Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Wallace Collection

As promised last week, here is some amplification on one of my favorite museums, The Wallace Collection. It is situated in the London town house containing the family collections of the Marquesses of Hertford and was given to the nation by the widow of Sir Richard Wallace in 1897.

In the stately atmosphere of this unique museum I always feel that I am visiting the home of a wealthy aristocratic collector. I am particularly privileged to be able to wander through the collections on my own.

I was introduced to the Wallace Collection in 1965 when I was sent abroad by my family, between college and graduate school, to learn about art dealing from colleagues and attend The Study Centre for the History of The Fine and Decorative Arts in London.

The Study Centre had been founded the year before by Erica O’Donnell and was to serve as a model of its kind. Students were taught in various disciplines by art historians and curators in front of the original works of art in the museums of London whenever possible. They included the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and, of course, the Wallace. This method was far better than the slides and black and white Targo prints I would later have as study tools at Columbia with only occasional reference to New York’s marvelous museums.

I remember the greatest thrill was when John Cushion, a leading authority and curator of ceramics at the V&A seated us at the Wallace in a windowed alcove opposite the grand staircase and the huge Boucher canvases and spoke about the porcelains of the French Royal factory of Sèvres. When he was through with his formal lecture he would take us to look at the works themselves as the Wallace houses one of the greatest collections.

Of course, ceramics are just part of the Wallace holdings. There are galleries of Renaissance bronzes and objets d’art much as you would find in a kunstkammer, French 18th century furniture and paintings by Watteau, Lancret and Greuze, not to forget masterpieces by Velazquez, Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt .

Dame Rosalind Savill has been director of the Wallace Collection since 1992 and will retire from there later this year. She has been at the Wallace since 1974 and became assistant to the director in 1978. Having been a junior curator in the ceramics department of the V&A she continued her interest at the Wallace and became the great scholar of Sèvres porcelain. She has written the definitive 3 volume catalog of the Wallace’s Sèvres collection.

As director, she has totally revitalized the institution without affecting its ambiance. In order to add a restaurant and twelve additional galleries including an auditorium and special exhibition galleries she has covered the court yard for the restaurant and the galleries below. The exhibition of Peter Marino’s bronzes that I mentioned in my last Missive was wonderfully shown in these new galleries.

Do visit it when you are next in London it is as worth your time as the Frick is in New York.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

So Much to See....So Little Money to Buy

This was the brief exchange between two art dealers passing on the street a couple of weeks ago. It was Art Week in London. Of course, in the art world we have many art weeks, for Contemporary, Modern, Oriental and this one was for Old Masters. This week came right on the heals of the new fair in London, called “Masterpiece” which unfortunately I missed, being in St. Petersburg at the time. But I was there for Master Drawings London, Master Paintings Week as well as the auctions at Bonhams, Christies and Sotheby’s. So now you will understand the conversation up top.

One walks miles and miles between these destinations, up and down St. James’s, Bond Street and all the small streets on either side, One could not possibly be in all places at once with sales held simultaneously in several houses, and the dealers adding lectures to their schedules.

The auction houses had 17 sales between Tuesday and Friday which occurred morning, noon and night. In addition to the specialized sales of drawings, paintings, works of art, and decorative arts there was a sale of material from the country house of the Spencer family, or as the British newspaper The Telegraph put it, “Earl Spencer's £21.1 million auction of possessions from Diana's family ….Old Masters paintings, carriages and other treasures from the family home of Diana, Princess of Wales”. You can well imagine how the provenance gave an extra boost to the prices.

The dealers’ shows (46 in all) were organized in two groups, one that was called ‘Master Paintings Week” and the other “Master Drawings London” .

As you may remember from my earlier Missive of mid January this year we have “Master Drawings New York“ in the States. The concept originated in London with a drawings dealer, Crispian Riley-Smith, who exported it to New York. Each gallery does there own thing in their own space which allows the visitor to pick and choose according to their interests, and of course, it also gives one a chance to visit friends and colleagues to chat a bit.

The painting dealers, who do not have the same event in New York were inclined to do theme shows around a subject along the lines of their specialties, such as “Caravaggio’s Friends and Foe”. In another case two dealers who share a gallery, one presented Italian paintings and the other French, clearly delineating their space.

London is certainly an Old Master art center . Its museums have great permanent collections and exhibitions, several of which I did not want to miss. The British Museum had on “Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings”. These were the greatest drawings from the two best collections in the world, the British Museum and the Uffizi in Florence.

The National Gallery was doing a didactic exhibition called “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries”. One could learn a lot here. With the paintings, it showed how new scientific techniques allow us to gain new insights into works of art that have been acquired with different attributions. Although some pictures were downgraded, others turned out to be great “discoveries”.

The Wallace Collection is a little gem worth a Missive of it own. I bring it up here because of the current exhibition of Renaissance bronzes collected by the renowned American architect, Peter Marino, a passionate collector in several fields.

I must admit that after one sees some of the works in the museum collections one realizes that those one is chasing in the auctions and at colleagues are not necessarily the greatest ever made. At the same time there are artists and works that were not appreciated before, but have today come into their own. Don’t forget that Vermeer was totally forgotten after his death and only 200 years later did art historians “resurrect” him. Also what is sought after today, may not be tomorrow. Tastes change and availability is a factor. Rarity has a value, but on the other hand when a category disappears from the market, it can become a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’.

All the collector or art dealer, for that matter, can do is buy what one likes and acquire the best piece available that one can afford.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

White Nights

Doing a real travelogue in the brief space that I allow myself for “Missives from the Art World” is not possible. So think of these as my thoughts on why I (and many art dealers) travel.

It is the first time in a very long time that I can say that I am a tourist in every way in my current venue, St. Petersburg, Russia, I am neither trying to buy nor to sell nor visiting clients. Though I must admit to always thinking what could this or that museum be interested in that I might have or have access to. I came here for the simple reason that I wanted to see a city I had never been to and discover for myself the art I had heard so much about.

It is really quite amazing in every respect. Firstly, it is easy to see why they call them white nights. It is daylight for 24 hours a day. It is difficult to decide if it is bed time or not; at this time of year even street lamps are unnecessary!

Since I am just a tourist on this visit I did not get in touch with any curators or directors before coming. In art I am privileged and spoiled, and unused to waiting in line. The longest of the lines I waited on during my stay here was at the Hermitage. That took two hours. I have never seen so many people in one line and, yet, they all get gobbled up by the massive Winter Palace. It is said that if you spent a minute looking at each work of art in the collections it would take eleven years to see them all! But there is no question there are untold treasures, a couple of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, a room full of Rembrandts, gallery after gallery of important 17th and 18th century French paintings collected by Catherine the Great when they were “contemporary art”. I could go on for a page or two just listing categories and artists.

There are more grand palaces in St. Petersburg than anywhere I have ever been, some restored and others turned into office buildings. Outside of town there are still more to visit but I only had time to see a couple. At Peterhof, more than the palace itself, I found the fountains an incredible sight. Peter the Great wanted to build a palace that would be every bit as good as Versailles and even surpass it. In the gardens and fountains I think he succeeded.

The unexpected and strongest impression left by my visit was the revival of the cathedrals and the churches. It is as if all this religious fervor that had been pent up for so many years under Communism burst forth with Perestroika. I saw many extraordinary churches and cathedrals that have been restored and are now in active use.

The most extraordinary is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan built by Andrey Voronikhin and started in 1801. I was there at the time of a service. It was quite an experience. The organ was playing, the choir was singing and many of the faithful were buying and lighting candles. It was hard to believe that in 1932 the Cathedral had been turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Things Change!

Another, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood which was begun in 1883 by Alexander III in memory of his father Alexander II who had been assassinated on that spot. It is most extravagant in its decoration and all the interior walls are covered in mosaic.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral, located inside the Peter and Paul Fortress, is the oldest landmark in St. Petersburg, dating from 1712. It seems to have a foot in both Communist and Post-communist eras. In 1924 it was turned into a museum which it remains today, with paid admission, even though religious services have been held there since 2000.

The experiences of travel provide a “post-graduate” education to anyone involved in the art world.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The International Art World Meets

C.I.N.O.A., La Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvre d’Art (the International Confederation of Art Dealers), represents about 5,000 dealers in 22 countries, it is not, however, a federation of individual dealers but rather a confederation of associations (32 at this time).

The organization is celebrating it’s 75th anniversary this year having been founded in Belgium by a few of the outstanding dealers of Europe at the time. My involvement began in 1972 when I went to the board of C.I.N.O.A. to propose organizing a non-selling exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was approved and at the end of 1974 we opened “The Grand Gallery” with 300 works of art from dealers around the world. I have been involved ever since as a representative of several American associations, a board member, President, and most recently in my honorary position “Permanent Councilor”.

There are many objectives of C.I.N.O.A. but primarily it exists as the United Nations of the art trade. As such, it informs, advises, warns and protects not only the trade but also collectors, museums and artists.

Every year a general assembly is held in a different city. This year we were in Prague. As with all such trade organizations there are business and social components and C.I.N.O.A. always includes a cultural one. Our business meeting was held in the Lobkowicz Palace, a part of the Prague Castle which was begun in the 10th century with continuous updates and additions. We met in the concert room of the Palace and ate in the restaurant and visited the family museum.

A key element of the meeting are the market reports submitted by the associations informing the other members of the economic situation and the particular issues in their countries. For instance there is a new tightening of security regulations in the U.S. Though Customs has always had the right to inspect anything that leaves the country they are now doing it more but specifically for shipments by sea. Air shipments are usually left alone. The concern is that if you are a dealer, museum or collector this is a serious issue because it can put a work of art at greater risk. Damage in shipment most often occurs during packing and unpacking, even when it is done by professionals experienced in handling art and familiar with the particular pieces.

Droit de Suite (royalties paid to artists and their descendants every time a work of art changes hands) is another major issue. Those countries who have not enacted Droit de Suite such as the United States (with the exception of California) have a major trade advantage over those countries who have it such as France, Germany and Belgium; and between those countries the rates vary. Taxes such as Capital Gains and fees for import and export duties are still another concern since they vary from country to country. It is most helpful for dealers to understand these matters since many are active in the international art trade.

We heard three talks one by Mark Evans, Sr. curator of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London called, “Fakes vs. Forgery”. Another by Professor Claus Grimm, “Between Original and Copy: the Contribution of the Apprentices”. The third a report from Dr. Clare McAndrew of Art Economics in regard to a report she is working on for C.I.N.O.A. which will be published in the Fall. It will cover the way the art market and trade have changed over the years and continues to change.

After all the nitty gritty such as approval of Minutes and Treasurer’s report etc. we could indulge in some cultural tourism. We visited the St. Agnes of Bohemia Convent (built 1231-1234) where the curator toured us through their fabulous early collections from the 14th to the 16th centuries. There was also a leisurely river cruise where we could observe Prague’s historic architecture and bridges. Of course, such sightseeing has a meaningful bonus, allowing dealers and administrators to have informal conversations and develop personal relationships that will help, if not result, in some business.