Chilled and calm like a straight up martini, the lunchtime elegance of Rive Gauche laps gently at Harry Lunn, international photography mogul and one true believer in life as art. This place is his hangout. "Tranqueray, extra dry, with a twist," he says fondly. The waiter sprints.
Over there is the Saudi ambassador, there a gazelle of a woman with thin neck and high cheekbones. And here, enthroned upon a plump red banquette, is this gleaming bald dymano, the kingfish from Washington who controls much of the world market in photographic art. He loves white burgundy in Paris, his summer home in Normandy, roulette in London and, absoultely anywhere, a killer deal.
Once he repaired toasters. It was during the summer of '51 in Detroit, a time and place for sons of midwestern civil engineers to help put themselves through school. Never, ever would he order the most expensive thing on restaurant menus. Lobster was sacrilege.
"Now," says Lunn, stroking his calico beard, breathing the rich perfume of Rive Gauche as a cat might purr, "I can afford anything I want."
Say the name Harry Lunn and you get a kaleidoscope of responses:
"A virtuso in his field," says Ansel Adams, the landscape photographer who has seen the price of at least one of his prints jump from $150 to $20,000 largely because of Lunn.
"The eminence gris of the photo world," says a New York competitor who once watched Lunn deal, if not quite out from under him, then very neatly around him.
"A con man with a great substance," says a longtime Washington friend who would find himself writing checks in the thousands after Harry has stopped by with a few little gems.
"But he never steered us wrong. Makes you feel like going over and kissing him.
"Harry," he adds, "is just a nutty romantic. He'll never be older than 23."
Lunn is actually 47, a doting father of three who started from scratch. Really scratch. In 1968 he opened his first print gallery on Capitol Hill, at that time a move based a good deal more on a frontier spirit and lack of cash than any desire for inner-city chic. His place was across from the Eastern Market and not nearly as big as the nearby laundromat.
"The sun beat in, and Harry tried to make the things look good," says someone who remembers it when, "but it still was a two-bit operation." Lunn sold Hill real estate, and a lot of it, to pay for his fledgling fun.
But there were just enough sales, and just enough money from friends and investors, to move the place to Georgetown a few years later. He still had nowhere near the credit he does now, so he paid cash at the New York auction houses.
And then the first coup. "He got his mitts on Ansel Adams," says the friend, "and the rest is history."
The history began in 1974 and 1975, when Lunn bought 1,060 Adams prints for an average of $300 each. Among them was "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," which now hangs over his office desk. In May, another print of it sold at Christie's.
The price: $17,600.
Along the way to these salad days, Lunn cornered the market on Robert Frank photographs and became principal dealer for the estates of Diane Arbus and Walker Evans. Now he's repeatedly acknowledged as the superstar dealer in a dizzying photographic art market that has seen prices explode in the last 10 years. "A phenomenon," decrees Beaumont Newhall, the eminent photo historian.
It's made Lunn rich. This past fiscal year, he grossed $2.8 million and is moving his P Street operation to a larger space near the National Portrait Gallery. Next year, he'll be selling 25-print Ansel Adams "museum sets" for $75,000 each. "A shrewd guy," says New York competitor Tennyson Schad."Although I've had my differences with him."
"Ohhhhhhhhh," sighs Schad. "Ask Harry."
"It's not a difference," responds Lunn, smiling as evilly as Simon Legree. "I just managed to pull off the Robert Frank archive . . . (a dramatic pause here) . . . around him. He thought he was getting it. He didn't." Lunn pulls on his beard and glints deleciously, theatrically. Is he going to lick his lips? No. Still: Life is art.
"So," he continues, "Tennyson wasn't very happy about that one. And in his situation, I wouldn't have been either. What the hell, it's money. Dirty, old basic money." Scallops
The waiter scurries back and yes, yes, yes, what will Mr. Lunn have for lunch today?
"Terrine des scallops," he says, in French. "Et, oeufs en gelee." This amounts to two appetizers instead of a main course. "More variety that way," he explains. What they are, in English, is mold of scallops in tomato sauce and eggs in gelatin on lettuce. Together they come to $7, which is terribly declasse to even think about. Lunn loves big numbers -- grosses, records set at auctions, real estate profits -- but hates discussing the smaller ones.
"Tacky," he explains. The chandeliers twinkle.
So do his ice blue eyes, imbedded in a full face that looks as ominous and ready-to-burst as a storm cloud. Often it does, though not at this lunch. "Just about anyone can tell you he's got a bad temper," says a former employe. ""His face will get bright red, and he'll look like he's ready to blow. When he wasn't around, we used to do the Harry Lunn imitation -- like, 'Goddammit! What's going on around here!!?'"
But now Lunn is placid in the gray summer suit he fills out well, particularly around the middle. He looks up peacefully and notices, over at that table there, a chapter of the past. It strolls toward him.
"Archie," says Lunn, "how are you doing? I haven't seen you in years."
Archie is just fine, and keeping up with Lunn in the newspapers. "You look great," he tells the mogul. A smile, a wave, a Washington "nice to see you," and then out goes Archie from the ice bucket of Rive Gauche into the sauna of M Street.
As it turns out, Archie is Archie Roosevelt, former CIA official. "An old friend," offeres Lunn, "from my days with the agency." The CIA Days
The juicy rumor that still wafts through Washington and New York art galleries has it that Lunn, as a former CIA agent, ripped off some Banana Republic village and brought home the booty to fund his investments in art. Some claim his P street gallery in Georgetown is still a front for the agency.
"No," he says. "It's too successful."
But back in 1961, he was Harry Lunn, CIA staffer. Paris. His printed biography has him as cultural attache at the American Embassy, "working," he says, "on a variety of projects." Like what?
"That we don't get into, he says. "Come on. I realize this is fascinating and so on, because it inevitably is. But at this stage, it has absoultely nothing to do with my life . . . Although I know in some cases, it's used by some people to say 'lunn is still a fink.'"
His agency career began with the National Student Association, the educational and cultural exchange group that was CIA-backed. Lunn, an ambitious campus newspaper editor at the University of Michigan, covered the group's annual conventions and in 1954 became president of it.
"I was quite fascinated with the international program," he says. "One of my ambitions at the time was not only to get out of Detroit, but also to go to Europe -- and Paris. I'd read some Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, and all of that."
After a brief time in Washington at the Pentagon, Hemingway's Montparnasse haunts eventually became Lunn's. In Paris, in between his "projects," and a marriage to a pretty blond Frenchwoman named Myriam he met at a Christmas party, the cultural attache/CIA staffer prowled Left Bank art galleries. Back in the States several years later, art under his arm or in his closet, he became director of the Foundation for Youth and Student Affairs, another CIA front.
Then came February 1967, and the now-famous Ramparts magazine article detailing CIA manipulation of student organizations. Lunn's 9-to-5 life became immediately inoperative.
"It's reasonably traumatic," he explains, "to be blown out of he water in this sort of a situation. Once your cover is blown, the possibilities of being posted anywhere interesting are really rather remote."
And so, Washington. He'd bought some real estate back during his Pentagon days. It might be enough to pay for a gallery.
"He's the James Bond of the art world," says his friend Bill Turnage, business adviser to Ansel Adams and executive director of the Wilderness Society. "It's an extension of his being in the CIA. He loves the intrigue, the bizarreness of it all." A movable Feast
And now at Rive Gauche comes the wine, a 1977 Louis Latour Meursault. Lunn has it, with his lunches here, three or four times a week. It costs $40 a bottle.
The wine steward pours it deftly, quickly, just so, and ah! a twist of the wrist, a last drip from its lip, and now would Mr. Lunn like to taste the wine?
Yes, yes. He pulls the glass toward him, merely suggesting a swirl as he brings it to his lips, letting it wash over his tongue, then down his throat, down, down. And now a slight pause. Suspense. Will he approve? Will he send it back, in a rage? Will he tell the waiter to take this bottle and . . . .
"Fine," he says. The curtain falls.
"Art is theater," he explains. "Some of my best transactions have occured over lunch when I've said 'Yes, we'll have another bottle of Mersault.' So we'll drink some more and we'll talk some more and then some very nice deal might happen. Look, if you sit there and say 'Should we have a California wine or Pouilly-Fuisse?' it's just not the same spirit."
"Harry can be extraordinarily gracious," says Schad. "Have you ever watched him kiss hands? I never kiss hands -- or any other parts of anyone's anatomy."
Lunn is not handsome, yet he has an infectious charm and an eye for the ladies as well as art. "He certainly knows a good-looking woman when he sees one," says a business associate. "But it's incredible, with the amount of opportunities he would have to sleep around. I can't detect that he does. I think being married is very important to Harry. He dotes on his kids. On the other hand, he's not around very much."
Most often, Lunn is city-hopping from gallery to gallery, stopping along the way at the assorted restaurants he picks as carefully as his photographs. In New York, there is Les Pleiades, an art dealer hang-out. In Paris, there is Deux Magots for breakfast and for luncheon (never lunch) or dinner, Closerie des Lilas, the place Ernest Hemingway made famous in "A Moveable Feast." But he sighs. "It's a little more bourgeois these days," he says. The Eye and the Market
Growing up in Detroit, the closest he got to Hemingway was northern Michigan. That meant Torch Lake, exactly two weeks in the summers.He speaks of it in Hemingwayese. "I remember there was always one point when you turned the bend in the road and through the trees was the lake and that was very exciting," he says. "And I remember one time going with my mother and sister to vist my aunt. We went on a train and we stayed in a hotel. These are incredible experiences . . . .
"There's no question that the whole Detroit thing was an incredible experience for me. Without it, a lot wouldn't have followed.You've really got to have some kind of an incentive to explore things and to change your life and grow . . . ."
Here he mentions his first Ansel Adams show of January 1971, when a small boy came into the Georgetwon gallery with his piggy bank, smashed it, picked out the coins and with "a few bills from Daddy's pocket," bought an Adams. "I remember being sort of astonished," says Lunn, "and thinking, Gggggggggoddddddd, this is what I got out of the Middle West to escape. So corny . . . .
"I don't have anything against the Middle West," he adds, "except that it's boring. I don't like boring things."
Question. How did the son of a mid-western civil engineer, a son who didn't grow up pedigreed, develop what many believe is a highly sophisticated eye for art?
"I suspect," he says, "you're probably born with one." And there was his father, a man who had grand dreams of architecture and lived them through his house. It was small, but there was a newel post on the stairway, Italian tile in the windows, oriental rugs on the floor. His mother grew hollyhocks in the front and snapdragons in the back.
"When the rest of the neighborhood was wall-to-wall carpeting," says Lunn, "you knew the difference. You knew your house was kind of special. Not ostentatious at all -- just different. And you liked the differences."
And now, on P Street, here is this eye zooming like a laser toward the Lewis Hine photographs on the walls. His judgments come fast as firecrackers. "That," he says, "I think is a star." And on another wall: "In any photographer's work, there are icons. Like this one."
The phone. Yes, he'll take it. "Hello, Pierre," he says. "Hopefully I'm escaping at the end of the day today, so how about tomorrow? Can I deliver all the treasures? About 11:30? All right. Well, why don't we have luncheon? Okay, we'll say 12:15. At your place."
Pierre's place, as it happens, is the Gilman Paper Co. in New York. "A major client," beams Lunn. "A significant corporation."
A quick scrawl in his datebook, and Lunn's eye is back where it left off. "That's classic Hine," he says, pointing to a girl alongside a huge cotton machine. "She's working in a mill -- 48 inches high, 11 or 12 years old, May 1902. Look at the poignancy of that kind of awful machine and an 11-year-old running it. Yet, it's an incredibly beautiful photograph: the light coming in, her face half in shadow, the black void of a room beyond. It transcneds the social conditions to become a kind of esthetic statement of that child."
The phone again. "Howard!" he cries. "We keep passing like ships in the night. Why don't we try to see each other tomorrow afternoon? You're going to be a the gallery? I'll try to come by at 6. Yeah. Yeah? What is it? In color? Yeah. I'd have to look at it. Can I do this tomorrow? I've got two people standing here. Now did Fraenkel send his money? Well, I'll touch you at $6,000. We'll do a trade. I'll pay you 3 -- and you give me 6."
Says Marvin Heiferman of Castelli Graphics, another competitor: "There are people who think being an art dealer is just making esthetic and curatorial decisions, but a lot of being an art dealer is knowing how to pay your bills. Harry, of his kind, is brilliant. He's a businessman."
Which can cause plenty of sniping in a field of blue bloods.
"He's got this aura of wheeling and dealing," says one competitor. "Most people aren't doing it as flagrantly as he is."
Responds Lunn: "In a field as competitive and bitchy as the art field, you're not always loved for making correct decisions, particularly when they involve money. I've never made any secret of having deliberately pursued that strategy, although I've been, perhaps, too direct about it. Who knows? But it worked."
His strategy is basic supply and demand, something already applied to diamonds, Picasso, oil. All he's done is use it for photographs. "Say you've got 100 pictures," he says. "You take your 10 best don't show them to anyone, and get busy creating a market with others. Then, you come out with the really great ones -- at marvelously enormous prices -- having already created all the excitement about them. That's when you make all your money.
"And you see," he concludes, "it's this sort of analysis that just drives people up the wall."
His artists like it fine. Lunn, for all the talk of his wheeling and dealing ruthlessness, is known to be quite good to those he takes on.
"He treats me with kid gloves," says painter Michael Clark, one of the few non-photographers Lunn supports. "Most dealers won't even pay for wine at your opening, but Harry does it more like guys in the 19th century. Like Ambroise Vollard, who handled Cezanne and Renoir. See, Harry's well-read. He's studied all the major dealers and knows how they dit it."
So artists like Clark and Kevin McDonald, who does drawings, receive monthly advances against future sales. "What Harry realizes over most of the dealers," continues Clark, "is that artists have to make a living too. You can't live on pats on the back, or waiting until you're dead." Roulette
It's 3 p.m., and Lunn has been at lunch for 2 1/2 hours. The chocolates on the table are smooth and cool, absorobing the silence. "Shall we go?" says Lunn. No check has arrived. None will. End-of-the-month bill, he explains.
The rest of the day is spent in one of the huge, baronial chairs in his office. He fondles the carved cherub faces on the arm rests, rubbing his finger over a fat cheek, or digging his nail into an eye. Calls to make! Arrangements! And deals, lovely deals! He's been in since 8 and will stay until 8. At home on Capitol Hill, the phone still rings.
"Myriam has occasionally said that art dealers should not marry and have families," he says. "The telephone follows one home, and it is not a field of modest egos. The art business is very obessive."
But he loves it. Lives for it.A delicious gamble, and he won.
"It's like if your number comes up at roulette," he says. "Then, you were very wise." CAPTION:
Picture 1, From his gallery, "Triplets in Their Bedroom," by Diane Arbus; Picture 2, Lunn, by Harry Naltchayan; Picture 3, A detail from Ansel Adams "Sand Dunes, Sunrise"