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Transcript: Love and Lust—Collector Herbert Lust on Robert Indiana

Guest Herbert Lust with host Charlotte Burns. Photo credit: Matt Noble

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Podcast Transcripts

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host Charlotte Burns, and joining me today is the collector Herbert Lust, a major collector who began his career in academia, writing avant-garde novels at the University of Chicago and teaching comparative literature. He was the youngest person to receive an M.A. in Philosophy and Maths at the age of 21, and he became an investment banker by accident after a meeting at a party. He became a major collector—also by accident—after fateful meetings with Giacometti in Paris and Robert Indiana in New York, amongst other artists.

Herbert, much of your life seems to have come about by accident.

Herbert Lust: No, it’s true. I do think accident is an enormous part of life. When I went to a Fulbright scholarship to Paris for two years, I met Giacometti.

Charlotte Burns: And tell me how that happened.

Herbert Lust: Completely by accident. At the University of Chicago, one of the directors of my master’s thesis was a man named Jean Wahl, who was a visiting professor from the Sorbonne. I became good friends with him, and when I went to Paris, he had what they call a “salon” or meetings every Tuesday night where people would come. A lot of wealthy people, some famous artists. At one of these parties, this guy came in there—he was about seven or eight years older, and his name was John Russell—who didn’t know anything about art. He was in literature like I was. Later on, he became the most famous art critic in the English-speaking world.

I met Giacometti at this party that John Russell gave, his mistress gave—who was one of the most famous women of Bloomsbury, Joan Rainier. She knew Giacometti. They had this party, and they invited me because she had read the manuscript of this avant-garde novel that I’d written.

So, I’m sitting next to Giacometti, and I pretend I’m a refugee from Romania, persecuted by the Communists, this cock and bull story just to amuse myself. Why I did that, I have no idea.

Charlotte Burns: Were you in the habit of telling outrageous fictions?

Herbert Lust: No, I just felt I was way over my head. I was a poor little farm boy from Indiana with all these famous people around me. I don’t know why I did it.

Anyway I went to his studio, and I really didn’t like it. It just really seemed ugly to me. Remember, I’m 22, at the most 23, at this point and completely involved in literature. But, I was reading Sartre and I … and all these people, and they all said that Giacometti was the great man to follow Picasso. So, I knew I was wrong to think it was ugly. I got to know it, and little by little, I realized it was very beautiful. Then, I would buy little things here and there. They cost nothing then because he was virtually unknown outside of Paris.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Herbert Lust: But in Paris, he was as famous as Picasso. Picasso would complain about him. We became friends, and I’ve written about that in that book Friendship & Love about how I met Alberto and subsequently my friendship with him over maybe 16 years.

Charlotte Burns: What impact did it have on your life, that friendship?

Herbert Lust: Not a lot. It had some. He was an artist, but I was involved with my own life. I had two marriages, two divorces, back to back almost. He was just a friend. I admired him a great deal, of course, and I collected little things when I could. It was more after he died that he came to have a huge impact on my life.

Charlotte Burns: In what way?

Herbert Lust: Realizing what a really great person he was. This man was honest. He told the truth. He never lied. He was good to his friends. But most people just can’t help but cheating, lying. He just wasn’t that way. He wasn’t, for example, worried about Picasso. Everybody in Paris was kissing Picasso’s ass, not Alberto. I remember I was several times in the studio when Picasso came by with his chauffer, we would come in, and Giacometti was working. He never paid attention to him: “Hi Pablo.” He hated all of Picasso’s work, which is normal because most good artists hate everything except what they do.

Charlotte Burns: Right, that makes sense.

Herbert Lust: There’s a famous saying of Paul Valéry which explains a lot: “Taste is made from a thousand disgusts.” They have a few people who they revere—like everybody revered late Cézanne of course. One of the greatest artists of all time to my mind is Miró. [Giacometti] traded a painting of his for a painting of Miró. And I saw it there one day, and it was turned to the wall. I said: “Why have you hidden it?” He said: “I just can’t stand to look at it.”

It was a really great painting, but he had rejected Surrealism. He had this new vision and he hated almost everything. He especially hated Cubism, but he didn’t like Surrealism—which he was one of the fathers of—very much either. Because there are two totally different Giacomettis: there’s the Surrealist, and then there’s what we know as Giacometti. But people forget that as a Surrealist, if he only did that, he would be considered one of the ten great artists.

But I was involved in my own life. I was like everybody: the knife was to my throat; I was running scared.

Charlotte Burns: What were you afraid of?

Herbert Lust: Everything. Name it. I’m afraid of you, for example. I’m afraid of everything. So, I came back to America and, by accident, I met this woman at a party. Turned out that she was a daughter of my God. And my God—his name was Robert Hutchins—he was president of the University of Chicago: he invented the great books course; he was the most famous educator in the world; he had been dean of Yale Law School; and he was youngest president of a major university ever. And his philosophy has saved my life.

Charlotte Burns: What was the philosophy?

Herbert Lust: Well, that the great books are everything and business is bullshit, politics is bullshit. The only important things are the great books which—Aristotle, Plato, Stendhal, Connell, that kind of stuff. But I was going to go to Yale Law School, like my father did. And then these ideas of Hutchins’, I decided I wouldn’t go to Yale. My family was outraged, they were so mad. My father died when I was nine, so I was an orphan, but I was going to save the family’s fortune—we had fallen into poverty—and I didn’t. I said: “No, I want to go to the University of Chicago.” So, this man saved my life.

He molded me, and he was my God. So guess what, talking about accident: I’m what, I’m 24, 25 years old. I’m sitting next to this very attractive woman. It was his daughter. Think about that. And she was really an aristocrat. So I was the first Jew to marry into Chicago high society.

It was a scandal, at that time. It’s hard to imagine today, but in the early 1950s, gays were hated—it was the equivalent to being a leper to be a gay. People didn’t live together. Women remained virgins until they were 85 years old. It was an awful, puritanical kind of life. And it was a scandal, and then we got married, we had a child and she left me right away for a friend.

That destroyed me. That was 1957. But as a result of being in that world, I was invited to a party and I meet this woman who is taking her master’s degree in Patronius in Latin at the University of Chicago. She is very pretty, and I didn’t know at the time that she was the wealthiest young woman in America, if you can believe this. I can’t even believe it as I’m talking about it.

And I was extremely wild, and very eccentric and had many girlfriends at that point. And I just treated her like dirt. And as it turned out, she had a test of men she would be with because everybody wanted to marry her. And she would ask them to marry her, and everyone said yes right away. She asked me: “Well, Herbert, I really love you. Will you marry me?” I said: “No, that’s the last thing I want.” I already had a catastrophe. And she went berserk.

One day she said: “Well, why won’t you marry me?” I said: “Why would I? I’m poor, you’re rich, it’ll never work and I’m not sure I like you that much.” I can’t even believe this as I’m saying it. And so, she said: “Well, what would it take for you to marry me?” So I just came out of my head like this crazy story I told at this party of John Russell. I said: “Make me rich. Give me $2 million.” She said: “Okay.” And that’s true.

Charlotte Burns: So, you had a price?

Herbert Lust: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: So, you married?

Herbert Lust: Yes, we married. It was on the front pages of the paper. It said: “Heiress marries stockbroker.”

I’d forgotten about a lot of it. And predictably, the same story happened: as soon as the child was born, she left me for one of my closest friends. And it was a divorce. So, in three years, I had two children, two divorces and Giacometti—this is where his influence started on me. He would say: “You know, you were really a remarkable young man at one time. Now you’re nothing but a stupid prostitute.” He went on and on and on. He says: “I never met such a fool as you are.” He would just die laughing, and I would come to him in utter misery and pain, and not one ounce of sympathy.

He said: “You know, your mistake is you married out of your class.” So, guess what? Some years later, I met this woman whose father was a Jewish attorney like my father was a Jewish attorney. And we got along very well and got married. The marriage lasted 52 years until she died four years ago.

As I’m talking, I’m looking at myself, and I’m dying of laughter. I just can’t believe all of these things really did happen, you know?

Charlotte Burns: Yes. And tell me about your wife. She had a gallery?

Herbert Lust: Yes and no. She had her own publicity firm when I met her. And then I forced her to retire to marry me because I was very macho—my wife wouldn’t work, she was making three or four times more than I was. But after seven years, she said: “I’m bored. Give me a gallery or a divorce,” because my collection had become very famous at that point, and I had written my book on Giacometti, which was used in every museum for over 40 years. It was the first thing written on the drawings and the graphics, and was the catalogue raisonné.

Charlotte Burns: How long did that take you research it?

Herbert Lust: Oh God, three or four years. It was very big work. But then that book was the best seller. She said: “Your collection is famous. I can capitalize all this. We’re one of the most famous collectors in Chicago. Our marriage is falling to pieces, and we have to do something.”

So I said: “Fine.” So I financed the gallery. The Virginia Lust Gallery. So, I wrote this to help her, and it did help sell millions of art.

Charlotte Burns: So, let’s talk about this. This is the book that you wrote called: A Dozen Principles for Art Investment: How $60,000 Became a Famous Million-Dollar Collection. So, why did you write this book on art investing? What year was it? Was it—?

Herbert Lust: ’69.

Charlotte Burns: ’69?

Herbert Lust: It was to help my wife in the gallery. By that time Giacomettis were worth quite a bit, and people wanted to know how I did it. So, very primitive, very crude book. It’s become the bible of a lot of investors because the main principle has been really—in collecting—if you really want to have it as investment, you’re better off putting all your eggs in one basket. In other words, one quality object as an investment is worth 12 good objects. That one quality object will go up in price much faster than the other 12 combined.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Herbert Lust: Because it’s a little bit like postage stamp collecting. It’s scarcity. That’s what really holds up: the masterpieces. I do say all the 12 principles can be reduced to one: buy the best quality object. I did follow it in my own collection. I bought a lot of small things, but 90% of my available money went into the highest quality.

Charlotte Burns: And you were talking a little bit before we began this podcast about the idea of money being printed and what that might mean for art and its value. Do you want to talk me through that?

Herbert Lust: I think I was the first to really realize that they were printing a lot of money. The game was the government would issue 30-year bonds, and you would give them money, which was really good, at these bonds, 30 years. But the inflation was going up at 3% a year. So, in purchasing power, by the time you paid off these bonds they were worthless. They had zero purchasing power compared to 30 years before, so the government would finance all its deficits through issuing these bonds, which means printing money. There was nothing behind these bonds except the faith of the government that they could issue more bonds.

That’s the way all the governments work. They counted on inflation to bail them out. So, they would keep issuing bonds for 30 years, and then the purchasing power was zero. For example, at one time you could buy a very good car for $1,000. Today it’s $30,000. It’s the inflation. Everybody knew that. All the economists knew that, of course, but what they didn’t realize is how to beat the game, and everyone did it in the traditional way and was a very good way: real estate. But no one ever thought of collectibles, beating it through collectibles. I was the first as far as I know, and I said: “They’re printing money so much faster than art that art has to go up much more than stocks.” And it’s true. It did go up 100 times more.

Stocks have gone up a lot, of course, but nowhere compared to a Giacometti. At the time of this book, a top Giacometti, really important: $100,000. $100m today. There’s no stock that can say that.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Herbert Lust: That $100,000 in, what was it? ’69, ’70. He had already been dead for four years. It was no secret he was a great artist. Even Picasso said: “He’s the great artist that followed me.” He’d had museum retrospectives at the Louvre, at the Museum of Modern Art. It didn’t take a lot of brains to know that he was recognized. But for some reason, people just bought art like decoration: it was some kind of a high-class ornament for the house. But that it was really an investment no one thought about. I was a collector. Every time I went back to buy something it was 10% more, and I began putting two and two together and getting four. The book is awfully, awfully primitive, but the insight is there.

Charlotte Burns: And how was it received at the time?

Herbert Lust: Laughed at.

Charlotte Burns: By the finance community or the art community?

Herbert Lust: Everybody. Except there were a few collectors, and one in particular was deeply moved by the whole thing: a man named Milton Ratner, who’s been dead 40 years. Owned one of the biggest trucking companies in the world. He read the book and fell in love with it and spent millions with my wife. Millions.

Charlotte Burns: Who was your wife showing?

Herbert Lust: Mainly Europeans. We didn’t know American art that well. I was very involved with literature, and I really didn’t realize there was a great movement going on in the ’50s and ’60s because I had a prejudice from literature that American art was alright, but it was really European art.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. So how did you make that shift? Because you obviously are a huge patron of Robert Indiana.

Herbert Lust: Again, by accident. I went to this party—

Charlotte Burns: A lot happened in your life at parties.

Herbert Lust: Yes, a lot did. It was a DuPont woman in early 1973. We relocated from Chicago to Greenwich. She moved here for the art. I moved here for the finance. But we didn’t know that much. We knew the names, of course. We knew that Warhol was famous, and Indiana was famous, but so what? We’re famous too, so big deal.

Anyway, Mrs. DuPont opens the door and said: “There’s a fellow Hoosier here who’s dying to meet you to talk about Indiana.” This is a very strange thing. People from Indiana don’t come to New York. They love Indiana. They stay there. In all my years here—I’m here over 45 years—I’ve only met two people from Indiana. One is a great dealer—Peter MacGill who’s had Pace Photographs. And then Bob.

Anyway, Mrs. DuPont leads me to this room, and there’s this drop dead gorgeous man. So beautiful. He had no idea what a beauty he was.

So, I say that business and friendship are two totally different things. If you try to be honest in business, you’re stupid. That’s not the game. You might as well play basketball with a football. In business, it’s a totally different thing than friendship. Friendship is all about honesty or my estimation is it’s nothing. In friendship, you lay all your cards on your table. It’s trust, it’s honesty: you don’t lie to a friend. You don’t pretend to a friend. Whereas the opposite in business, all you do is lie because what’s the point is you make other people feel good, and all people want to do is hear how wonderful they are. So, you lie all the time in the corporate world. It’s a totally different game.

So, anyway we soon found out we had nothing in common. He was brought up in a totally different part of the state. His parents were dirt poor. Before he went to high school, every year they moved one or two times. He never had any friends. Their whole life took place in a car. They had this Model T Ford, which was the first automobile in a way that was mass produced. And, they would go around and the roadside bars, and that’s where you knew about slot machines and Jukes and all that.

It was a foreign world to me because I was brought up in a family home. My father, he owned homes in Chicago and in this little farming town. He was so wealthy. He had farms: the famous dog farm where they show dogs all over, a big poultry farm—which he lost all in the crash. But, in the meantime, I hardly knew my parents. I got up in the morning, I left, I came back at six o’clock. I was out with my buddies all day. I was almost never in a car.

And I certainly came out of that with an Alexander the Great complex.

Charlotte Burns: What do you mean by that?

Herbert Lust: Thinking that you could never be defeated. It may seem like a defeat, but it would be a victory. I came out of my childhood with this—although my father died when I was nine in an automobile accident, I had terrible misfortunes later on—but I came out of childhood with this overwhelming self-confidence. But [Robert Indiana] didn’t.

You know, people don’t realize, he was famous before Warhol. His was the first one to go into the Museum of Modern Art two years before Lichtenstein and Warhol. And for a while, he was every bit as famous as Warhol because he was absolutely the first pop artist. He was just too honest.

He insulted me: “You’re stupid.” He was almost like Giacometti. “How could you be so stupid? How could you not have an American.” I said: “Well, I do have an American. A friend. His name is Calder.”

Charlotte Burns: He meant art in your collection?

Herbert Lust: Yes. “Why do you only have Europeans?” I said: “Well, I do have one. He’s really great. He’s Calder.” “Calder’s nothing. He’s just a follower of Miró in Surrealism. He’s not really an American.” Everything with Bob is a fucking argument. But, because I was honest with him, he was honest with me. I couldn’t believe it.

And after four hours, we didn’t talk to one person. We sat in this little alcove. People brought in hors d’oeuvres, and we just talked our hearts out to each other about this and that. Most of the time he was insulting me. The fact that I had no prejudice at all, and he liked the way I talked. We walked out on the street. I remember walking out, he said: “Herbert, come up and have dinner with me next week.” I couldn’t believe it, after all these insults. So, I did.

Charlotte Burns: Did you know his work?

Herbert Lust: No. I knew it was in art magazines a little bit, but it meant nothing to me, really.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Herbert Lust: I began seeing him every weekend. I’m a quick scholar, and I realized he was really important. I didn’t like Alberto’s work at first, and I didn’t like Bob’s work at first. So, I began seeing it is different, and so I bought a picture from him. I said: “I’ll buy—this is what you’re known for: Love.” So I bought it: Love, 24 inches square.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think that his career is where it should be? Do you think he has received the recognition he should have done?

Herbert Lust: Not vaguely. His prices now are one tenth of Warhol, which means that—and I write a chapter about it in my book—why I think that with time, he’s going to surpass Warhol because a lot of Warhol is the subject matter. It’s the Marilyn. But, with time, people will forget Marilyn. There were people in history in Shakespeare’s time, in Sheridan’s time, in Queen Victoria, people every bit as famous as Marilyn—no one would want to buy their portrait today. I met a very gifted millennial who works for my girlfriend, and he’s 25 years old. He never saw a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Never saw one movie by Marilyn Monroe. He’s 25 years old. Think about it.

So, I make this point in the book that with time it’s going to fade, and he’s going to get more important. People realize he was the first pop artist. And with Warhol, two great icons came out of pop art: Warhol’s Marilyn and Bob’s Love. Those are the two icons that really came out of pop art.

His words are command words: hug; eat; die; the most famous being “love.” Those words are not going to die. People are still going to respond to the hug, they’re still going to respond to the love, and everybody knows what it means to eat and to die. Those words are not going to change. But Marilyn is going to go into obscurity. I love Warhol, I just don’t think he’s ten times better artist than Indiana.

Another thing that people forget about Indiana: he’s a great sculpture. He will easily go in one of the top ten sculptures. He did so many great monumental sculptures, especially The Cardinal Numbers, but also the Love sculptures are doing very well at auction. A major one would bring $2m. But The Numbers are not known, and they’re gorgeous.

Robert Pincus-Witten—who’s one of the top ten art critics of the world—he ends his essay on Indiana: “Time is on Indiana’s side.” And I quote that. It’s really true. It is on his side because Warhol is not—whether or not he’s a better artist or not, that I don’t know, but one thing I do know: he’s not ten times better. And the prices are ten times today.

Charlotte Burns: I want to ask you a question about what advice you would give to collectors today.

Herbert Lust: It’s in that book. I said: “Put all your eggs in one basket.” Study, study, study. Learn the markets. Go to the galleries. Learn the prices. And whatever artists or artists you love, buy the top quality. If you’re really looking for investment, buy the trophy piece, you know?

Charlotte Burns: And I think we’ll finish by telling people that they can see works from the Herbert Lust Robert Indiana Collection at the S|2 Gallery at Sotheby’s.

Herbert Lust: Wonderful.

Charlotte Burns: In New York. Thank you so much for being our guest. This has been a real pleasure.

Herbert Lust: It’s been a great honor and pleasure for me.