Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Art Dealer Today ?

My father defined our trade quite simply, --we try to convince someone who does not want to sell, to sell, and someone who does not want to buy, to buy. That could never be more true than today when everyone with a collection wants to hold on for a better selling climate and those who wish to collect have no expendable cash!

We travel, we look, we schmoose (gab) and we hope. Often we fail in our attempts to bring a buyer and seller together but once in a while we succeed, and that is a day to celebrate. My father and his cousin Rosenberg always celebrated twice. Once when the client said, “I’ll take it” and again when the check actually arrived. That is another thing that is more true than ever today.

In the old days if a client said they would buy something you could literally bank on it. Unfortunately, that is not as true any more . It used to be a pretty small art world. Everyone knew everyone. My father believed that if anyone collected in our fields they had to visit our gallery, not necessarily buy, but check out what we had.

Klaus Perls the renowned art dealer used to say, “I have never sold anything in my life. Once in a while I have allowed someone to buy something”. From an old fashioned dealer such as myself it makes a lot of sense. We want people to come by our galleries and fall in love with a work of art. Only after that am I there to consummate the acquisition.

Today, the art world is bigger. There are many more art buyers (if not collectors), there are many more art dealers, and the auction houses greatly influence the market.

A good friend and art dealer colleague who studied a different field at Columbia University has said to me that he is jealous of my art history degree. I have countered with how jealous I am of his business degree. Which one is more important? I believe that today, probably, the business degree is more important. As a matter of fact some of the most successful art dealers have MBA’s.

When I was doing my MA at Columbia I asked a professor about continuing on for a Phd. He asked “Why? You can learn more in your gallery in 2 months than here in 2 years”. Now, while this might have been a bit of an exaggeration, on the job training in the art field is possible. Business formulae are much more difficult to master without the discipline of a scholastic setting.

Thank goodness, museum curators are still being trained as art historians. Increasingly, however, the prerequisite for a museum directorship is a degree in business administration, yet museum directors still make the ultimate decisions of what acquisitions will go to the trustees for approval. There are few who are strong in both art and administration. . We have recently lost two such directors, Philippe de Montebello who retired from the Metropolitan Museum, and the late James Wood, named President of the Getty Foundation after retiring as the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Happily the Metropolitan picked a new director, Tom Campbell, the old fashioned way, from the curatorial ranks.

From the art dealer, both more scholarship and more business acumen are demanded. I think that the former is a great improvement in our trade. Our clients want to know more about the art that they are buying. We have to be able to supply the latest scholarly information available. The complicated, protracted, deals that have become the norm are alien to the world I grew up in. Yet the art dealer today must be able to handle both.

The art world does change, but slowly.  This Missive was first published on August 15, 2010.  Not sure if it has changed since then, what do you think?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Rapid Response: Art as Investment

My blog from last week on investing seems to have struck a note with a number of readers.  I thought it would be as interesting to my readers as it was to me to see some of their responses.

An art dealer from New York wrote the following,  “One faction of my family dealt in colored diamonds… and I did buy some nice modest stones.  Some we made into jewelry for [my wife] to wear (which she still has) and others we put in the safe. Unfortunately, our business needed money before colored diamonds really took off. We did make a small profit but ... colored stones are now through the roof.”

He also said, “I was recently telling a collector, who bought … a Dutch 17th century paintings, that when we all started in this business, a nice 17th century panel of an interior with figures was easy to flip and sell, and they were. A Boer vomiting in the foreground was easily worth 10 grand, if his missus was relieving herself in the background, add 5 grand. Today they are compared to the furniture market [in] ‘brown wood’ which has declined.”

I heard from a friend who I first met in an Art Forum on Compuserve in the mid 90’s.  As mentioned before tastes change and as he wrote:  “…we see periods of public interest in [different areas of] collecting: rugs, Federal period furniture, Arts & Craft pottery. Books and TV shows about collecting for fun and profit, but with profit as the attention-getter. I think it signals a coming decline, a bursting bubble. New generations begin to collect and all of a sudden the furniture of 1950 becomes more desirable than 1750, this school or that period wanes in popularity.   It's nice when the market smiles at you and confirms your ‘taste' but if you don't buy what you love, you might as well be buying stock certificates. If you buy art because you just have to, you can't lose.”

This from an international collector who has been a dealer, curator and world traveler.  “Good article, so true.  You can never say or write it enough.  Investing in art is not for the weak of heart, and, to be at all successful requires ruthless behavior and lots of acrobatics.  Non merci.  We learned this in our early years in the art market, when it was considered very wrong to collect art as an investment, and the general opinion was the only collections that went up in value had been bought out of passion, and with a lot of hard work, by connoisseurs.”

From a former London art dealer echoing similar thoughts, “Art can be compared, depending on your taste to a race horse or a yacht say, which may both devalue with time, whereas art does not get worse with age. Of course there are people who make profits from art and horses and yachts but they are professionals and know what they are doing. Sometimes private investors can manage this too. And art does not suffer from costs of upkeep.”

I was delighted to hear from an actual practicing Native American Artist who wrote about her own experience and point of view, “I ran into someone over the weekend whom I have not seen in years. She purchased a giclee from me over 15 years ago and one of the first things she said to me was ‘Do I have any idea what that piece might be worth now?’ I told her I had no clue since I have not dealt with 2-D work since I started making baskets in 2008, but I hoped that it had escalated in price.  I hope investing is not why she purchased the piece but I would like to think that my work preceding my baskets is gaining in long term value too. Pricing work is such a tricky dance. It always boils down to work is worth whatever the market will bear.”

I even heard from an Art Advisor in Switzerland, “Despite what you state that Fine Art fluctuates in value based on the current TASTE of collectors, the value of TRUE MASTERPIECES (Old Masters, Impressionism, Picasso, etc.) has RARELY(if EVER!!!) retreated in comparison to ALL "Financial Assets" over the past 200 to 300 years!!! I AGREE, BUY IT because you LOVE IT and want to LIVE with IT BUT(!!!!!)......let us NOT FORGET that paying MILLIONS for a GREAT painting.......WELL......IT'S a LOT(!!!!) of.......MONEY!!!!!”

Borrowing again from the London art dealer in response,  “But the problem here is that few people can afford to buy the best art and not care about resale value. People do like to think that these beautiful objects also represent a store of value.”

I will end with a personal favorite because it confirms some of my prejudices.  This from a collector of German ceramics in the U.S.   “It speaks volumes that he (Jeff Koons) collects the great masters. That trait seems to be shared by many “modern” artists. One wonders why that appears to make no impression on collectors of their works.”

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Is Art a Good Investment?

Four or five years ago I wrote about art investment and looking back on it I see that things have changed.  There may be an art investment fund somewhere but they certainly no longer make the news.

Yet, the concept that it might be a good idea to invest in art still persists.  I received a cold call last week asking me about investing in art and I gave a very simple one-word answer, “Don’t!"

There are many, particularly in the scholarly and museum communities who do not believe that art should be associated with money because art is on a higher level.  Of course, that is ridiculous.  Art is usually found in palaces and with captains of industry with the people that could afford it.  If you do not find yourself in that category and want to buy a work of art which is more than a hundred dollars you want to know what you are paying for.  Still there are no sure ways to know what an art work is worth and it is most certainly not a liquid asset.

One of the main reasons for this is that the monetary value of art rests in large part on taste and fashion.  I personally do not understand or, put another way, care for the work of Jeff Koons.  Yet he is considered far and wide as a major artist worthy of exhibition and collection in the most important museums in the world.  What would happen, however, if over time more people of some weight either in the art or financial world began to feel as I do?   Seemingly overnight the works that came up at auction would bring less and less, Jeff Koons’ dealer(s) would have to ask less and before you know it your Koons investment has declined in value.   I am happy to say that Jeff Koons has a great appreciation for art and collects Old Masters among other fields.  Here is an image of the artist with one of his rabbits.

I watched it happen in the market for Renaissance bronzes where there were three major collectors and to bring a high price at auction you only need two.  Two of those collectors died the same year and the third changed her mind and started collecting in a different area.  Suddenly the prices were no longer astronomical.  So there may always be a market for Jeff Koons or Renaissance bronzes but it just will not be as high as before, and therefore not a good investment.

What, however, if you had bought that Jeff Koons because you really loved it, it gives you pleasure to look at, or, one of the reasons I buy a work of art, because it makes you smile.  In that case, it would not matter so much what the value of the sculpture or picture is because you will continue to enjoy it.

Every once in a while there are “discoveries” of “lost” artists.  Since the artist was obviously not lost and the work didn’t disappear, but rather one or more art historians started to see that a group of works related to each other and, through copious research, were able to put a name to the artist.  Should the art appeal to others at that time suddenly it becomes worth money and possibly lots of it. 

Also, if a work of art is newly attributed to a famous artist.   What if no one had thought about the work of art from great great grandpa sitting in the attic and you just want to be rid of it. So you take it to an expert at a museum, or a dealer or an auction house and they recognize it as an important piece as recently happened with a Leonardo da Vinci drawing.

“Over night” actually months or years after the work is “discovered,” this scrap of paper is worth a fortune.  The fact that it was preserved shows that there were those who cared for it but I think all would agree this was not an investment but a piece of luck.

As I said in my last Missive on this subject investing in any area is not just about the wins but rather the percentage of wins over losses.  Webster defines investment as, “the outlay of money usually for income or profit”.  Since there is no way to wring income out of a work of art do you want to take a gamble on the profit?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Review: A Bloggers List

I am closing in on my 8th year of writing Missives from the Art World.  That is a total of close to 400 Missives.  I understand there are bloggers who make money at this … any suggestions? Maybe that is why most blogs only last 3 years.

My Missives stretch over a very wide gamut of material revolving around my interests and travels over half a century.  We have discussed experiences in some of the great art centers in England, France, Germany, The Netherlands and this country, New York, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, etc.  including great art exhibitions and art fairs.  Coming from the European Old Master world to that of past and current Native America has represented culture shock for me, which I have, I believe, explored in detail through experiences we have had with the Native American artists and friends we have met.  I have even written on lighter fair such as parties we have been invited to and given.


Waddesdon Manor (link to blog post)

A Chocolate Party (link to blog post)

It is near the end of the year and I am tired.  This blog has continued without interruption through all kinds of crises including a number of my operations as well as one recently for my wife.  Happily, the only time they were life threatening was when we were in the hands of the capable surgeons we have found in this part of the world …  even though they are expected to all be in New York!!!

David Bradley (link to blog post)

I have been asked often how and why I do it every single week.   I guess on some level I enjoy it.  I learn as I write and I can explore different areas and ideas.  I am also lazy and scared of stopping, not sure if I will pick up the pen … I mean open the computer again!

Link to blog post

The director of a major American museum and one that I consider a personal friend has recently suggested that I repeat some of my blogs so I can take some time off.  At first I thought that was anathema.   Then it began to sound more and more appealing.  In any case, the concept that I could repeat a Missive and not write for a week is kind of liberating.

Thomas P.F. Hoving, “In the Presence of Kings”
(link to blog post)

Therefore, I am going to turn the tables and appeal for my readers’ help and at the same time find out who is paying attention!  Would you review some (all is a lot) of my missives and let me know which you think were the most interesting, illuminating or just fun.  Who knows you may see them again!

Ms. Frick’s della Robbia (link to blog post)

To the right on the first page of this blog is a list of years and dates.  When you click on a year it shows you the months of the year and you click on those and get the blogs you can scroll through for that month.  Alternatively, there is a small search box in the upper left hand corner.  Put in any word and every blog that had that word will show up and you can scroll down that group.  I just tried film, then theater.  You can put in Indian or Native American or Museum or Freud and you will find something.  Also, if you click on the random photos throughout they will take you to the Missive they come from.

A posthumous portrait at the Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth
(link to blog post)

I am looking forward to hearing from you… who knows you might give me an idea for a brand new Missive.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Collecting Quotations

I have always enjoyed quotes.  I used to sit down with Bartlett’s Quotations and just start reading.  Lately I have read a column of quotes in the magazine “The Week”, a publication I highly recommend.  It reminds me of other quotations that made me think in a new way about a specific subject such as art.

"If there isn't (a) vision it is hard to get others to follow" John D. Rockefeller on accepting an award from the World Monuments Fund, 2009.
Art critic Michael Kimmelman reviewing the Christo Gates in New York’s Central Park wrote, "Art is never necessary. It is merely indispensible."  The Gates were a project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude completed in New York’s Central Park in 2005.

The same writer reviewing a show “Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting” at the Metropolitan Museum wrote, “The loot Napoleon took from Spain was an epiphany for artists at home.”  The other side of the coin. A European art dealer, Grete Ring said, "Why should one talk about art, if not to open the eyes of others to it"

Often that is difficult because of the “art speak,” jargon, that many art historians use which makes the following comment by a German/Swiss mother and son team of dealers and art historians amusing.  When Marianne Feilchenfeldt read articles written by her son Walter, "This is not art history. This is interesting."

A quote that recently opened my eyes was about the art of cooking, by Chef Fernando Olea at the restaurant Sazón in Santa Fe "The enemy of the taste is the eye and the mind".  If you think of the word taste as one’s preconceived notions about what art “should” look like it goes for art as well. 

In an art exhibition quotes sometimes help us understand the character of the artist either through a direct quote or from someone who knew her/him or even from an observer.

Georgia O’Keeffe said in 1921 "I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then".  A lady from the Philippines sitting next to me on a flight said as if in response to Georgia, "Georgia O'Keeffe reminds me how profound simplicity can be".   Here is an image of a painting called. “Gerald’s Tree 1 ” done in 1937 and can be seen at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.  No, it is not named after me but an Irish writer, Gerald Heard who was visiting Ghost Ranch and brought the tree to O’Keeffe’s attention.  On a tour of the ranch a couple of years ago we saw the tree was still there.

O’Keeffe also had something to say about photography in 1922, “Photography is able to flatter or embarrass the human’s ego by registering the fleeting expression of a moment.”   I would put it slightly differently,  Photography is translating the image that you see in you mind’s eye into an image that everyone can understand.  The grand master in this regard was the photographer Alfred Stieglitz whose muse and greatest model was Miss O’Keeffe.

In a comment about his art Picasso wrote, “I don’t search (for inspiration), I find (it)”.  Similarly an interior decorator told me, “As good as new is easy, as good as old is talent.”  It all depends where you are coming from.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597-1664) was a painter of the Dutch Golden Age, "He created images of space pervaded by calm" from a museum label of Rijksmuseum pictures at the Portland Art Museum. This is the perfect description of this painting by Saenredam in the Rijksmuseum as well as most of the artists other paintings, “Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk in Assendelft, Pieter Jansz. Saenredam,” 1649.

In my opinion the ultimate comment by an artist regarding his craft was by the American portraitist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) who created iconic portraits of George Washington. "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato, and expect he will paint you a peach.”   Here is one version of  his portraits of “The Father of our Country” painted in 1796 and now in the Brooklyn Museum.

As the British Poet and Writer Jeanette Winterson  wrote, "Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening.”  I will never forget my cousin and senior partner in our gallery, Saemy Rosenberg , saying, “Hear the honeydew from my lips.”

As I finished writing this missive I read the annual Christmas letter from  a friend abroad that includes a few of his favorite quotations. I look forward to learning some of yours.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Who is Mabel Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (1879-1962)?

The answer can be found in the exhibition “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West” currently at the Albuquerque Museum.  In a nutshell she was the “hostess with the mostest".

The show was organized by the Harwood Museum in Taos where it opened traveling to the Albuquerque Museum.  The guest curators for the show are Lois P. Rudnick and MaLin Wilson-Powell. Lois is a professor emerita of American Studies from the University of Massachusetts in Boston and has written voluminously on Mabel Dodge.  MaLin is an art historian, independent curator and author who has concentrated on the art of the Southwest.   Their show has been 36 years in the making since MaLin applied for an NEH planning grant in 1980.  It never came to anything, however, since museums had no particular interest in Mabel Dodge.  According to Rudnick until relatively recently no museum would have considered doing a show about someone who “was not an artist but a cultural catalyst”.  The world changes and when it is ready it will come.

I am sure that one of the exhibitions that opened up this possibility was a show at the Metropolitan Museum in 2012 called “The Steins Collect” about the incredible collection that Gertrude Stein and her family put together.  Of course, Gertrude Stein is far better known on an international basis but as far as opening the southwestern United States to the art world Mabel Dodge was a major figure.  She had a relatively simple methodology.  She just asked everyone who was anyone to come stay with her.  To quote Mabel Dodge, herself in 1913, “I wanted to know everybody and … everybody wanted to know me”.  They were not just painters and sculptors but included writers such as D.H. Lawrence.

Here is Mabel’s story. She was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo New York  (the final venue for the show will be at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo starting at the end of June, 2017).  In 1902 she marries her first husband, Karl Evans, who dies in a hunting accident the following year leaving her with a son.  In 1904 she moves to Paris, meets and marries Edwin Dodge and the couple establish a salon in their villa near Florence.

Meeting Leo and Gertrude Stein and seeing their fabulous collection of paintings including Cézanne, Matisse, van Gogh and Picasso transforms Mabel’s taste and changes her view of art.  She had felt suffocated by the art of the past.  (As an art dealer I can tell you that children rarely like the art that their parents collected.)

In 1912 she moves with her husband and son to New York City where she established a salon in her Greenwich Village apartment and participated in organizing the famous 1913 Armory Show.

She divorces Dodge and marries the artist Maurice Sterne.  He establishes a painting studio in Santa Fe and entices Mabel Dodge to come out and soon after they move to a town north of Santa Fe, Taos. Here she becomes involved with Tony Lujan, an Indian from Taos Pueblo, who advises her on building a home (now a bed and breakfast). She divorces Sterne to marry Lujan in 1923.

The current exhibition revolves around the artists and writers who Mabel brought out to Taos In another way, however, the show is a view of the history of art in New Mexico in the 20th century.  Thanks to her final marriage she became a great defender of the Indians and brought all her artist friends to the dances at Taos Pueblo.  She wrote about and expanded the market for the Native American artists.  Here is a watercolor by the artist Velino Shije Herrera (1902-1973) from Zia Pueblo.  It was lent by the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.

A key work in the exhibition representing Mabel’s patronage and role in introducing Modernists to the West is “Abstract Arrangement of Indian Symbols” (1914-15), oil on canvas by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)  which she bought and today is in the exhibition Courtesy of Yale American Literature Collection, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  Mabel left her archive of photos, letters and manuscripts said to weigh 1500 pounds to the Beinecke.

In 1927 Mabel Dodge had her portrait painted by, Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), a Russian émigré who had arrived in Taos the year before.  He portrays her as the Grand Dame she believes she is.  Today the Nicolai Fechin House is a tourist attraction in Taos. The portrait, however, was lent by The Museum of Western Art, Denver.

One of the paintings I find the most effective in the show in its empathy for the Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico is “Mexican Wake” 1932 by the Hungarian-born Modernist  Emil Bisttram (1895-1976.  It was a gift of the artist to the University of New Mexico Art Museum in Albuquerque.

Another amazing painting possibly the best one the artist ever did is one called, “Hunger”  1919, by Walter Ufer (1876-1936) lent by the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma. Ufer, an Anglo artist became something of a hero on the Taos Pueblo as he worked night and day side by side with the doctor ministering to victims of a devastating flu epidemic 1918-1919.

You will have to forgive me but now that I am a Santa Fean I cannot end without mentioning Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).  She herself said to Alfred Stieglitz in 1929, “…the whole world comes to Mabel’s” as she did herself.   Of her painting  “Gray Cross with Blue”, 1929, she wrote “… the cross stood out-dark against the evening sky … I saw the Taos mountain-a beautiful shape.  I painted the cross against the mountain …”  It comes from the Albuquerque Museum’s own collection.

The show is so rich with material I do not have room to include the Spanish Colonial material, the decorative arts or the wonderful photographs that include Weston, Adams and Stieglitz.  So I hope you will be able to go before the show closes on January 22, 2017.

*Images of the Fechin, Hartley,  Ufer and O’Keeffe are courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters

We went to Los Angeles to spend Thanksgiving with our son, Hunter and his girlfriend, Mallory.  Hunter knows we always want to visit museums and he insisted it be the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA).  Why? Because he wanted to see an exhibition on fantasy and monsters.  Not exactly the reason my wife and I go to museums!  Hunter, however, as a child was into comics and later Zombies and has recently scripted a horror film short, so I figured we had to keep an open mind.

The exhibition,  "Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters" was organized by The Art Gallery of Ontario, Minneapolis Institute of Art and LACMA.  What a surprise we had!  At each venue the host institution has added to del Toro’s personal collection from their own holdings including a number of Old Master paintings and prints. Of the more than 500 works in the Los Angeles presentation 60 were from LACMA’s collection.

For those as ignorant as I, Guillermo del Toro (1964 - ) is a Mexican film director, screenwriter, producer, and novelist. In his filmmaking career, del Toro has created Spanish-language dark fantasy pieces, such as, his most famous, Pan's Labyrinth (2006), which we had seen when it came out but had not put it together with his name before we saw the show.  In contrast he also had worked on the Hobbit series.  For a filmography see,

The exhibiition explores del Toro’s creative process by bringing together elements from his films, objects from his vast personal collection of sculpture, paintings, prints, photography, costumes, ancient artifacts, books, maquettes, and film. His "libraries" of objects are installed much as they are in his suburban Los Angeles home which he has appropriately named "Bleak House".  The organization is by themes such as innocence and childhood, magic, occultism, horror and monsters, with visions of death and the afterlife.  Since del Torro thinks of his collection as a source of continuous inspiration and devotes sketchbooks to his thoughts some of these are incorporated into the exhibition.

The show is peppered with effective sculptural vignettes of famous people and characters in del Toro’s world.  In one we see a sculpture of Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) a visual effects creator, writer and producer.  Another shows on the wall an illustration of Boris Karloff as the monster in Son of Frankenstein,1993 by Basil Gogos as well as a sculptural scene for the film. Both sculptures are by Mike Hill.

Though they come from different eras LACMA’s Rosa Bonheur  (1822-1899) of “The Wounded Eagle, 1870, and a print by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1728) from a series of imaginary prisons, 1761 fit in perfectly.

Finally a painting of Lady Beatrice Sharpe from the film Crimson Peak, 2015, by Daniel Horne and a portrait vignette of del Toro himself with some of his characters.

In the excellent book published in conjunction with the exhibition there is an interview with del Toro where he says, "The relationship we have with art is very fetishistic because art is a spiritual phenomenon.  Art is explaining to you all the things you can't put into mere words."  After reading this I asked our son what drew him into a similar devotion, though in a different realm of the fantastic. He replied that he was interested in, "where the imagination can go if reality is one step removed."  That is an excellent description of the exhibition we saw.  We were drawn into another world.

We saw the exhibition on its last weekend so you will need to content yourselves with the book and its many color illustrations at what I thought was a reasonable price at a bit over $30 for a non museum member.