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As Top-Tier Artists Age, the Art World Hopes to Cash In

Jan 31, 2017

A Sotheby’s employee looking at Gerhard Richter’s “Blau” in London in 2014.CreditAndrew Cowie/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Chuck Close and other artists used to sit around bars like the Cedar Tavern and Max’s Kansas City and talk about art. “I have more conversations today over what we’re going to do to protect our spouses, our children, our work,” Mr. Close said.

At 77, Mr. Close is among a critical mass of prominent — and profitable — artists in their twilight years (including Claes Oldenburg, 88; Ed Ruscha, 79; and Gerhard Richter, 84) facing important decisions about how to secure their creations and provide for their heirs just as the exploding market has significantly increased the value of their work. And the art world hopes to cash in on it.

“You have the greatest number of artists there has ever been who are wealthy from their own creative work and have to make provisions for the posthumous stewardship of that work,” said Christine J. Vincent, the project director for the Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative at the Aspen Institute, which helps private foundations created by visual artists. “More and more entities are getting involved in servicing it.”

Sotheby’s just hired Christy MacLear, the chief executive of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, in an attempt to start managing artists’ careers, estates and foundations, a role historically played by galleries.

And dealers, for their part, have stepped up their efforts to hold on to aging artists they represent — or to lure them away from competitors.

Brice Marden, 78, for example, just announced that after more than 20 years with Matthew Marks, he was leaving for Larry Gagosian. William Eggleston, 77, left Gagosian for David Zwirner in June. And while Mr. Richter has long been with Marian Goodman — herself now 88 — that doesn’t mean he couldn’t eventually move his holdings to another gallery or an auction house, although Ms. Goodman said that Mr. Richter had resisted many such overtures over the years.

“I’ve been moved that he’s been so loyal,” she said. “He seems to be happy where he is.” (Mr. Richter declined to comment.)

The potential revenues in managing artists can be substantial in fees for services, in sales and in business worth hundreds of millions of dollars; the Cy Twombly Foundation, for example, has assets of $1.5 billion. Handling artists not only allows for control of their remaining unsold work, but it also offers access to their catalogues raisonnés, a thorough accounting of every piece by the artists and who owns them — which can lead to future sales.