Hans Neuendorf, wearing a white, open-collared shirt and dark suspenders, is standing at the window of his New York office, 23 floors above the construction site at Ground Zero. Neuendorf was there when everything collapsed, and he’s there once again as everything is being rebuilt.
Neuendorf bites into a slice of quiche, his lunch. He is using white plastic utensils. He talks about that September day, 11 years ago.
He had come to the office early that day, in a building just a few minutes’ walk from the Twin Towers. Everyone was told to clear the building, and people were shouting: “The towers are collapsing.” But Neuendorf refused to leave his glass table. “No, the World Trade Center won’t fall this far,” he said.
It wasn’t until the towers had collapsed, it became dark outside and the dust began coming in through the slanted windows that Neuendorf stood up — to close the windows.
He ignored the announcement on the public-address system urging anyone left in the building to “get out now.” Instead, he wrote in emails: “We haven’t been affected.”
At the time, he says today, he thought it would be safer on the 23rd floor than down below, where everyone was panicking. He doesn’t say that it was hell, nor does he mention the poor people who were buried in the rubble. He also doesn’t say that it was the day the world changed.
The way Neuendorf tells the story, it was just another day at the office, a day when he kept his cool.
No one but Neuendorf knows whether this is true, because no one else remained with him on the 23rd floor. But it’s also safe to assume that Neuendorf wants to be perceived as something of a Bruce Willis of the art world, cool, fearless, perceptive and courageous — in other words, as someone who merely gets up to close the windows when the world around him is falling apart.
Bringing Art Auctions Online
Neuendorf, 74, has been involved in the modern art business since the 1950s. He has had a lot of experiences and has made a lot of money, and he could easily have retired to his modern villa on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, which was designed by an architect who has worked for Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani. But he isn’t interested in retiring. Instead, he sits in a New York office tower and has only one goal: to thoroughly reform the art trade that has made him rich.
“If I want to sell a car, I look in the Blue Book to see how much it’s worth,” says Neuendorf, referring to a popular US guide to used-car values, “and I’m rid of the thing in a week.”
If Neuendorf has his way, paintings by the likes of Chagall, Picasso and Lichtenstein will be marketed like used cars, each provided with a list price that everyone can see and sold online to the highest bidder. His company, Artnet, has been in business for 20 years. “When it comes to art, Artnet has the most comprehensive global database,” Neuendorf says, “and now it will also become the world’s biggest auction house.” He envisions it being larger and more powerful that Sotheby’s and Christie’s combined. Selling through Artnet is faster, more transparent and, most of all, more affordable, Neuendorf says.
Last year, Artnet hosted its first auction in which a Warhol work was sold. It was a green painting with blue flowers. The minimum bid was $800,000 (€640,000). An image of the painting was posted online for six days. The bids started going up near the end of the auction. When Neuendorf went to lunch, the highest bid was still $800,000. By the time he had eaten his sandwich, the Warhol had been sold to the highest bidder — for $1.3 million.
The Currency of the Future
Neuendorf rests his foot against the glass edge of his desk. He gazes out the window, across the western edge of Manhattan and the gray water of the Hudson River, to an oversized clock in New Jersey. The hands of the clock have stopped.
He believes that his time has come, and the numbers back him up. When Lehman Brothers went out of business and, next to Sept. 11, the biggest disaster of the new millennium had come to pass, things were not looking good for Neuendorf. The financial crisis all but destroyed the art market, and prices continued plummeting for two years. But things started picking up again in 2010 — and, suddenly, the sky’s the limit. Last year alone, art sales worldwide amounted to €46 billion.
“A worrisome, idiotically high price,” says Neuendorf, referring to the latest record in the art market, which was reached on May 2, when Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in New York.
The hammer fell at $119.9 million. The buyer remained anonymous, but Neuendorf says that the only people capable of playing at this level are those “who have collected their money but haven’t earned it: oil sheiks from Dubai, Russian oligarchs and hedge fund managers.” For the rich, art appears to be what gold and real estate are for the not-quite-so-rich: a coveted form of investment, and a currency of the future.
Making a Killing in Art
Neuendorf is on the phone talking about Georg Baselitz. The well-known German artist is so wealthy that he lives on an estate on Bavaria’s Ammersee lake that was designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, a firm that usually builds things like the Olympic Stadium in Beijing.
“A count from Germany recently sold his Baselitz collection at Sotheby’s in London,” Neuendorf says. The count had apparently owned so many Baselitz works that he had lost track of where the paintings had originally come from. In his confusion, says Neuendorf, the count had called him and asked: Didn’t you sell me eight of them once?
“Damn, that count had certainly stashed away quite a collection,” says Neuendorf, clearly impressed.
His motions for his assistant and asks her to print out the results of the Baselitz auction. A few moments later, he is reading from a list of Baselitz’s “Hero” paintings that were sold at auction. “Spekulatius” went for $5,195,000, “Big Night” for $3,845,000, “The Tree” for $2,855,000 and “Three Hearts” for $2,046,000.
Neuendorf smiles with both envy and admiration. “The count really made a killing,” he says. But he deserved it, Neuendorf adds, because, after all, the count had held on to the paintings for 30 years.
Destroying the Aura of Exclusivity
The art market is not an open affair. It thrives on back rooms, knowing the right people and the well-placed, targeted indiscretion. Transparency or the sort of open indiscretion Neuendorf engages in is terrifying to the art world. It’s considered cheap, plebeian and lowbrow.Gallery owners or dealers usually control the prices, and they prefer to quote prices to potential buyers in private, often speaking in a whisper. The goal is to give the individual buyer the feeling of being elevated into a caste of select connoisseurship.
Neuendorf’s Artnet destroys this aura of exclusivity. On his website, the only things that count are the work and the price. To the great annoyance of the entire industry, selling art in this way is essentially like shopping in a supermarket. What’s more, potential buyers are increasingly showing up in backrooms with printouts from Neuendorf’s Artnet that show an artist’s worldwide prices, thereby polluting the cultivated atmosphere.
Sales and auction results for more than 4,000 artists are available on Artnet, giving the amateur collector the chance to become a competent player in the business. The site gives the buyer more power while simultaneously taking it away from the dealer — which is exactly why so many gallery owners view Neuendorf as the enemy…
June 10, 2012
In a vivid illustration of Mali’s present instability, on May 21 protesters stormed the presidential palace in the capital city Bamako and beat the country’s interim civilian President, Dioncounda Traoré, into unconsciousness. As Traoré flew to France for treatment, war continued in northern Mali, where ethnic separatists, armed Islamists and reactionary militias are vying to control a vast Saharan territory. Mali’s interlinked crises—political turmoil in the south, conflict in the north—are alarming West African governments, raising fears that al-Qaeda affiliates will benefit from the chaos, and prompting talk of American support for an armed intervention by regional powers.
Few anticipated this level of turmoil as Mali headed into 2012. Indeed the country boasted a democratic record relatively rare in sub-Saharan Africa: the presidential elections set for April would have marked the second consecutive peaceful transfer of power from one civilian president to another. Then-President Amadou Toumani Touré, serving his second and final term, had refrained from anointing a successor and hoped to earn a legacy as a great African statesman.
All that changed when rebellion broke out in northern Mali on January 17. The rebellion, initially dominated by the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (“The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad”, or MNLA), tapped into long-term grievances and recent events. The MNLA’s Tuareg leaders decry what they see as decades of domination and under-development by successive regimes headquartered in southern Mali, from the French colonial administration up to Touré’s government. The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic, pastoralist set of communities linked by shared languages and cultures, have launched three previous rebellions in Mali and in neighboring Niger since independence in 1960. The “Azawad” in the MNLA’s name refers to northern Mali, specifically the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
The last Tuareg rebellion ended in 2009, partly due to the mediation of the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Given Touré’s failure to address core Tuareg grievances, rebellion would probably have broken out again, but the Libyan civil war in 2011 surely hastened its reappearance: During his final months of life, Qaddafi recruited fighters among his Tuareg connections living inside Libya and in nearby countries like Mali. After his death, Tuareg fighters and Libyan arms flowed back into Mali, providing part of the human and military resources for the rebellion.
After the rebellion began, the MNLA handed the Malian army a series of humiliating defeats. Setbacks in the north prompted protests in the south. Military families marched on the capital, complaining that soldiers lacked equipment. The administration made overtures to the rebels, but nothing came of them. On March 21–22, junior officers in the capital overthrew Touré. The new regime, the soldiers claimed, would preserve national unity and “restore democracy” (the junta’s official name is La Comité National pour le Redressement de la Démocratie et la Restauration de l’État, or “The Committee for the Re-establishment of Democratic and the Restoration of the State”). Many commentators noted the irony of the coup leaders’ disruption of a scheduled election to achieve this goal. But the coup revealed a deep sense of crisis and uncertainty surrounding the capacity of Mali’s civilian leaders to put down the northern rebellion.
The junta, rather than defeating the rebels, struggled to consolidate political control in the south. Foreign governments condemned the coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a bloc whose political role has grown since the 1990s, imposed sanctions on Mali when the junta initially refused to leave power. A transitional civilian regime took over at ECOWAS’ urging but stumbled through its forty-day term without holding elections as promised. Now interim President Traoré is set to remain in power for another year, but coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has retained strong political influence.
Confusion in the south gave rebels in the north a free hand. In the weeks after the coup, the MNLA seized the towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, declaring official independence for the Azawad on April 6. Yet the MNLA, too, failed to consolidate power. The rebellion fragmented. An Arab self-defense militia appeared, calling itself Le Front national de libération de l’Azawad (“National Front of Liberation of the Azawad”) and offering a reminder that northern Mali is home not just to Tuareg, but also to Arabs, Fulani, Songhai, and others…
Brother Number Two Who Became Brother Number One: Meet the man who might be Egypt’s president, 9/11-denier, Mohamed Morsi.
June 10, 2012
Egypt is on the cusp of its first real experiment in Islamist governance. If the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi comes out on top in the upcoming presidential runoff election, scheduled for June 16 and 17, the venerable Islamist movement will have won control of both Egypt’s presidency and its parliament, and it will have a very real chance to implement its agenda of market-driven economic recovery, gradual Islamization, and the reassertion of Egypt’s regional role.
Over the course of Egypt’s troubled transition, the Brotherhood has become increasingly, and uncharacteristically, assertive in its political approach. Renouncing promises not to seek the presidency and entering into an overt confrontation with the ruling military council, the Brotherhood’s bid to “save the revolution” has been interpreted by others as an all-out power grab. Egypt’s liberals, as well as the United States, now worry about the implications of unchecked Brotherhood rule and what that might mean for their interests.
Things couldn’t have been more different two years ago. Under the repression of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the Brotherhood’s unofficial motto was “participation, not domination.” The group was renowned for its caution and patient (some would say too patient) approach to politics. When I sat down with Morsi in May 2010 — just months before the revolution and well before he could have ever imagined being Mubarak’s successor — he echoed the leadership’s almost stubborn belief in glacial but steady change. He even objected to a fairly anodyne description of the movement’s political activities: “The word ‘opposition’ has the connotation of seeking power,” Morsi told me then. “But, at this moment, we are not seeking power because [that] requires preparation, and society is not prepared.” The Muslim Brotherhood, being a religious movement more than a political party, had the benefit of a long horizon.
Morsi wasn’t well known back then. He was an important player in the Brotherhood, but did not seem to have a particularly distinctive set of views. He was a loyalist, an enforcer, and an operator. And he was arguably good at those things. But being, or becoming, a leader is a different matter. Despite heading the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc and later leading the group’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Morsi struggled to command respect across ideological lines. He rarely spoke like someone who liked making concessions or doing the hard work necessary for building consensus.
Like many Brotherhood leaders, he nurtured a degree of resentment toward Egypt’s liberals. They were tiny and irrelevant, the thinking went, so why were they always asking for so much? In May 2010, the opposition seemed to be coming alive, but in a uniquely Egyptian way. At one protest in Tahrir Square, each group — Islamists, liberals, and leftists — huddled in its own part of the square. I asked Morsi why there wasn’t greater cooperation between Islamists and liberals. “That depends on the other side,” he said, echoing what the liberals were saying about the Brotherhood.
This thinly veiled disdain could be papered over when liberals, leftists, and Brotherhood members were facing a dictator they all hated. And, during the revolution, Brotherhood members, Salafists, liberals, and ordinary Egyptians joined hands and put the old divisions aside — if only for a moment. When Mubarak fell, though, there was little left to unite them.
The international community, particularly the United States, shares the liberals’ fear of Islamist domination, but for a very different set of reasons. Historically, the Brotherhood has been one of the more consistent purveyors of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment. While some Brotherhood leaders, particularly lead strategist Khairat El Shater, are less strident in their condemnations and less willfully creative with their conspiracy theories in private, Morsi is not. In a conversation with me, he volunteered his views on the 9/11 terrorist attacks without any prompting. “When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter,” he said, shifting to English, “then you are insulting us. How did the plane cut through the steel like this? Something must have happened from the inside. It’s impossible.”
According to various polls, such views are held by most Egyptians, including leftists and liberals, but that doesn’t make them any less troubling. It is perhaps ironic, then, that out of the Brotherhood’s top officials, Morsi has spent the most time in the United States. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California and, interestingly, the father of two U.S. citizens — a reminder that familiarity can sometimes breed contempt. At a recent news conference, Morsi discussed his time living abroad, painting a picture of a society in moral decay, featuring crumbling families, young mothers in hospitals who have to “write in the name of the father,” and couples living together out of wedlock. We don’t have these problems in Egypt, he said, his voice rising with a mixture of pride and resentment.
I met Morsi again, a year later in May 2011, at the Brotherhood’s new, plush headquarters in Muqattam, nestled on a small mountain on Cairo’s outskirts. The Brotherhood leader seemed surprisingly calm. He punctuated his Arabic with English expressions; he made jokes (they weren’t necessarily funny), name-checked the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, and even did an impromptu impression of a former U.S. president. In the early days, in the afterglow of the 18-day uprising, the group’s leaders were still careful to say the right things. He was quick to point out that 2,500 of the FJP’s 9,000 founding members were not from the Brotherhood, and included Christians.
He was also dismissive of ultraconservative Salafi movements. They weren’t politically mature yet, he said. The implication was obvious: The Brotherhood, unlike the Salafists, had spent decades first learning and then playing — rather skillfully at times — the game of politics. They learned how and when to compromise and how to justify it to their conservative base. Now, nearly 28 years after first entering parliament in 1984, the group was taking pains to present itself as the moderate, respectable face of political Islam.
But the Brotherhood soon realized that it had stumbled upon one of those rare moments where a country’s politics are truly open and undefined. So they decided to seize it, alienating many of their erstwhile liberal allies in the process. This approach was a good fit with the Brotherhood’s distinctly majoritarian approach to democracy: They had won a decisive popular mandate in the parliamentary elections, with 47 percent of the vote, so why shouldn’t they rule?…