A Pawn for a King

A Pawn for a King
At a time when most of the art world is feeling the weight of the global financial crisis, in one small, easily overlooked corner, business is just beginning to pick up.

No, we’re not talking about anything affiliated with the ghost of Yves Saint Laurent. We’re talking about pawnshops, or rather the high-end lending institutions that accept works of fine art as collateral.

According to a report in the New York Times, a company called Art Capital Group — whose Manhattan headquarters, in Sotheby’s former Madison Avenue space, contains works by everyone from Rubens to Warhol, some of which the company now owns after its clients defaulted on interest payments — expects to earn $120 million in art-related loans in 2009, up from $80 million in 2008.

Art Capital Group is not alone. “We are up 40 percent in originations in the last six months,” said Meghan Carleton, a partner in Art Finance Partners, also based in Manhattan.

Ray Parker Gaylord, the owner of ArtLoan, of San Francisco, said his company has seen “exponential” growth in the last year despite interest rates of 18 percent to 24 percent.

“For years, one of the reasons this wasn’t an especially big business is that everyone was getting money for something else. It was easy money everywhere," said Marc Porter, who heads the American operations of Christie’s auction house. “But now people are looking to every asset they have to unlock cash.”

While art lenders typically offer up to 40 percent of what they appraise an artwork to be worth, different companies pursue different strategies. Art Capital makes loans of $500,000 or more at interest rates from 6 to 16 percent. ArtLoan, on the other hand, makes loans on items that are physically small and thus easy to store or ship, should a client default on a loan.

Either way, it is now a highly lucrative, and highly litigious, field. Artist Julian Schnabel is currently suing Art Capital. He took out an $8 million loan in 2006, when he was constructing his Palazzo Chupi, and used the real estate as collateral. Schnabel now claims he paid back the loan in a timely fashion, but Art Capital says it is entitled to millions more because Schnabel did not reveal there was an existing mortgage on the property.

“The nature of this business is you find yourself having to enforce your rights in court from time to time,” co-owner Ian Peck said. But he added that most clients repaid loans and were pleased with the company’s services.

Another high-profile Art Capital client is photographer Annie Leibovitz, who in the past year has taken out multiple loans reportedly worth more than $15 million. In addition to a few Greenwich Village townhouses and a countryhouse in Rhinebeck, New York, she reportedly offered the rights to all of her photographs as collateral.

Gerald Peters, a Santa Fe-based dealer who has bought paintings from Art Capital, says, “The game they have to play is rough, but the service they are providing is real. And there’s demand for it.”