Monday, February 22, 2010

Some stories of porcelain collecting

My family firm was founded in Frankfurt-am-Main by my great uncle Isaac Rosenbaum some time previous to 1870. They did not deal in old master paintings until the turn of the century and not in French furniture until the 1920’s so what did they do?

They dealt in what the Germans called klein kunst, literally small works of art, which meant at the time, renaissance bronzes, medieval objects and ceramics. In Germany the greatest interest then was in the Saxon royal porcelain factory of Meissen but other porcelain and faience were also of interest. I have a book bound in maroon leather with gold lettering kept by my family recording the purchases made by a single family of Meissen porcelain, other German ceramic factories as well as a few other types of klein kunst. The book consists of 51 hand written pages and dates from 1904 to 1917.

Obviously taste and fashion change and different areas of collecting are interesting to different collectors in different times. In various times the most expensive German porcelain on the market were 18th century figurines. One dowager, Emma Sheafer, had led a German museum to believe that they would receive her collection of Nymphenburg figurines when she died. So they collected around the pieces she had. Unfortunately for them, Mrs. Sheafer decided to bequeath her entire collection of paintings, German furniture and the figurines to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Though German by birth she had left at the time of the Nazis and lived the rest of her life in New York. I am sure that the fact that one of the curators at the Metropolitan had paid court to her in her later years played a significant role in her decision. Be that as it may, he had never expected his museum to actually receive the collection!

In the 1960’s Meissen birds were the rage in the United Sates, so much so that at one time the Metropolitan Museum received three different collections of Meissen birds. Naturally there were some duplications and in the process of cataloging a variety of states of condition were discovered. One of the donors was known to always look for the bargain and it has always amused me to know that one of his birds had a wooden tail and a wooden leg. I am sure the dealer sold it cheap due to these old repairs. The bird was de-accessioned by the museum in favor of an example in fine condition from another donor.

Today there are still passionate collectors who stand apart from the general declining interest in decorating with European porcelains. One is Henry Arnhold whose collection of Meissen was the subject of recent exhibitions at the Bard Graduate Center and at the Frick Collection, with a scholarly catalog by Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, including an excellent article by Sebastian Kuhn on collecting German 18th century porcelain.

Another is a client of mine who is interested in a Meissen service made for his ancestors bearing the family’s coat of arms. He is involved in his pursuit of these pieces with a passion for what Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan museum called, “The Chase and the Capture”.

Each collector has different goals and aspirations. The tide of fashion waxes and wanes but there will always be those who appreciate and want to own examples of the artistic accomplishments of history, be they large in scale or “klein kunst”.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why go to an Art Dealer?

There is more than one way to acquire art. Why should one go to an art dealer? After all, it is quite intimidating to ring the door bell of a private dealer. It can be a pain to get to the dealers location even if they have an open gallery. People say it has to be more expensive. What possible advantage can there be.

The simple answer is time. The dealer has invested not only money but time in his acquisition. He has consulted with authorities in his field who may be able to add information or corroborate his beliefs. Just as important is that you, the collector, have the time to learn what you need to know before making a purchase. At auction, in most cases, you have a few days from the arrival of the catalog and the beginning of the auction exhibition to make your decision.

I may have mentioned before that one of the greatest living collectors said to me once, you should buy at auction what you know, not what you don’t know. In other words if you have expertise of your own or have tried to acquire the same work of art before and are well acquainted with it, all you have to do is check that the condition has not changed since you last saw it. Otherwise, the question is do you have all the information you need to make an intelligent decision about an acquisition?

There are, of course, auction houses with sterling reputations with people in their departments who really know their field but they have to occupy themselves with thousands of works of art every year and they must speak with hundreds of potential customers. The dealer had plenty of time to study his relatively small inventory and do the library research necessary to catalog the work of art.

Dealers are often specialists or have long family histories in certain fields. More than once my father and I would go into a home and focus on the same piece, even in a mediocre collection, and find out later that it had come through the firm. There is a certain eye that develops and a gallery and its proprietor have a certain taste that comes through in their collection. Is it yours?

Oh yes, about those prices. There is no rule about where you might get the best deal because each work of art and circumstance is unique. I do know of many cases, however, where a dealer has watched works of art bring many times what the dealer asks for very similar works of art. In one such case a work of art brought twice as much at auction than the dealer had asked in his gallery and he had offered it to each of the competing bidders. After the sale a member of the press went to the winner and said, why did you bid double what you could have paid to the dealer earlier. His reply, “I was tired of losing”!

Monday, February 8, 2010

How Did It Go?

The question colleagues often ask each other after Old Master or American Art or a Contemporary Week in the Art World. There are times of year that a group of events conspire to occur at the same time. Often led by the scheduling of major auction sales within a specialized field.

In the last few weeks we had Old Master Paintings and Drawings at Christies, Sotheby’s and other auction houses. The Winter Antiques Show and Master Drawings New York which included 22 galleries in New York. Well… how did it go?

Many journalists and bloggers try to answer this question with statistics which never give the whole story. They bring to mind the proverbial definition of falsehoods 'lies, damned lies, and statistics." I would rather look at the quoted statistics as giving only a limited view of a situation. At cocktail parties people outside the art world will sometimes say, "Well, you must be happy the art market is up again". They are referring to a record price they may have read about in the morning paper for a contemporary auction. Then I try to explain that there are many different art markets. What happens in Contemporary or Americana or Oriental has little to do with what happens in the Old Master field. In fact, right after 9/11 when we all felt that the art market was doomed for months to come, the American field took off. My only explanation is that this was a time for patriotism which could be expressed by the support of American art.

Well, how did Old Master week go… in a word, better. The Old Master auctions showed some incredible prices for rare, high quality works, that had not been on the market for a long time and fewer ‘buy-ins" (works unsold). At the Winter Antiques Show dealers were not unhappy and all agreed that the mood was much better and that it was better than last year… but remember where we were economically last year?

Regarding Master Drawings New York it was my perception that most participants, if not all, had sales but it was not gang busters. We were all thrilled, however, that the interest was definitely back. None of us expect to sell something to everyone who comes in but we want people to look and talk about the art. With guidance the art will sell itself.