Art Market

The Rise and Fall of Mary Boone

Nate Freeman
Feb 14, 2019 10:44PM

Portrait of Mary Boone at Sotheby’s in New York City, 2010. Photo Ryan McCune/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.


On Thursday afternoon, the iconic New York gallery owner Mary Boone was sentenced to 30 months in prison. She had pleaded guilty in September to charges that she falsified her expenses to give the impression that the gallery was losing money. Boone admitted to transferring $9.5 million from one bank to another and claiming it was a deductible business expense; other “business” expenses included almost $800,000 for an apartment renovation and a $19,000 shopping spree at Hermès and Louis Vuitton.

The sentencing put to end months of speculation on whether the judge would incarcerate Boone; the prosecution had recommended the dealer serve 30 to 37 months in prison, while the dealer and her attorneys begged the judge to avoid incarceration. The sentencing followed an outpouring of support from powerful art-world figures: collectors Peter Brant, Beth Rudin DeWoody, and Thea Westreich Wagner, along with artists Julian Schnabel, Laurie Simmons, and Ai Weiwei, defended Boone’s character and spoke to her tenacity during the trial.

In statements in court on Thursday, Boone’s attorney, Robert S. Fink, asked Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein for leniency in his sentencing. Fink argued Boone’s crimes were due to a history of anxiety, depression, and addiction brought on by childhood trauma, and claimed that she had since found religion and clean living. He suggested that any prison time could have a destabilizing effect on her life, preventing her from attending the regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous meetings upon which he said her stability partly depends. Boone also addressed Judge Hellerstein at the hearing.

“I stand before you saddened, humbled, and heartbroken,” she said. “I beg your honor to let me go back to work…and I beg your honor to give me a second chance.”

“The gallery simply will not survive without her.”

Judge Hellerstein said he was confident that Boone had learned her lesson and would not commit tax fraud again. But he also said that to let her go without a prison sentence could embolden others to commit similar crimes.

“You can’t have people, after they’re caught, avoiding punishment by doing good works,” he said. “When a person takes advantage of the things he or she can do to avoid paying taxes in a fraudulent way, there must be consequences.”

The judge ordered Boone to surrender no later than 2 p.m. on May 15th. Following her 30-month sentence—likely to be served in the women’s camp at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut—Boone will be under supervision for another year, during which time she will have to perform 180 hours of community service. Judge Hellerstein specified that she is to perform services related to the arts and art education. Boone’s attorney said she has no plans to appeal.

The sentencing closed the latest chapter in what’s been one of the art world’s most talked-about trials in years—a financial scandal that took down one of the most iconic and famous art dealers of New York’s last few decades, and which throws into question the future of a gallery that once epitomized the go-go market boom of 1980s SoHo. Prior to the sentencing, Boone’s attorney made a bleak assessment of the situation.

“The gallery simply will not survive without her,” Fink said.

The queen of SoHo

Portrait of Mary Boone in her Soho gallery, New York, 1992. Photo by Michel Delsol/Getty Images.

Mary Boone Gallery opened in 1977 and quickly left its mark on the art world. Boone was instrumental in creating the idea that an art dealer and her gallery could have as much of a personality, brand, and identity as the artists she represents. Magazine reporters began to write not only about the hottest artists of a given moment, but also about the dealers who had, until then, largely operated in the background.

In a 1987 story about Barbara Kruger’s first show at Mary Boone Gallery, the New York Times wrote that “Ms. Boone has been something of a celebrity herself, a reputation she gained by boldly promoting and selling work by a group of artists who eventually became big names in the art world of the 80’s.” As fellow dealer Paula Cooper put it in a recent roundtable conversation published by T Magazine, “[Boone] was in every magazine, painting her toenails. P.R. really began then.” In 1982, at age 30, she appeared on the cover of New York magazine beside a headline that screamed “The New Queen of the Art Scene.”

Now, it’s unclear if Boone has a future in the art scene at all.

“Jean-Michel puts his arm around me and says, ‘Don’t worry, Mary, I’m going to make you much more rich and famous than Julian ever would.’”

Boone came to New York in 1970 after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. She met the artist Lynda Benglis at Hunter College, where she studied art history, and Benglis found Boone a job at Bykert, a gallery on East 81st Street run by Benglis’s boyfriend at the time, the writer and performer Klaus Kertess. The gallery was home to major artists such as Brice Marden, Richard Tuttle, and Dorothea Rockburne, and though Boone was just 19 years old, Kertess had her take God-like collectors like Victor Ganz to studio visits with the gallery’s artists (besides Kertess, Boone was the only other employee).

Kertess’s gallery fell on hard times, and in October 1975, Boone was let go. She dealt privately for a few years before convincing seven backers to fund her own gallery space. Boone traded the Upper East Side for the scruffier SoHo, and in April 1977, she opened a space on the ground floor of 420 West Broadway—right below Leo Castelli, who was, at the time, the most influential contemporary art dealer in America.

Among the first artists she signed was Julian Schnabel, a young, unknown artist—he was working as a line cook at a restaurant—but one who was already extremely confident in himself. After Boone saw his work for the first time, Schnabel called her on the phone.

“The subtext of the conversation was, I’d better show him because he’s the next best thing to Rembrandt and if I didn’t, he was going to show with Holly Solomon,” she told New York magazine decades later, referring to another SoHo dealer. “Which was probably the thing that drove me the most. I said fine. What do you say at a time like that?”

Schnabel had his first solo show in February 1979, with works on offer for $3,000 to $3,500, or about $11,000 to $13,000 today. It was the first time that Castelli, who was right upstairs from Boone, took notice of the young dealer.

“This was the coup de foudre!” Castelli told Anthony Haden-Guest in his book True Colors, a definitive take on the contemporary art market’s explosion in the 1970s and ’80s. “Like when I went to see Jasper [Johns] in ’57 or [Frank] Stella in ’59. I went in and I saw the clay paintings. And I was just bowled over.”

The boom years

Castelli began co-representing Schnabel with Boone, splitting proceeds 50/50. By 1981, Schnabel’s prices had gone up to $40,000 for work on the primary market, and by 1983, works were selling for $93,500 at auction. Boone was so flush with success that she opened another, larger space across the street at 417 West Broadway, which the since-defunct publication Art Economist called “The House that Schnabel Built.”

Schnabel was the beginning, but it was Boone’s whole roster of artists that cemented her rep as the defining art-dealing personality of the 1980s. By the dawn of the decade, she was already representing the artists that would be the backbone of her program for years—David Salle, Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl, Francesco Clemente, Brice Marden—and also helped nurture the careers of the two market juggernauts to come out of that era, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Mary Boone and Laurie Anderson. Photo by Merry Alpern/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.


Boone was the first art-world figure to give Koons entrée to the art world; they met when he was just 24 and working at the Museum of Modern Art selling memberships, while developing his practice of turning everyday objects into readymades. She arranged sales to English advertising executive Charles Saatchi and the influential collecting duo Mera and Don Rubell, who bought a vacuum installation out of a show he staged at an apartment on West 16th Street. Boone installed one of the rug shampooer works in her office, but a scheduled two-person show with Matt Mullican was delayed when the Schnabel plate-painting show had to be extended due to the hysteria surrounding it. Koons left and eventually joined Sonnabend Gallery, a West Broadway rival.

As for Basquiat, by the time he joined Boone’s stable in 1982, he had already become a market darling while showing with Annina Nosei. Moving to the hottest gallery in SoHo primed the painter to become a national icon—and primed Mary Boone to make lots and lots of money. The timing was fortuitous: Basquiat’s first show at Mary Boone Gallery opened in May 1984, just a month after Schnabel shocked West Broadway by jumping ship to Pace.

Schnabel was the beginning, but it was Boone’s whole roster of artists that cemented her rep as the defining art-dealing personality of the 1980s.

Boone, distraught, bet all her chips on Basquiat—a phenom, for sure, but an unreliable one with an increasingly debilitating heroin addiction.

“I remember sitting in my office crying, and Jean-Michel comes into the gallery, which he loved to do,” Boone said to Fischl in a conversation published in Interview magazine in 2014. “So Jean-Michel puts his arm around me and says, ‘Don’t worry, Mary, I’m going to make you much more rich and famous than Julian ever would.’ Those were his exact words.”

Things turned around quickly. By February 1985, Basquiat was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. In the New York magazine cover story on Boone that crowned her queen of SoHo, a steady stream of good champagne flows through the narrative, and at one point, at a cocktail lounge, the interviewer asked Boone which of her 100 to 200 pairs of shoes she had chosen for their meeting.

“Cobra,” Boone responded.

But after a late 1985 show was poorly received, Basquiat left the gallery in 1986; he was dead by 1988. In 1989, Black Friday hit, the stock market tanked, and the art market went down with it. “It switched off like a light,” the dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes says in True Colors.

Lean times

Boone was hit hard. Salle left the gallery for Gagosian in October 1990. And in a New York Times interview with Deborah Solomon in 1993, Fischl said of his recent show at Mary Boone Gallery: “This is the first time since ’82 that I’ve had a show that didn’t sell out before it opened. It’s scary. It’s scary when you see your market value decline.”

Rumors started to spread that Boone was bankrupt. An anonymous ill-wisher started sending out a fake note to other dealers and art gadabouts, on real Mary Boone Gallery stationery, that read “BASEMENT SALE TO 70% OFF.”

Portrait of Mary Boone in gallery on 420 West Broadway, New York, 1981. Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images.

But she was far from broke. Boone had $5 million in inventory to sell, and $2 million in the bank. In 1996, she moved to a space on Fifth Avenue, and in 2000, she joined the westward movement of the New York art world and opened a grand space in Chelsea on West 24th Street. In 2008, on the eve of another financial collapse, Boone started working with the artist Ai Weiwei.

It wasn’t long after that the money trouble really came. Starting in 2009, Boone began to use gallery funds to pay for personal expenses, according to court documents and confirmed in her guilty plea, including $793,003 that went to remodeling her Manhattan apartment. Among $300,000 in personal charges made on her corporate credit card, $14,000 went to Hermès, $5,000 to Louis Vuitton, and $24,380 to the salon, and nearly $15,000 was spent on jewelry. On tax forms, she labelled the renovation as a “commission,” lying about the nature of the costs.

She also lied about the profitability of the gallery, inflating expenses in order to pay fewer taxes, continuing the scheme until 2011.

$14,000 went to Hermès, $5,000 to Louis Vuitton, and $24,380 to the salon, and nearly $15,000 was spent on jewelry.

Boone’s lawyers fought to get her off with probation, community service, and home confinement by characterizing her criminal acts as coping mechanisms sparked by the childhood trauma of growing up without a father and her sister’s suicide, and also related to her resulting addictions to alcohol and cocaine. Boone has battled depression, and at one point, she tried to commit suicide. Her lawyers noted that she has been clean and sober for over a decade, and added that she has become a committed churchgoer, attending mass on Fridays with her son, Max, whose father is Boone’s ex-husband, the dealer Michael Werner. Immediately after her sentencing on Thursday, Boone turned to Max, who had been seated in the front row of the crowded courtroom, and embraced him.

Whether or not the gallery can survive without Boone remains to be seen. Ron Warren, a loyal partner in the gallery who has been with Boone since 1984, is still around to carry on the mantle (he did not respond to a request for comment for this article). And, at least via their vocal support of Boone during her trial, a number of the dealer’s artists and collectors remain behind her.

But regardless of Mary Boone Gallery’s physical presence in Chelsea and on Fifth Avenue, the art scene will at least be temporarily without the dealer who was once its queen.

Benjamin Sutton contributed reporting.

Nate Freeman

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that, in 1979, Julian Schnabel’s paintings were selling for $3,000 to $3,500, which was the equivalent of $100,000 to $120,000 today. $3,000 to $3,500 is in fact the equivalent of $11,000 to $13,000 today. The text has been updated to reflect this change.

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