Sunday, January 31, 2010

Family Lore: Fact or Fiction?

When you grow up in a family business that is over 140 years old there are lots of stories handed down about great moments of family history, in my case great works of art that passed through our hands.

For any of you that have reached a stage in life when you become more interested in your family’s history it is exciting when you can relive and learn more about those stories you heard as a young person. Recently, I had such a chance.

Even before I joined the family firm I heard a story about the Director of the Morgan Library, Frederick B. Adams, Jr., who was asked by Saemy Rosenberg and Eric Stiebel (cousins and partners in the firm of Rosenberg & Stiebel) to come to the gallery to see some manuscripts that had been recently received on consignment from the Rothschild family.

Mr. Adams told my father that he would be happy to come but the Library had no money to buy anything (something I would hear often from museum people over my career) Now, of course, a dealer is looking to sell, he has to in order to stay in business. But there are other reasons to discuss acquisitions with scholars and other interested parties . Be they private or institutional they may have additional expertise in what you are handling. You want to see if the client is as excited about the acquisition as you are. The potential client may not be able to buy now but may know of someone else who could be interested. At the least, they will realize that this is a dealer to keep in mind when looking in the future. Therefore, my father and his cousin were delighted when Fred Adams arrived.

Fast forward half a century to the wonderful exhibition “Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” that opened at the Morgan Library ten days ago (running through May 2, 2010). The original book of hours created in Utrecht, circa 1440 was split into two volumes in the mid 19th century. One sold to the Arenberg family and the other to the Rothschilds. The Morgan has taken the two volumes totally apart in order to make a facsimile edition, do a terrific exhibition, and rebind the manuscript into a single volume with the pages in their proper order.

Witnessing the new interest in provenance, a large wall label at the entrance to the exhibition details the history of the Arenberg half as it passed through the New York book dealer H.P.Kraus to the collector Alistair Bradley Martin, before its acquisition by the Morgan. No mention was made, however, of Rosenberg & Stiebel in the provenance of the Rothschild volume.

Could the story I had been told be inaccurate? I went the next day to the warehouse that houses our archives to investigate. There I found the notes dated March 25, 1963 (written to send to the third partner in our gallery, my uncle, Hans Stiebel, who was living in Paris) recording Frederick Adams’ visit. He had said that he believed the Catherine of Cleves “could not be compared with all of the other manuscripts shown to him” and said it was the only one he was interested in for the museum. He noted that it was very similar to one that had come through the Arenberg Family to the well known collector Alistair Bradley Martin. Later he was able to show that they were actually part of the same manuscript which had been taken apart in the mid 19th century.

It was noted that in discussing the price with Saemy Rosenberg, he said “Any request for a reduction might be accepted or refused, or the book might be withdrawn altogether”… the work was put on reserve for the Morgan. Then with the backing of the Morgan’s president Henry S. Morgan the manuscript was acquired for the Library.

In 1964 the Morgan Library did an exhibition of both of the manuscript sections, borrowing the half that belonged to Alistair Bradley Martin which they were subsequently able to acquire. In his personal invitation to the opening, Frederick Adams wrote that they would use “full-size illuminated color transparencies of all 157 miniatures rearranged in their proper sequence, so that no visitor need be frustrated by being unable to turn the pages of the actual manuscript”. Today you can turn the pages of the newly –published facsimile volume placed at the center of the gallery. And you can compare this state-of-the-art reproduction with the dynamic perfectionism of the original, each page of which is displayed in cases or on the walls. It is literally a once in a life-time opportunity.

For me, there is an added thrill: verifying my family’s connection to this most exquisite of medieval manuscripts.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Opportunity and Risk

Opportunity and risk are keys to the success of the art dealer: taking advantage of a situation that you find yourself faced with, and taking a chance that your belief in a work of art will pay off in the end.

Of course, ‘paying off in the end’ has different meanings to the dealer, collector or museum curator. The dealer needs to see the possibility of a literal payoff in order to stay in business. The curator needs to be proved right in order to keep the trust of her/his colleagues, director and trustees. But the collector need only to continue to enjoy her/his acquisition.

Being accused of being an opportunist is generally considered to be a criticism. Not so in the art market where it is a wise path to follow if you believe in what you are acquiring. In fact it can be taken as a compliment.

Museum curators and art dealers worth their salt will take advantage of an opportunity though the acquisition may not be on their pre-determined desiderata list. Dealers, curators and collectors all have wish lists, but they also know that once in a while, because someone, somewhere has fallen on bad times, died or just changed their way of thinking, a unique work of art becomes available that should not be passed up because the opportunity may not come again.

I recently had such an opportunity. Though I am best known as a dealer in French 18th century and other old masters I acquired a collection of Paris School pictures of the early 20th century which are on view in Master Drawings New York this week. They were all acquired over a half century and are quite fresh to the market.

Another reason that serious collectors, be they professional or private, acquire a work of art is because they just plain love it. It speaks to them. In rare circumstances even museum curators and directors will take a chance on an acquisition that they just have a hunch about. Dealers, of course, do this more often and sometimes their hunch cannot be satisfactorily proven out no matter how hard they work on it.

Like every dealer I have several such works. Right now, as a matter of fact, I have one I could use your help on. It is group portrait of a woman surrounded by men. We have titled it “A Lady Surrounded by Her Admirers”. At various times it has been attributed to Jean-Jacques Karpff, called Casimir, and Jean-Baptiste Isabey. The name of Leopold Boilly has also been mentioned.

Recently, however, a scholar suggested an intriguing alternative. The son of Louis-Léopold Boilly, Julien-Leopold Boilly, who did graphics in very much the same vein as his father. Here also we have the mystery of the subject being depicted. It fits into the category of group portraits of an artist’s atelier popular in the early 19th century. Could, however this lone young lady who is surrounded by gentlemen of all ages be a beloved teacher in a reunion of her many students. Any ideas?

Come and tell us what you think and we can show you some of the comparable images.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's Almost Here !

Some weeks I have to wrack my brain to come up with what to write about but this week, as they say, is a “no brainer”. Master Drawings New York is upon us!

I encourage you to visit all the galleries participating in Master Drawings New York, but obviously we would love to see you at 252 East 68th Street.

But why should you bother? If for no other reason than to see an unusually large depiction of an equally unusual subject by Charles Parrocel (1688-1752).

The artist used a double sheet, measuring 21 3/8 x 34 7/8 (54,4 x 88,6 cm) to depict a marriage ceremony taking place at a military encampment.

I am often asked by colleagues, “what are you looking for?” Well, I would never have answered an image of a wedding, and if I had, I would certainly not have thought of one at a military encampment. What an unlikely subject!

Now, I must admit that Parrocel’s fame has always rested on his battle scenes. Personally I like the out of the ordinary. That is why I was drawn to his depiction of a different and unexpected aspect of military life.

Perhaps French 18th century is not your thing. Being of German background I have an affinity for German art… So you will see the German investigation of landscape in the early 19th century study of the reflection of the rocky bank of a river by Franz Kobell, and the majestic, solitary tree of Max Seliger (1886). The graphic mastery of Henri Kiehl Lehman is demonstrated in a two-sided sheet of figure studies (1853) while Hermann Eichler evokes the romanticized persona of an artist, in his free watercolor depiction of a sculptor (1863).

There is lots more as well. More next week. Meanwhile remember to visit us and others, to educate your eye. Collecting is a never ending joy and educational experience. In a work of art you should see something new every time you look at it.

Master Drawings New York January 23-30

Preview party Friday January 22nd 4-9 pm
Saturdays 11am – 5pm
Sunday 3-7pm
Mon -Fri 11am - 6pm

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What's it worth?

A short while ago I discussed how to recognize quality and pointed out that if one has only seen one painting by Monet it is both the best and the worst one that you have ever seen. In this missive I would like to discuss value and price.

My father used to say, little differences in quality make big differences in price. Compare car models or cameras or whatever you shop for and I believe you will see that similar rules apply.

I want to look at two console-dessertes (sideboards) from our inventory. One is in the mid five figures and the other is in the low seven figures. Both are French 18th century from the same period 1780 -1790. Why such a difference in price?

One is about 44 inches wide and the other is 45 inches. So, in this case size, does not matter! While you have been reading this you will have been glancing at the photos below and you have probably noticed without any prompting that one is rather simple and the other has more going on. Both have well-calibrated proportions.

But now look on the first photo in this missive. It is a detail of the mount at the center of the top drawer on the more elaborate console-desserte. It is a unique miniature composition of crossed laurel branches and a basket of flowers. If you could touch it (and you can if you come to the gallery…we are not a museum), you would find that it is beautifully chased and not sharp like gilt bronze mounts of the 19th century. The other console-desserte has keyhole mounts of a Louis XVI model you will find on other pieces because the bronze-maker supplied it to various cabinetmaker clients.

Both console dessertes are made of mahogany. This was a wood associated with English furniture and only adopted by Parisian ébénistes (cabinetmakers) towards the end of the 18th century as part of the fashion known as “anglomanie”. The more refined piece shows off the wood in a back panel of figured mahogany while the other has no back at all… little bits of quality giving value to the work of art

If you look behind the more elaborate piece you will find a partial stamp showing a crenellated circle above G.M. This identifies the console-desserte’s original provenance (for whom the piece of furniture was made). It is the inventory mark of the Pavillon de Saint-Cloud, 1786-1789), the modest retreat purchased by the Comtesse d’Artois, wife of the younger brother of Louis XVI who was to reign as Charles X. That this piece was made for a celebrity of the time adds interest and value. Just as one might pay a premium for something that belonged to Jackie Kennedy Onassis or any other celebrity.

In this case, we have a rare documented piece. The papers of the Comte d’Artois indicate a corresponding payment to Jean-Henri Riesener, the foremost Parisian ébéniste. An ébéniste, executing a prestigious commission for a member of the royal family, would take extra care, make an extra effort and add customized embellishments that might not be important for the functioning of the piece but would make it more impressive. How many pixels do you need in your digital camera…

The story of why it was commissioned is also amusing and we can tell you that when you come to see the piece in the original (or you can look at our website and read the story). But remember no matter how much you read or look at photographs there is no substitute for viewing the actual work of art. Then it will either sing to you or leave you cold!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Less than 3 weeks to go!

-->On Friday, January 22 there will be 24 parties to go to in New York all between East 66th Street and 93rd Street.
They are all for the preview evening of Master Drawings New York. This wonderful alternative art fair was started several years ago in London and more recently brought to this side of the pond.

It will continue daily (including Sunday) from Saturday January 23 through Saturday January 30*.

This is a great opportunity to see draughtsmanship through 500 years. Just looking through the brochure I found drawings from England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Mexico. There will be works to fit all budgets. If you made the tour of Master Drawings New York last year and saw a work that you were interested in but 2009 was not the year to make acquisitions, who knows, it might be still available and you can swing it for 2010.

As I am wont to do, a digression! A question that is so often asked of an art dealer is “how long have you had it?”. The question alone shows insecurity. Are you only interested in a work of art because someone else is? In that case the work of art you want is already sold!

One of the greatest collectors I have ever known said regarding works of art that he likes at dealers, “I go back and go back and it’s a great let down when you go back and it has been sold… It is totally unfair”!

As you read here a short while ago, the Metropolitan Museum bought a painting that they had rejected over 40 years ago. Recently I sold a large Austrian Gothic Revival Prayer Stool to the Met that they had said they wanted to buy from me 20 years ago but they could not find a place for it at the time. If the curators of the Met can rediscover works of art so can you.

One final example some years ago I had a painting which a curator at the Louvre said I should offer to another French museum. I asked why I should bother since the picture had been reviewed by the curators when it had been exported from France a few years before. His reply, “things change” and, sure enough, the museum he had in mind bought it.

Do put these dates, January 23-30 in your calendar and take in as many of the 24 participating galleries as you wish. Even if you do not plan to buy, come to learn and enjoy… No Pressure!

Should you wish a brochure with more details of who is exhibiting and where, just send us an email with your address and we will send it right out.

Preview party
4-9 pm

Mon -Fri
11am - 6pm

11am – 5pm