself able to devote another $100,000 or so to a painting, and finds another Warhol that he loves. The book ends on something of a cliffhanger – will he manage to hang onto his painting this time? (There is, I think, a second volume called I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon), so perhaps we do already know the answer to that question.)

Polsky has also written market guides for art investors, in which he ranks artists on a ‘buy, sell, hold’ basis – exactly like shares. This gives an accurate idea of Polsky’s perspective on the art world but a somewhat unfair impression of this particular book, because he is also capable of writing engagingly and insightfully about Warhol’s work, as well as that of other Pop artists that came to fame in the post-Abstract Expressionist period in the US. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the book, I felt, is its mixture of unashamed hucksterism and informed artistic critique.

It certainly isn’t a great book, but I’ve read it twice with immense enjoyment and felt I was reading about art from a perspective that others rarely offer. The fact that almost everyone in the book is repellent to one degree or another is a bonus.

If you have ever wondered how the art market works, how works get valued, or what the life of an independent art dealer might look like, you’ll enjoy this. It’s snappily written, remarkably free of pretention, and revealing. The enjoyment lies in having a capable writer who isn’t afraid to tip out the art world’s dirty laundry for your inspection. I’d say buy. And hold.


Alun Severn

March 2017