Ephemeral Art, Eternal Maintenance

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Medicine boxes prone to fading in a piece by Damien Hirst in the home of Aby Rosen.. Photo: John Lei for the New York Times

Medicine boxes prone to fading in a piece by Damien Hirst in the home of Aby Rosen.. Photo: John Lei for the New York Times


November 10, 2005


EVEN as the real estate market cools, the contemporary art market is at fever pitch, as evidenced by the record-breaking total of $157.4 million brought in by Christie's sale of post-war and contemporary works on Tuesday. But as collectors bid extravagantly for works created in the last two decades, some may be failing to consider the perils of living with such pieces.

A word of caution for those tempted to stop by the next big contemporary auction, at Phillips, de Pury & Company tonight: As stunning as an installation like Damien Hirst's "Love Lost" might look in your living room, and as reasonable as the Phillips estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million might seem for a gynecologist's office submerged in a tank swarming with rainbow-colored koi, "Love Lost" weighs 20,000 pounds when assembled. It also requires that the fish be fed every three days, and that a diver - or an owner with goggles - plunge into the tank at least once a month to scrub away algae and fish muck.

For centuries, private collectors and museums have contended with the difficulties of maintaining artworks: Old Masters need a good cleaning now and then, and conservators struggle to preserve the early drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, who used cheap house paint. But the challenges are becoming increasingly acute for collectors as they try to live with - and slow the decay of - valuable works created during the past 20 years or so by artists using unconventional and often volatile materials.

Mark Fletcher, an art consultant in Manhattan, is well acquainted with the rigors of maintaining contemporary art created from ephemera. "Hopefully these things will outlive us," Mr. Fletcher said, but "people seem more comfortable with the notion of art eliciting a response today without much thought about its long-term durability."

"I walk away from a lot of art for that reason, especially with people I advise," he said.

The reality of caring for unstable artwork hit home when Mr. Fletcher and his partner, Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of Sotheby's contemporary art department, acquired an installation piece in 1999 by John Bock, a German artist whom Mr. Fletcher described as "very important." The sculpture, which featured prominently in the couple's dining room, involved a series of hand-knitted sweaters, fishing wire and a constant supply of fresh melons and vegetables. Dinner guests were suitably impressed, but Mr. Fletcher grew tired of maintaining the sculpture, so the couple decided to give it to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. "I didn't want to be putting out fresh vegetables every week as those things rotted," Mr. Fletcher said.

The maintenance challenge is particularly acute for collectors like Adam Sender, the 36-year-old founder of Exis Capital, a hedge fund, who is drawn to the conceptual work of artists like Matthew Barney. "Unit Bolus," a Barney installation in Mr. Sender's collection, is composed of an electrical freezing device connected to a stainless steel rack that supports a dumbbell made from frozen, cast petroleum jelly.

"If the electricity goes out, you're right back to square one," said Todd Levin, a curator whom Mr. Sender employs full time to oversee his burgeoning collection.

A novel quandary presented itself in 2002 when Mr. Sender purchased the "Ehrich Weiss Suite," another Barney installation, which includes seven black Jacobin pigeons. Contained in a room with a transparent door, the birds are allowed to perch on a black box intended to represent the coffin of a Harry Houdini-like escape artist. "We were very concerned when we purchased this," Mr. Levin said. "Pigeon guano is acidic and we feared it would eat away at the acrylic coffin."

The first question, Mr. Levin said, was whether Mr. Barney would want the droppings to remain on the piece.

MR. LEVIN turned to Christian Scheidemann, a conservator whose West 22nd Street studio specializes in contemporary art. Mr. Scheidemann consulted with Mr. Barney, who decreed that the guano should stay put. After a week of scientific inquiry, Mr. Scheidemann came up with a solution: "We determined that the acidic part would be activated once the object got into a moist atmosphere," he said, "but if it's dry, it will remain dormant." Mr. Sender intends to install the sculpture in his home, but for now the coffin is in a humidity-controlled warehouse in Queens, and the rented pigeons have returned to their coops.

The rise of unconventional materials has provided Mr. Scheidemann with an intriguing niche. "We create manuals for complicated art works," he said. "How to store it, handle it, display it and the amount of light and moisture it needs."

"It's like a zoo," he added. "You're dealing with very different animals, and they all need their own care."

When a glitter-encrusted ball of elephant dung protruding from a Chris Ofili painting sustained a fracture - the result of an accidental bump from a profusely apologetic dinner guest - the hostess, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, turned to Mr. Scheidemann. He and Ms. Rohatyn, a prolific collector and contemporary art dealer, consulted with Mr. Ofili, who provided Mr. Scheidemann with some extra dung balls with which to stabilize the object.

"We don't do anything without the artist knowing," said Ms. Rohatyn, who said she shared Mr. Scheidemann's belief that the artist's intentions are sacrosanct.

Most collectors rely on conservators to delay the corrosive effects of time on their artworks. But Paula Hayes, one of the artists represented by Ms. Rohatyn, may be unique in tending to her creations - tiny natural landscapes in whimsical glass terrariums - on a weekly basis after they are sold. (Her pieces sell for $6,500 to $11,000 at Ms. Rohatyn's East Side gallery, Salon 94, and at R 20th Century Design in Tribeca.)

Paula Hayes on a house call to one of her terrariums. Photo: John Lei

Paula Hayes on a house call to one of her terrariums. Photo: John Lei

Last Friday, Ms. Hayes wielded a pair of 24-inch tweezers also used in heart surgery as she reached into a large oval terrarium on Ms. Rohatyn's dining table to tend a dainty crop of miniature bamboo, oxalis and selaginella.

"It's a wild organic world in there," Ms. Hayes said. Her quiver of tools, which she carries around in a plastic tube, includes surgical scissors (for pruning) and a turkey baster (for watering).

Ms. Rohatyn's house was just one stop on Ms. Hayes' weekly rounds. She also visited the East 80th Street townhouse of Aby Rosen, a collector of contemporary art who is the president of RFR Holding, a Manhattan real estate empire.

"She sells a self-contained universe," Mr. Rosen said, admiring a large domed terrarium created by Ms. Hayes that sits in the middle of his dining room table. "I have eight of them in my steam shower."

The windows of Mr. Rosen's townhouse are coated with a film designed to minimize the effect of the sun's ultraviolet rays on his art collection. But he refuses to follow the example of some collectors who keep the curtains drawn to protect their investment.

"I like to live with my art," he said, standing in his library, which is crammed with works by Warhol, Twombly and others. A big white sculpture by Mr. Hirst hangs over the fireplace: a glass-fronted medicine cabinet containing dozens of boxes of medications for depression, headaches, and sexually transmitted diseases. (Mr. Rosen bought the sculpture, "Le Caprice," last year at Sotheby's in London for $400,000.) "It's pretty light sensitive," Mr. Rosen said, peering at the colorful array of boxes of Videx, an anti-HIV medication. Some were brightly hued, others faded. "A whole bunch of people I know scan them to preserve the crispness of the print," he said. "If they fade, you can print up a new set of boxes for ten thousand bucks."

When the object in question is worth millions of dollars and involves a 14-foot tiger shark pickled in formaldehyde, the costs for maintenance soar dramatically. In such situations it helps to be a billionaire like Steven A. Cohen, the hedge-fund mogul who paid $8 million this year to acquire an iconic sculpture by Mr. Hirst titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." Every time Mr. Cohen decides to relocate his shark, he is obliged to call in HazMat experts in protective gear to neutralize the formaldehyde, which can only be used once. Mr. Scheidemann, who is familiar with the sculpture, estimated the cost of the process to be in the region of $100,000.

Tanks, whether they contain formaldehyde or water, pose a plethora of conservation challenges. Last Friday afternoon at Christie's in Rockefeller Center, condensation clung to the walls of a five-foot-long vitrine containing three mercury-filled basketballs floating in water. The piece - "Three Ball 50/50 Tank" by Jeff Koons, from 1985 - was slowly acclimatizing to the air-conditioning blasting through Christie's public galleries.

Some collectors might have qualms about purchasing a sculpture that has to be drained and refilled now and then to kill the algae. But Amy Cappellazzo, an international head of Christie's postwar and contemporary department, seemed confident that conservation issues would not deter serious collectors from bidding on the piece by Mr. Koons at the Post-War and Contemporary Art auction on Tuesday night. (It sold for $486,400 to the gallerist Larry Gagosian.)

"These works become like devotional objects," she said. "It's like caring for your altarpiece."

Christopher Mason