Jeff Koons, Commodities Broker

So I think I had a breakthrough in figuring out the details of Jeff Koons’ Wall Street Era.
I just wrote a post about it. It is so long. So I put it below.

As readers may remember, few months ago, I wondered aloud [in print] about the relevance, if any, of Jeff Koons’ early work experience on Wall Street, on his art and the critical reception it and he have received.
Though the one-line bio of Koons as a Wall Street guy who moved into art comes up constantly–it almost certainly originated with the artist himself–the details and dates and actual substance of his work are inconsistent, incomplete, and contradictory. To someone with no financial industry experience–including most, if not all art writers–these gaps are immaterial. But the differences between fields and firms, markets and jobs can be vast and substantial, undermining casually uninformed assumptions or interpretations.
After all my digging–alright, it wasn’t that much, but still–my own hypothesis is that Koons’ early career was actually quite similar to that of most emerging artists: a struggle to balance money and time, work and practice, while trying to get an art career going.
The basic story seems to be that Koons was a trader or a broker between 1979 and 1984 or so, and that he used his lucrative Wall Street job to finance the production of his early artworks and shows. Accounts differ on whether he was a trader or a broker, of commodities [i.e., cotton] or securities [i.e., stocks or mutual funds], and at what firm. [Smith Barney is the only one mentioned, or the one given the most emphasis.]
It suddenly occurred to me this afternoon that if Koons was selling anything, he’d have to have been registered with the appropriate exchange and market self-governing bodies. For corporate securities, that means passing the Series 7 exam and registering with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, which used to be NASD, the National Association of Securities Dealers. For commodities and futures trading, you need to pass the Series 3 and register with the National Futures Association.
And sure enough, he did. But only through the NFA. [There happens to be a Jeffrey Lynn Koons registered with FINRA, but he is currently an insurance broker in Pennsylvania. Different guy.]
Jeffrey L. Koons was an “associated person,” aka, a registered representative, aka a broker, at three firms:

  • Clayton Brokerage Co. of St. Louis [Jan 1983 – Jul 1984]
  • Citigroup Global Markets, aka the inheritor firm of Smith Barney [10/16/1984 – 11/01/1984]
  • Siegel Trading Co. [Jan 1985 – Nov 1989]

I confirmed with the NFA that it is possible to be employed by a member firm without being a registered broker, but only associated persons, while their registration is active, are permitted to participate in any kind of brokering or trading activities.
And so. Clayton and Siegel are [or were] both commodities houses. Smith Barney was, well, does it really matter what it was? Koons was only registered there two weeks. Maybe he was fired for spending all his time asking Nobel winner Richard Feynman “how I could get the basketball to float in the water.” [Or maybe he only took the Smith Barney job in order to reach Feynman, or to raid the client list? How hardcore would that be?]
It’s entirely possible that Koons’ experience at Clayton, Siegel, or both, maps closely to the narrative as we, the art audience, generally understand it.
Except for the dates. Just check those out. Koons was showing vacuum cleaners as early as 1979-80, but his breakout solo show at International With Monument, Equilibrium, with basketballs, Nike ads, and cast metal scuba gear and life rafts, came in 1985. In a 1986 interview Koons told Klaus Ottman he’d been “a commodity broker on Wall Street for six years,” when he’d barely done half that. Of course, he also said he’d been “the Senior Representative for the Museum of Modern Art,” and that he cleared the rights for all the appropriated IP in his works. So fake it till you make it, I guess.
And Koons has most definitely made it. And it’s the history-distorting influence of his recent decade of towering success that I’m taking issue with here. That, and combined a general uncriticality on the part of many folks who should know better. [Whether that gullibility is attributable to one’s steadfast faith in the goodness of humankind, or to laziness, love of a chic party, and a predisposition to not let facts or even questions get in the way of a good story, the result is the same.]
Whatever the details of Koons’ day jobs [or their durations. Did he really keep working at Siegel Trading through 1989, a year after his head-exploding, market-busting, triple header show Banality opened simultaneously at Sonnabend, Max Hetzler, and Donald Young?] one thing’s for sure: the artist chose Wall Street early on as a reference for his work, and he’s been happy to oblige people’s use of it as an entry point–or interview question–ever since. Even if his explanations of its relevance change a bit over time.
But rather than vagaries and platitudes, what if someone asked him some substantive questions about it? Find out what that two week Smith Barney stint was really like, sure, but maybe it’s the other two jobs that hold the real treasure. And there’s no better time to ask than right now, when we’re grappling with tumultuous, even scandalous, financial markets.
It happened before Koons got there, but Clayton Brokerage was implicated in the Hunt brothers’ notorious attempts to corner the silver market in 1979. And in 1989, Siegel Trading was one of two firms charged by the CFTC [the commodities version of the SEC] with defrauding customers of more than $800 million. The illegal, inflated, and/or manipulated trades took place while Koons was working there, in 1985. [I’m obviously not saying Koons had anything to do with either case; he almost certainly did not. But he did work at two firms where senior executives were committing and/or being charged with market manipulation and fraud. Perhaps he has some thoughts on how working in such an environment may have influenced him