Perry Rubenstein, a gallerist known for his uncanny ability to predict the art world’s next hot locus, as well as for his imprisonment on grand theft charges, died July 21 at his home in Los Angeles at the age of sixty-eight. His former wife, Sara Fitzmaurice, confirmed his death, which she cited as owing to natural causes. Rubinstein was one of the first gallerists to open shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, now well-known as an arts district, and turned his sights on Los Angeles before most of his peers did. Though LA ultimately became an arts hub drawing blue-chip galleries, major fairs, and the megawealthy buyers attendant to both, Rubenstein failed to succeed there with his own gallery, and instead wound up in prison after being sued by clients over funds he had embezzled in an attempt to keep that enterprise afloat.
Perry Rubenstein was born January 15, 1954, in Philadelphia. After earning a BA in history from Pennsylvania State University, Rubenstein traveled around Europe before being spotted in Milan by the then up-and-coming designer Gianni Versace. Rubenstein modeled for several years in Europe and Africa for clients including Armani, Valentino, Versace, and French and Italian Vogue, during which time he developed an appetite for collecting art, particularly that by emerging Italian artists. He proved an astute judge of quality, and on making his return to the States in the 1980s discovered that he was possessed of an extremely valuable collection, which included early works by such stars as Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, and Enzo Cucchi.
Rubenstein opened his first gallery on SoHo’s Prince Street in 1989; he moved into Chelsea in 2004, showing work by young cutting-edge artists such as Robin Rhode and Amir Zaki as well as that by famed artists including James Lee Byars, Roy Lichtenstein, Julian Schnabel, and Andy Warhol. In 2011, he moved to Los Angeles, then considered somewhat peripheral in the art world, opening a 9,500-square-foot gallery at 1215 North Highland Avenue. In Los Angeles, he told Musée shortly after his arrival there, “There is space, interludes, passages, traffic, and the opportunity to be alone in your garden or your car. It’s a more contemplative way of thinking about things; you choose to come to a gallery by destination. When you are at the gallery you will invariably spend 45 minutes because to go to another one requires the next stop with some time and distance in between. We see tremendous quality, far less quantity.”
Despite hosting exhibitions of work at his new gallery by such heavy hitters as Shepard Fairey, Mike Kelley, and Helmut Newton, Rubenstein soon found himself in dire straits, owing many of those on his roster money. In 2012, he attempted to extricate himself from the situation by adding on a last-minute $20,000 commission fee to the price of a Takashi Murakami work he was selling on behalf of collector Michael Salke to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Displeased, Salke sued and in the process learned that Rubenstein had extracted from the Broad Foundation nearly $195,000 more than he had reported to Salke, and had silently kept the proceeds for himself. Shortly thereafter, former Disney mogul Michael Ovitz sued Rubenstein in regard to two works by Richard Prince, one of which the collector alleged Rubenstein had sold without his permission at an appallingly low price, and the other of which he had never sold at all, though Ovitz thought he had done so and had failed to turn over the proceeds.
The Salke and Ovitz suits were initially settled, and Rubinstein filed for bankruptcy in 2014, with debts of $5.4 million and assets of just $1.2 milllion, mostly in the form of artworks. Both collectors pressed charges, and Rubenstein was arrested in 2016 on three counts of embezzlement and grand theft. He pled no contest to two of the charges in March 2017 and in May of that year was sentenced to six months in a cushy “pay to stay” jail, considerably more time than he would have been forced to spend in a state or county jail had he not chosen to instead shell out $100 a day to be incarcerated in a private facility.
Following his release, Rubenstein acted as an art consultant to collectors and wrote a memoir of his early years, which remains unpublished.