The Art of the Steal: the saga of Larry Salander

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I found this article from Portfolio chronicling the downfall of the New York art dealer Larry Salander an astonishing read. As the tombstone goes:

The Salander-O’Reilly gallery was set to open a jaw-dropping exhibit with works by Titian, Botticelli, and Caravaggio when a New York judge padlocked its doors amid allegations that its owner, Larry Salander, is behind one of the largest art frauds in history. Now plaintiffs including Wall Street financiers, the tennis star John McEnroe, and Sotheby’s auction house are trying to find out how more than $100 million went missing.

The extent of Salander’s financial wheeling and dealings is extraordinary, as are the sums of money involved… Salander’s original motive was to jolt contemporary art buyers away from a price feeding frenzy over the likes of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, and back towards reinvestment in Renaissance and Baroque art– itself a gutsy and laudable (if somewhat unrealistic) aspiration. Unfortunately it would seem that this grand gesture has instead fallen victim to old-fashioned greed, self-delusion and fraud:

The scandal has shaken the art world, raising troubling questions about the darker side of this secretive, totally unregulated market into which investors have poured billions of dollars in the past decade. Today, as a federal bankruptcy judge sorts through the tangled web of claims against Salander, and an investigation, begun in late October by the Manhattan district attorney, raises the possibility that Salander will face a criminal indictment, the question that mystifies is not just how Salander got himself into so much trouble, but why? What caused a man who had achieved so much to risk everything he had worked so hard to create, “to destroy,” as one of his artists says, “everything that he loved?”

It’s a long article, but well worth a read… New York Magazine also covers the story, lighter on the complexity of the story but with more on the man (and far more sympathetic to Salander in its tone):

An aesthete with no formal art education (nor even a college degree), Salander built his art empire, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, on native artistic empathy and an intensity of will. “He is a very unusual combination of street vitality and aesthetic refinement,” says Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic and a close friend of Salander’s who wrote catalogue essays for the gallery. “He’s a street kid who’s read Ruskin. I don’t know anybody else who so naturally recognizes the brutality of the world but lives in such a fine way.”

Artists, actors, critics, and buyers responded to his gravitational pull. When I visited Salander in Venice during the opening of the Biennale last June, he was a character in need of a Balzac, a prophet and a gambler who seemed to walk across the water of the Venetian lagoon. He spoke about Titian and Tintoretto as if they were close friends and skipped the contemporary art of the Biennale altogether. As we returned from the island of Burano, where we’d had dinner with his friend Robert De Niro, Salander said to me, “Art is the human attempt to make one plus one equal more than two.”

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