Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Education of an Art Dealer

By the time I finished my BA at Long Island University I realized I was not cut out to be the lawyer I had wanted to be since my high school French teacher gave me his collection of Perry Mason mysteries. There was an easy way out, a family art dealership, Rosenberg & Stiebel (R&S).  One partner, my father’s brother, had just died; the head partner, my father’s cousin, was on the brink of retiring; and my father had just had a heart attack, for which 50 years ago they put you in the hospital for weeks.  I always liked my father’s gallery, which we always referred “the office” so, at my mother’s urging, I decided to join the firm.

I set out to learn more about art history, even though I had visited many museums with my parents, I went to Columbia University for an MA, where I got the great advice from one of my professors that I could learn more in two months at the family firm than in 2 years at Columbia going for a PhD.

Before that however, I took what today is called a gap year.  During that time I went to England where I took courses at the Courtauld Institute and studied at the Study Center for the Fine and Decorative Arts (1955-75). The courses were mostly taught in the great London museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and The National Gallery.  I also remember the ceramics curator at the Wallace Collection teaching about French porcelain in front of their great collection. French furniture was taught in the Wallace and the V&A. That is how I learn best, from the original pieces. I did miss the architecture section because of schedule but read the course material, and, in the end, managed to pass all the exams. I received a certificate definitely worthy of framing since it was signed by well-known authorities including John Pope-Hennessy, the famed Renaissance Scholar, who was director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) at the time.

After London I went to Paris.  I was there to learn the art dealer trade, at least from the French point of view, as well as French 18th century furniture which was one of several fields my family firm concentrated on.  There was a Paris dealer, René Weiller with whom there was always an open account: we bought from him, he bought from us and we gave each other objects on consignment.  He was the ultimate connoisseur and sold to the best dealers in London, Paris and New York and I am proud to say we were his choice for New York.  Of course, we had the advantage that when my uncle lived in Paris in the 20’s he had befriended and dealt with René.  Though my uncle made it to the U.S. during World War II, he went back to Paris and resumed the relationship by 1950. (I remember because my uncle’s 1949 Buick became my parents first car!)

I was basically apprenticed to René Weiller.  My parents were loathe to invite him socially because he lived and breathed French Furniture and objects and did not like to speak of anything else!  In Paris I stayed in his home with his son, Patrick, who became a dealer in Old Master Paintings and later a novelist revolving around the art trade.  When I was there in the 60’s he was finishing up his Baccalaureate.  It was the closest I got to riding a motor cycle because I rode on the back of Patrick’s small motorcycle together with his school books!

René Weiller from Connaissance des Arts
René spent at least 14 hours a day working on his passion.  You could only find him in his office after 7 pm, but he started at 5 AM with his furniture restorers who were working on the pieces he had found, often in the countryside.  René never kept anything for long.  He was happiest when he could buy in the morning and sell it in the evening. I caught him in his car one evening where he was holding a miniature gilt bronze cartel clock, which I bought on the spot and took for my home.

 I remember one piece, a black desk that when the restorer started to clean it, he had a shock.  It was coming out red! René called my father and asked what to do, keep going or cover it up again.  The reply was “Bring it back to its original state”.  It turned out to be the red lacquer desk made for Louis the XV with the royal inventory number underneath.  It is now in the Metropolitan Museum, thanks to Charles and Jayne Wrightsman,

I have always believed in apprentice programs and still believe that one can learn from professionals at least as much as in University.  Of course, art dealing was different then, especially in France.  René once pointed at the Louvre from his car and said to me proudly “I have not set foot in that place for 20 years”.  No dealer would dare say such a thing today!

You can learn the most by seeing art in the original and discussing it and one learns from doing and watching others.

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