Perry Rubenstein, Gallerist Convicted of Embezzlement, Dies at 68

Perry Rubenstein, a gallerist who rose rapidly in the New York art world of the 1980s, then fell into disgrace in the 2010s after a failed transition to Los Angeles ended with his conviction on two counts of embezzlement, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 68.

Sara Fitzmaurice, his former wife, confirmed the death but said the cause had not been determined.

Mr. Rubenstein was one of several prominent young gallery owners to emerge in Manhattan in the mid-1980s, as a wave of Wall Street cash poured through SoHo and Chelsea, swooping up the work of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ross Bleckner and Julian Schnabel.

A former Versace model with an impeccable knack for the next big thing in art, Mr. Rubenstein fit in with the “in” crowd; for much of his career he worked as a private dealer for the very, very rich. He specialized in both rising stars and blue chips, brokering works by Victor Matthews alongside Warhols and Lichtensteins.

He opened a public gallery on West 23rd Street in Chelsea in 2004, then made waves seven years later when he announced that he was moving his operation to Los Angeles. He set up shop in a nascent arts district in Hollywood, opening his 9,500-square-foot gallery with a solo show by the photographer Helmut Newton.

But he couldn’t make it work. Debts piled up, sales were slow, and in 2014 his gallery filed for bankruptcy in the face of multiple lawsuits for breach of contract.

That wasn’t the worst of his problems. In 2012 he had sold a work by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami for $630,000 on behalf of a Massachusetts-based collector, Michael Salke. As the deal closed, Mr. Rubenstein tacked on an additional $20,000 to his commission fee. Mr. Salke sued, and during the discovery phase found out that the buyer, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, had paid $825,000 for the work, with Mr. Rubenstein pocketing the difference.

Mr. Salke and Mr. Rubenstein later settled the suit.

Not long afterward, Michael Ovitz, the former president of the Walt Disney Company, sued Mr. Rubenstein over his handling of two works by Richard Prince. Mr. Ovitz said that Mr. Rubenstein had sold one of them without his permission, at a price below what he wanted, and that Mr. Rubenstein had refused to turn over the proceeds from the sale of the other work.

In fact, Mr. Ovitz said, Mr. Rubenstein had never sold the second work, “Untitled (de Kooning).”

The two men reached a settlement in March 2016: Mr. Rubenstein would return the second painting, and Mr. Ovitz would not press charges.

Mr. Rubenstein was therefore surprised to learn, four months later, that Mr. Ovitz and Mr. Salke had pressed charges anyway, and that there was a warrant out for his arrest on two charges of felony embezzlement and one count of theft. Under a 2017 agreement, he pleaded no contest to the embezzlement charges and agreed to pay restitution to both Mr. Salke and Mr. Ovitz. He was also sentenced to six months in prison.

A former Versace model with an impeccable knack for the next big thing in art, Mr. Rubenstein fit in with the “in” crowd.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Perry Roy Rubenstein was born on Jan. 14, 1954, in Philadelphia. His father, Samuel Rubenstein, left his family when Perry was very young, and he was raised by his stepfather, Edwin Virshup, who owned a distribution company, and his mother, Lydia (Kogan) Virshup, a homemaker.

He attended Pennsylvania State University, where he majored in history and graduated in 1975.

With no clear career path in mind, Mr. Rubenstein took off for Europe. He landed in Milan, where he soon fell in with other young people working in the city’s fashion industry.

One day someone came by his hotel looking for a fit model for a nearby studio. Curious, Mr. Rubenstein volunteered, and a few hours later he was standing face to face with Gianni Versace, who was just beginning his ascent to the top of the design world.

Mr. Rubenstein took to modeling, and he spent the next several years bouncing around the world on photo shoots. Along the way he started to buy art, especially from young artists who were just then emerging from Italy, like Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi, all of whom went on to major careers.

By the time he settled in New York in the early 1980s, Mr. Rubenstein had both an immensely valuable art collection and a long list of contacts in the art world. He lived in the West Chelsea building where Mr. Schnabel had a temporary studio.

“Our first meeting did not go well,” he wrote in a 2022 Facebook post. “I was new to the mysteries of the contemporary art world and unwittingly insulted Julian by asking him how far the paintings were along. He said, ‘They are finished.’ … And so were we!”

It was a rare faux pas by Mr. Rubenstein, who found himself comfortable moving between artists’ lofts and bankers’ penthouse suites, his reputation growing as quickly as the 1980s art market itself.

He married Ms. Fitzmaurice in 1996. They divorced in 2014. He is survived by his brother, Irv; his sister, Beth Virshup; and his daughters, Raphaella and Scarlett Rubenstein.

Though Mr. Rubenstein had long made West Chelsea his home base — his home and his office were there — it wasn’t until 2004 that he joined the boom in gallery openings around him. He soon had three spaces, one of which he dedicated to emerging artists.

His move to Los Angeles came as a surprise to his colleagues, but he saw it as his next big challenge. The West Coast art scene was booming, and he believed he could replicate his success in New York in a less crowded field. He put everything he had into the project, and when it fell apart, he had nothing to fall back on.

After his release from prison, Mr. Rubenstein worked as a consultant to art collectors. He also wrote a memoir about his family, going back to their roots in Eastern Europe, as well as his early career as a model and art dealer. It has not yet been published.

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