Martin, Steve. An Object of Beauty.

NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2010.

Collectors are strange people, but a great many people collect something, even if it’s only salt and pepper sets in the shape of barnyard animals. I collect first editions in a very modest way. I know people who collect old maps and historical documents and antique cavalry sabers. But art collectors, and the dealers who service them, exist almost in another universe that merely intersects our own, and in this book the New York art world becomes one of the two major characters.

Anyone who has been paying attention for the past twenty years knows that Steve Martin has become a great deal more than a comic actor and this is his most complex and intriguing novel yet. The story begins in 1993, when Lacey Yeager of Atlanta, newly graduated with a degree in art history, arrives in New York determined to have an impact. (All this is told by her classmate and friend, Daniel Franks, a budding art journalist, who himself is only a peripheral character but a close observer.) Through daring, fearlessness, and pure chutzpah — and aided more than a little by her striking looks and carefully deployed sensuality — she quickly lands a trainee sort of job at Sotheby’s. Poorly paid but positioned right in the middle of things, she learns the art business at a prodigious rate. She’s also smart and ambitious, not to mention intensely manipulative, and it doesn’t take her long to develop contacts of her own and to begin climbing the ladder up out of the storage bins in the basement. When she’s ready — it only takes her five years, a very rapid progress — she leaves the auction house for a private gallery, where she also begins to make serious money, . . . partly through an unexpected windfall, which is by way of a bit of family theft and art fraud, and with Daniel’s help, which the FBI stumbles onto at the very end of the story. And she’s now buying selected small pieces of very good art herself. These are the days of the most recent international boom in art prices, funded by Russian and Chinese new money. And she continues to learn, branching out from Old Masters to new ones, becoming familiar with contemporary American art — dealing with living artists instead of those long dead takes some adjustment — and also becoming intimately acquainted with every sort of collector, from the founders of small museums to a French millionaire who can’t help but fall in love with her. Sleeping with both artists and collectors is just another strategy to her, and she knows how to keep them interested. And there is always, in the back of her mind, the thought that she could eventually open her own gallery. Which she does, signing a lease on a space in Chelsea at the beginning of the new millennium and financing her investments by the sale at auction of several of the pieces cagily acquired a few years before. And then the opening is delayed by the event of September 11, the impact of which the author describes masterfully. Two years later, Lacey is being deserted by her friends and supporters for a number of reasons, both personal and professional. And finally, the Renaissance of 1999 gives way, a decade later, to Black Monday, with terrible timing. Lacey, who had been barely hanging on, is just about to sell some new paintings in the most important auction of her career, the one that could catapult her into the art gallery stratosphere. And suddenly the spare money that people are willing to splurge on art purchases is gone. Lacey’s will to success is no longer sufficient, not in a Darwinian world.

Perhaps I’ve made it sound like the author’s portrait of a bright young woman on the make is of a cold and cruelly narcissistic personality, but he doesn’t paint her that way at all. Lacey makes good use of her desirability, but she would do that even if she were only a secretary. She also has enormous joie de vivre and a considerable group of friends and admirers, and she doesn’t always get things right, no matter how smart she is. (Witness the case of the possibly stolen Vermeer in the inventory of the gallery where she works.) In fact, even her legal misadventure with the Maxfield Parish piece doesn’t sink her. But the story has a sad ending nonetheless.

Martin understands the insular world and the mindset he writes about, too, though I don’t know whether he’s a serious collector himself or simply a very astute observer. In comparing the lure of discovering and collecting “young artists” versus the cachet of acquiring Picasso and Braque, he notes that “it was similar to what happened to crooners when Elvis came along.” He has some dryly humorous things to say about subjects like “relational aesthetics,” too. The action is studied and there are no shoot-outs or car chases. The adventure here is of a more cerebral sort, but just as engrossing, and Martin’s capacity for concise and witty description is amazing. (One character is such an avid collector, “he would buy paint in a bucket.”) And to top off the book, you will find included more than twenty color illustrations of paintings and sculptures that figure in the narrative. You should read this book. Really.

Published in: on 15 March 2012 at 3:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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