The art world’s “mystery buyers” who spend big and stay secret

The contemporary art market has been in overdrive for the last few decades, with new innovations distorting the playing field every five minutes. But since the art market as we know it emerged, one phenomenon has become common practice: buyer anonymity.

Christie’s made headlines this week when the auction house sold Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Shot Sage Blue Marilynfor a staggering $195 million.

The sale set a new record for the most expensive 20th-century work of art ever sold at auction, and none other than legendary dealer Larry Gagosian was the winner of the bid, but he hasn’t revealed on whose behalf he sold it bought work. The identity of the true buyer remains a closely guarded secret.

The buyer who paid over $1 million for a work of “invisible art” at Sotheby’s in April? Anonymous. Who Lost $57.8M on Picasso? La Dormeuse in 2018? Phillips would never say unless pushed.

With the advent of NFTs, some crypto-happy buyers are starting to volunteer for clout and attention, but in the vast majority of the auction world, that’s still not the case.

“It is standard company policy that buyer information is never publicly disclosed, and beyond that, if someone wanted an extra layer of anonymity that can’t even be seen internally, that could certainly be arranged as well,” Rebekah Bowling, Senior Specialist and Head of the Art of 21st century at Phillips said. Protecting buyer identities is a rule universally followed across the art market from auction houses to galleries, Bowling said, and names are generally only revealed in the event of a specific request, which then needs to be approved by the buyer. A Sotheby’s spokesman declined to comment on the buyers’ anonymity.

In some cases, however, auction houses may be forced to reveal a buyer’s identity. “The auction house can’t keep this information a secret forever,” said Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney at Sullivan & Worcester and a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Art Law Committee. “It’s not privileged. What happens with some frequency is that something goes wrong in the sale or in the follow-up to the sale, a dispute ensues and someone goes to court. Once you’re in litigation, people can issue subpoenas.”

Christie’s Americas Chairman Marc Porter watches as Alex Rotter announces that Christie’s will offer Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.

Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Many factors contribute to buyers wanting to remain anonymous in auction settings. “There are a variety of reasons, from simple privacy and not drawing public attention to your spending, to the more strategic fact that there is a power in the world that doesn’t know exactly what artworks or assets you own,” said an art consultant, who asked (you guessed it) not to be anonymous, said.

If a buyer is working to assemble a collection of works by a particular artist, revealing his or her name could give the game away and court competitors. In other cases, collectors may choose anonymity simply because their insurance company insists on it for security reasons, or because of the possibility of theft, New York art consultant Vasili Kaliman said.

Buyers also have options if they don’t want to throw the bidding paddles in the air themselves, so to speak.

“Often a buyer will commission a dealer to bid for them like Larry Gagosian did for the Warhol,” Kaliman said. “Many buyers who bid anonymously also do so by bidding over the phone at an auction. They have a relationship with a specialist at the auction house who ensures their privacy. More people use a dealer’s service as a proxy bidder than you might think, especially at the higher end of the market.”

“Loose lips sink ships. Those who don’t know talk, and those who talk don’t know.”

— Anonymous Art Advisor

Once established, the pact of secrecy between a buyer and a trusted auctioneer is deeply embraced, said the anonymous art consultant: “Loose lips sink ships. Those who don’t know talk, and those who talk don’t know.”

Some buyers, particularly in the burgeoning crypto space, have spent huge sums anonymously at auctions, only to later reveal their identities with panache. “I think it could be a generational thing,” Bowling said. “Certainly I see it with NFT collectors where they want us to tell the artist who was essentially the consignor who they are. That wouldn’t happen in the traditional art world, where things feel more discreet.”


A receipt intended to authenticate the transfer of an invisible work by French artist Yves Klein entitled Zone of Intangible Pictorial Sensitivity Series #1, Zone #02 is on display at Sotheby’s in Paris.

Chesnot/Getty Images

In other cases, buyer names are disclosed in a roundabout way. Collectors may be asked to lend their property to an institution for a major retrospective of an artist, with a lender having the option to allow their name to be included on labels identifying the artwork, Bowling said.

Or, as the anonymous art adviser suggested, “property directories or interior design magazines will include works bought anonymously at auction” and link art objects to dwellings whose owners can be easily identified.

The pervasiveness of anonymity in the elite art market has always been a bone of contention among those who believe an industry-wide lack of transparency is paving the way for money laundering and fraud. In February, however, a US Treasury Department report said that implementing more regulations to prevent illegal transactions in the art market was not a priority.

“I think it’s unlikely that regulation will have a big impact on that anonymity in a short timeframe,” O’Donnell said. The art world’s “mystery buyers” who spend big and stay secret


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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