The ‘Mystery Buyers’ of the Art World Who Spend Big and Remain Secret

The contemporary art market has gained momentum in recent decades, with new innovations reshaping the playing field every five minutes. But ever since the art market as we know it came into existence, one phenomenon has remained commonplace: anonymity of buyers.

This week, Christie’s made headlines when the auction house sold Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Shot Sage Blue Marilynfor a dazzling $195 million.

The sale set a new record for the most expensive 20th-century artwork sold at auction to date, and none other than legendary dealer Larry Gagosian was the winner of the bid, but he hasn’t revealed who he picked up the work on whose behalf he was. . The identity of the real buyer remains a closely guarded secret.

The buyer who paid more than $1 million in April for a work of “invisible art” at Sotheby’s? Anonymously. Who dropped $57.8 million on Picasso’s? the sleeper in 2018? Phillips would never say it unless they’re pushed.

With the rise of NFTs, some crypto-lucky buyers are willingly starting to expose themselves for influence and attention, but within the vast majority of the auction world, this is still not done.

“It’s standard company policy that buyer information is never made public, and further, if someone asked for an extra layer of anonymity that couldn’t even be seen internally, that could certainly be arranged,” Rebekah Bowling, senior specialist and principal of 21st century art at Phillips, said. Protecting buyers’ identities is a rule universally followed in the art market, from auction houses to galleries, Bowling said, and names are generally only revealed in the case of a specific request, which must then be approved by the buyer. . A Sotheby’s spokesperson declined to comment on buyers’ anonymity.

In some cases, however, auction houses may be forced to disclose a buyer’s identity. “The auction house can’t keep that information a secret forever,” said Nicholas O’Donnell, a Sullivan & Worcester attorney and member of the New York City Bar Association’s Art Law Committee. “It is not privileged. What does happen with some regularity is that something goes wrong with the sale or the follow-up of the sale, a dispute arises and someone goes to court. Once you’re in a lawsuit, people can issue subpoenas.”

Christie’s Americas chairman Marc Porter watches as Alex Rotter announces that Christie’s will offer Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.

He was understated/Getty Images

Many factors contribute to buyers wishing to remain anonymous in auction settings. “There are several reasons, from simple privacy and not drawing public attention to your spending to the more strategic fact that there is power in the world that doesn’t know exactly what works of art or assets you own,” an art consultant who (you guessed it) ) asked to remain anonymous.

If a buyer is collecting a collection of works by a specific artist, revealing his or her name could give the game away and court competitors. In other cases, collectors may opt for anonymity simply because their insurance company insists on it for security reasons, or because of the possibility of theft, said New York City art consultant Vasili Kaliman.

Buyers also have options if they don’t want to put up bids themselves, so to speak.

“Often a buyer can instruct a dealer to bid on them, like Larry Gagosian did for the Warhol,” Kaliman said. “Many buyers who bid anonymously also do so via telephone bid at an auction. They have a relationship with a specialist from the auction house, who guarantees their privacy. Especially at the high end of the market, more people are using a dealer’s service as a proxy bidder than you might think.”

Loose lips sink ships. Those who don’t know talk and those who talk don’t know.

Anonymous art advisor

Once the pact of secrecy between a buyer and a trusted auction specialist is made, it is deeply believed, the anonymous art consultant said, “Loose lips sink ships. Those who don’t know talk and those who talk don’t know.”

Some buyers, especially in the burgeoning crypto space, have anonymously spent huge sums of money on auctions only to later reveal their identities with a swing. “I think it might be a generational thing,” Bowling said. “Certainly, I see it with NFT collectors, where they would like us to tell the artist, who was essentially the sender, who they were. That wouldn’t happen in the traditional art world, where it feels more discreet.”

A receipt intended to authenticate the transfer of an invisible work by French artist Yves Klein entitled Zone of intangible image sensitivity Series n°1, Zone n°02 is on display at Sotheby’s in Paris.

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In other cases, buyers’ names are revealed in more cumbersome ways. Collectors could be called upon to lend their property to an institution for a major artist retrospective, where a lender has the option to have their name included on labels identifying the artwork, Bowling said.

Or, the anonymous art consultant offered, “Real estate or interior design magazines will display works acquired anonymously at auction,” linking art objects to homes whose owners can be easily identified.

The ubiquity of anonymity within the elite art market has always been a point of contention among those who believe that an industry-wide lack of transparency paves the way for money laundering and fraud. In February, however, a report from the US Treasury Department said that introducing further regulations to prevent illegal transactions in the art market was not a priority.

“I think it’s unlikely that regulation will have a major impact on this anonymity in the short term,” O’Donnell said.

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