James Tarmy has an epic story in BusinessWeek detailing the ownership of Christopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now, a painting that made a splash at Christie’s last year for many reasons. First, it established an extraordinary $26m price for Wool. Second, there was—and remains—the mystery of who owned the work as it turned on Christie’s podium. David Ganek had sold it out from under the Guggenheim retrospective to an unnamed buyer who immediately consigned it to Christie’s where it was bought by another anonymous buyer who then lent the work to the Wool retrospective in time to be included when the show was mounted at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Think that sounds complicated? It’s nothing compared to the full history of this work which was owned by such central collectors as Francois Pinault, Donald Bryant, David Ganek and others. It first appeared in 1988 at the 303 Gallery in a joint show with Robert Gober (the subject of a current retrospective at MoMA) that was purchased entirely by Werner and Elaine Dannheisser:
Werner died in 1992, and in 1996 Elaine offered MoMA most of her collection. Valued at more than $5 million, the donation allowed Dannheisser to join the museum’s board. There was a twist: MoMA refused to take Apocalypse Now.
“They already had a Christopher Wool, and they thought they didn’t need two,” says art dealer Philippe Ségalot. In 1999, he says, Dannheisser approached him about selling the work at auction. Ségalot was then head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department in New York. “Of course I took the picture,” he says.
A few days after Dannheisser signed the contract to auction Apocalypse Now at Christie’s, Ségalot mentioned the pending sale to Per Skarstedt, one of the most established contemporary art dealers in New York. A lanky Swede, he today owns Skarstedt Fine Art, which has a town house on the Upper East Side, a warehouse-style space in Chelsea, and space in a town house near Buckingham Palace in London’s Mayfair district. Skarstedt implored Ségalot to sell Apocalypse Now to him, offering up an alternate Wool—titled Fool—that could be auctioned instead. Christie’s agreed. Skarstedt paid Dannheisser between $100,000 and $150,000 for Apocalypse Now, nearly double the $60,000 to $80,000 it was expected to fetch at the auction.
Within days it became clear that Skarstedt had gotten a steal. At the Christie’s auction on May 19, 1999, Wool’s Fool was estimated to sell for as little as $40,000. With Dannheisser in the room, a bidding war erupted. As a shocked audience looked on, Westreich, the art adviser, placed a winning bid of $420,500 for the lesser Wool.
“Elaine almost died in the auction room,” Ségalot says. “I wanted to hide behind the podium.” He says Dannheisser didn’t speak to him for six months.