#325 Larry Gagosian Billionaire Art Dealer



In a candid conversation, the host shares his journey with Readwise, a tool that has become integral to his podcasting process. He details how a message from Tristan, a co-founder of Readwise, led him to become a super user, storing over 300 books' worth of highlights and notes. Leveraging this extensive database daily, he's created FoundersNotes.com in collaboration with Readwise co-founders Tristan and Daniel, offering subscribers access to his valuable collection of insights, particularly useful for founders seeking wisdom from historical entrepreneurs. The service, designed for those already running successful companies, is a testament to the host's belief in the profound knowledge that can be extracted from biographies of great entrepreneurs, akin to the billions worth of answers found in a $30 history book.

Summary Notes

Initial Contact with Readwise

  • Tristan, cofounder of Readwise, reached out in 2019 expressing his love for the podcast.
  • The host became a super user of Readwise, adding highlights and notes from over 300 books.
  • Readwise is used daily for referencing notes and highlights, and it's promoted on other podcasts and social media.

"All the way back in 2019, I received a message that changed the direction of this podcast forever. It was from Tristan, who is one of the cofounders of Readwise."

The quote explains how the host's interaction with Readwise began, marking a significant turn in the podcast's direction due to Tristan's message.

FoundersNotes.com Collaboration

  • The host approached Tristan and Daniel to create a product allowing subscribers to access his Readwise content.
  • FoundersNotes.com was built for founders to access a curated feed of book highlights and notes.
  • The service is aimed at successful company founders, with an annual subscription model.

"So a few months ago, I went to the founders of readwise, Tristan and Daniel, and I asked, hey, is there a way we can build a product together that actually mirrors what I see?"

This quote indicates the host's initiative to collaborate with Readwise's founders to develop a new product that shares his personal notes and highlights with others.

Larry Gagosian's Profile

  • Larry Gagosian is a prominent art dealer with a global gallery presence and significant influence in the art world.
  • He prefers the term 'dealer' over 'gallerist' and focuses on the commercial aspect of art dealing.
  • The New Yorker profile titled "How Larry Gagosian Reshaped the Art World" inspired the podcast episode.

"Larry Gagosian is not a household name for most Americans, but among the famous and the wealthy, and particularly among the very wealthy, he is a figure of colossal repute."

This quote introduces Larry Gagosian, highlighting his status among the elite and setting the stage for discussing his impact on the art world.

Gagosian's Business Approach

  • Gagosian eschews the traditional art dealer model of nurturing nascent artists, focusing instead on established ones.
  • He uses his resources to attract successful artists from other dealers, leveraging his size and influence.
  • Critics describe Gagosian with carnivore analogies, reflecting his aggressive business tactics.

"He is content to let other people do the wild catting, let them drill the wells. He will wait till that well is producing oil to then get involved."

This quote encapsulates Gagosian's strategic approach to business, where he avoids the risk of investing in unproven talent and instead capitalizes on established success.

Gagosian's Social and Sales Strategy

  • Gagosian hosts extravagant events that serve as sales opportunities, disguised as social gatherings.
  • His high overhead is seen as an asset, enabling him to wield influence and close deals.
  • He maintains control over his business and social events, akin to other successful entrepreneurs.

"The sheer magnitude of his overhead is a source of envy and confusion. Other dealers are just dumbstruck that Larry could possibly be making any money because he has such a high overhead."

The quote points to the perplexity of Gagosian's competitors regarding his seemingly costly business operations, which in reality, are strategic investments that facilitate sales.

Gagosian's Market Influence

  • Gagosian sells unique, often unavailable art pieces, leveraging his vast network and relationships.
  • He understands the power of exclusivity and the importance of relationships in the art world.
  • Gagosian's strategy involves catering to the status anxiety of wealthy buyers, offering them access to rare artworks.

"Larry sells things that aren't for sale. Typically, the most coveted items become available only when the previous owner dies or gets divorced or goes bankrupt."

This quote reveals Gagosian's ability to procure and sell art that is not typically on the market, demonstrating his unique position and influence within the art industry.

Social Status and Influence in the Art World

  • Tristan describes a dinner party where a wealthy tech founder realizes his lack of social status compared to Larry Gagosian.
  • Gagosian's social status and connections are highlighted as more valuable than wealth alone.
  • The tech founder's realization emphasizes the importance of being in the "right circles" within high society and the art world.
  • Gagosian's influence has led to a reversal of roles where his clients seek to emulate him, rather than the other way around.

"This tech founder has more money than Gagosian, even though they're both very wealthy. Right? But Gagosian has something that he lacks. He has the social status."

This quote illustrates the distinction between financial wealth and social capital, highlighting the unique influence Gagosian wields in the art world due to his status.

The Playbook of Larry Gagosian

  • Gagosian follows a blueprint, similar to historical art dealer Joseph Duveen.
  • He reads biographies, particularly of Duveen, who shaped collections for notable figures like Andrew Mellon and JP Morgan.
  • Gagosian emulates Duveen's approach, showing his clients that he lives better than they do, reinforcing his status.
  • Every action Gagosian takes is aimed at serving his main purpose, which includes working constantly and using social events for business opportunities.

"And of course, Larry Gagosian reads biographies. Gagosian is running the playbook of this guy that lived a long time before him, that had his same job named Joseph Duveen."

This quote highlights Gagosian's strategic approach to his career by learning from and emulating successful historical figures in his field.

Gagosian's Business and Personal History

  • Gagosian's relentless work ethic contrasts with his father's less disciplined lifestyle.
  • His father, Ara, was known for gambling and drinking, which affected his financial stability.
  • Gagosian did not start as an insider; his middle-class upbringing and troubled childhood influenced his drive to succeed.
  • Despite a lack of ambition in his early 20s, Gagosian eventually found his path through determination and learning from his environment.

"Gagozin did not start life as an insider. He grew up in a middle-class Armenian-American family."

This quote contextualizes Gagosian's background and his rise from an outsider to a prominent figure in the art world.

Gagosian's Entry into the Art World

  • Gagosian's first exposure to the art world was through selling posters on the street.
  • He demonstrated disinhibition, which is the inability to withhold inappropriate or unwanted behavior, a trait that contributed to his success.
  • Gagosian's business acumen allowed him to turn a simple poster-selling venture into a profitable operation by adding value through framing.
  • He began his journey in the art world without formal business knowledge but quickly adapted and learned to run a successful business.

"Art was an arbitrary choice. If the guy had been selling belt buckles, Gagosian said, I might have tried to sell belt buckles."

This quote emphasizes Gagosian's opportunistic approach and his focus on the business aspect of art, rather than a passion for the art itself.

Gagosian's Growth as an Art Dealer

  • Gagosian's initial foray into fine art involved prints and photographs, capitalizing on the interest of young Hollywood collectors.
  • Without formal art history training, he educated himself through books and trade magazines.
  • A cold call to photographer Ralph Gibson led to a pivotal relationship with legendary art dealer Leo Castelli, which greatly influenced Gagosian's career.
  • Gagosian's straightforward and blunt approach endeared him to Castelli and others in the art world.

"Gagosian had no training in art history, but he was a quick learner."

This quote underscores Gagosian's ability to quickly adapt and absorb information, a key factor in his success as an art dealer.

Gagosian's Business Strategy and Niche

  • Gagosian identified a niche in the secondary art market, which was considered low status at the time.
  • He focused on building relationships with wealthy collectors to facilitate the buying and selling of previously owned artwork.
  • His strategy differed from his mentor, Leo Castelli, who specialized in the primary market and took pride in discovering new artists.
  • Gagosian's approach to the secondary market was innovative and led to the expansion and success of his business.

"Gagosian had no relationships with artists, so he couldn't be a primary dealer."

This quote highlights Gagosian's strategic pivot to the secondary market due to his initial lack of connections with artists, which eventually became the foundation of his wealth.

Early Career of Larry Gagosian

  • Larry Gagosian was initially dismissed by established players in the art industry.
  • Gagosian recognized opportunities that others overlooked, due to their arrogance and slowness.
  • He capitalized on the art boom of the 1980s, a time when new wealth was emerging, similar to the era of the Robber Barons.

"As far as he was concerned, ripes were considered trash only because Boston fruit and similar firms were too slow footed to cover ground. It was a calculation based on arrogance."

This quote emphasizes Gagosian's belief that established players missed opportunities because of their complacency, which he aimed to exploit through his own agility and insight.

Gagosian's Business Strategy

  • Gagosian did not focus on the primary art market but instead excelled in the secondary market.
  • He was secretive and benefited from information asymmetry, knowing the details about collectors and their collections.
  • Gagosian's tactics were aggressive and sometimes controversial, using cold calls and persistence to acquire art.

"Being a good secondary dealer requires knowing which people are collectors, where they live, what hangs inside their houses, and whether they might be induced to part with any of it."

This quote summarizes the skills necessary for success in the secondary art market, which Gagosian mastered through meticulous research and networking.

Gagosian's Aggressive Tactics and Networking

  • Gagosian was known for his relentless pursuit of art, attending parties uninvited and secretly photographing artwork to sell.
  • He was nicknamed "Go-Go" for his energy and stamina in the art world.
  • Gagosian used his connections, such as his relationship with Leo Castelli, to gain inside knowledge of the art market.

"The telephone was his instrument of choice, and he made 100 cold calls a day, sniffing out the location of artwork, lining up buyers, and then haggling with the owners until the work shook free."

This quote illustrates Gagosian's proactive approach to business, using the telephone as his primary tool to locate and negotiate the sale of artworks.

Gagosian's Business Expansion and Management Style

  • Gagosian expanded his empire by hiring directors to sell art without offering mentorship or structured hierarchy.
  • He maintained a hands-on approach, constantly communicating with his team and demanding high availability.
  • Directors were incentivized with significant commissions, motivating them to tolerate Gagosian's demanding style.

"Directors can make 10% of the gallery's profit on a sale."

This quote explains the financial incentive for directors working under Gagosian, despite the high-pressure environment.

Gagosian's Personal Traits and Philosophy

  • Gagosian is described as non-introspective and avoids self-reflection to maintain his competitive edge.
  • He is perceived as a "shark" in the art world, always moving forward and focusing on action over contemplation.
  • Gagosian's simplicity and directness are seen as characteristics of his genius.

"We think of genius as being complicated, but geniuses have the fewest moving parts. Gagosian is simple. He's basically a shark, a feeding machine."

This quote captures the essence of Gagosian's approach to business and life, emphasizing simplicity and relentless pursuit of his goals.

Gagosian's Approach to Value and Long-Term Strategy

  • Gagosian finds value in unexpected places and employs first principles thinking.
  • He hired scholars like John Richardson to curate shows, which served as both educational and promotional events.
  • Gagosian's long-term relationships with art world figures like Picasso's heirs demonstrate his strategic foresight.

"The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas."

This quote, referencing Peter Thiel's insights, aligns with Gagosian's ability to identify and capitalize on unconventional opportunities.

Gagosian's Relationships with Artists and Collectors

  • Gagosian built relationships with living artists through persistent communication, eventually becoming their primary salesperson.
  • He facilitated financial success for artists and collectors alike, often enabling them to make substantial profits from the sale of art.
  • Gagosian's approach to business was unapologetically commercial, focusing on the monetary aspect of the art world.

"Money is the basis of everything."

This quote succinctly states Gagosian's frank acknowledgment of the driving force in the art market, which he embraced openly from the start of his career.

Larry Gagosian's Business Acumen

  • Larry Gagosian is known for making strategic decisions and finding advantages in the art market.
  • He adapts to market fluctuations and capitalizes on opportunities during downturns.
  • Gagosian's approach is described as simple, logical, and genius in its simplicity.
  • He understands his clientele deeply and positions his galleries conveniently for them, such as opening one at a private jet airport near Paris.

"Everything this guy does, he just makes one smart move after another. It is very logical, very easy to understand. I'm going to call it simple, and I don't mean that as a pejorative. There's a genius in this guy's simplicity."

The quote highlights Gagosian's ability to make effective and straightforward business decisions that have significantly contributed to his success in the art world.

Market Dynamics and Gagosian's Strategy

  • The art market experiences ups and downs, but Gagosian's strategy involves taking advantage of each peak, which is higher than the previous one.
  • He focuses on repeat commissions and reselling artworks at higher prices, generating profits from both initial and subsequent sales.
  • Gagosian's role as a middleman in high-value art transactions is lucrative due to the competitive nature of self-made billionaires.

"Repeat serial commissions is a massive part of his business. He's just making money over and over again, selling the same thing for higher prices over and over again."

This quote emphasizes the importance of repeat business and the strategy of reselling in Gagosian's success, showcasing his ability to monetize the same assets multiple times.

Understanding Customer Psychology

  • Gagosian's sales tactics involve creating a sense of scarcity and exclusivity, much like Enzo Ferrari's approach to selling cars.
  • By limiting availability and sometimes rejecting clients, Gagosian increases desire for his artworks.
  • He understands that for some clients, being told 'no' can be an enticement to pursue a purchase even more aggressively.

"For a certain kind of customer, being told no when they're not used to hearing no makes them want it more."

The quote explains Gagosian's sales technique of using rejection to fuel desire, which is particularly effective with clients who are not accustomed to being denied.

Gagosian as a Brand

  • Larry Gagosian's reputation and personal brand allow him to command higher prices and premiums for artworks.
  • Collectors are willing to pay more for the same artwork if it comes from Gagosian, demonstrating the power of his brand.
  • His brand is so strong that it can influence market prices and enhance the value of artworks he endorses.

"The mere fact that he is the dealer endorsing and selling a work enhances its value."

This quote illustrates how Gagosian's endorsement can increase the perceived value of an artwork, showing the influence of his personal brand in the art market.

Market Transparency and Pricing

  • The art market's lack of transparency allows for opportunistic pricing strategies.
  • Gagosian collects extensive market information but shares little, maintaining a competitive edge.
  • He uses his knowledge and discretion to guide prices and make profitable deals.

"The lack of transparency in pricing is one of the reason that the construction of value in the art world can be so opportunistic and imprecise."

The quote reveals the art market's opaque nature, which Gagosian utilizes to construct value and secure profitable deals.

Gagosian's Global Strategy and Ethical Stance

  • Gagosian has insulated his business from market volatility by tapping into emerging markets, such as post-Soviet Russia.
  • He adheres to a simple ethical rule: if it's legal to do business, he will; otherwise, he refrains.
  • Gagosian's focus on legality over morality reflects his pragmatic approach to business.

"If it is illegal for him to do business with someone, he will not. Otherwise, it's not for him to parse the moral credentials of potential buyers."

This quote outlines Gagosian's straightforward ethical rule, which prioritizes legality and business opportunity over moral judgment.

Historical Context of Art and Commerce

  • The intersection of art and commerce is not a new phenomenon; it dates back to the Renaissance.
  • Critics often argue that money ruins art, but Gagosian and historical figures like Giorgio Vasari highlight the longstanding relationship between artists and wealthy sponsors.
  • The art market's dynamics have remained consistent over centuries, driven by human nature rather than historical change.

"There's nearly 500 years ago, Giorgio Vasari wrote about the lavish prices that the great artists of the Renaissance commanded and the manner in which they jockeyed for wealthy sponsors."

The quote connects the current art market practices to those of the Renaissance, showing the enduring nature of the relationship between art and commerce.

Gagosian's Future and Legacy

  • The future of Gagosian's gallery post-Larry is uncertain, with questions about its ability to survive without his personal involvement.
  • Speculation exists about a potential acquisition by a larger conglomerate like LVMH, but Gagosian denies this.
  • Gagosian's unique position as both the brand and the driving force behind the company's success raises questions about succession and continuity.

"The Gagosian brand unquestionably has tremendous value, but so much of what has made the gallery thrive is Larry's own network and eye and Persona."

This quote highlights the integral role Larry Gagosian plays in his company's success, suggesting that his personal attributes are a key factor in the gallery's prosperity.

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