On the joys of being an art dealer

May 27 2011

Image of On the joys of being an art dealer


The recession may continue to throw up challenges for art dealers - some say that this year’s European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht was pretty gloomy - but there is still plenty of fun to be had 'in the trade'.

For me, the most exciting part of art dealing is that you never know where the fickle of finger of fate might point you, be it the pictures you encounter, or the people you meet.

Every week I look at hundreds of paintings for sale around the world, and though much of it is little better than the stuff you find on the railings outside Hyde Park, probably at least one will be worth buying. [More below]

If, like me, you're on the lookout for 'sleepers' - those rare cases where pictures at auction are in some way mis-catalogued - then each potential new discovery opens up an array of exciting of possibilities. You might then have to research the life of an intriguing historical figure, in which case a library or distant archive beckons, or you may have to immerse yourself in the technique of an artist whose work you have not previously studied - for which nothing beats a quick visit to a gallery for first hand inspection of a well-preserved original. And, happily, there is no better city to do this than London.  

This may sound rather grandiloquent, but I often think that those of us in the trade who search out pictures which have, for whatever reason, been over-looked, are working at 'the coalface' of art history. We continually offer up for further discussion newly discovered pictures and evidence for debate, acceptance, or rejection. Sometimes, people find it hard to believe just how much art remains undiscovered, for the tendency is to think that the world’s art historians and museum curators have between them accounted for every painting or fact of any worth, that 'the canon' is more or less settled. 

But that cannot be the case. For, if you consider how many thousands of artists painted how many thousands of paintings, there must at any one time be a reasonably high proportion of works that are either unknown or unfairly rejected – and even unfairly elevated. This can be for a variety of reasons, the three main causes being: condition (where a picture is obscured by dirt, varnish and over-paint); the uncertain processes of private ownership (which may shield a painting from analysis for several generations); and, finally, ignorance (most notably when an artist’s oeuvre falls under the clutches of an ‘expert’ who can’t tell the difference between, say, a Giotto and a Giacometti).

All of which leads me onto our new loan exhibition at Philip Mould Ltd, ‘Finding Van Dyck’. By a strange coincidence, we have over the last few years hit a small seam of works by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The exhibition will demonstrate how anyone might go about finding such works. We will look at the whole range of factors one has to take into account when hunting for lost paintings, and the processes and risks involved. How, for example, can you tell the difference between a copy of a Van Dyck and the real thing, or, harder still, between a painting entirely painted by Van Dyck and one partly completed by his many studio assistants? And how can you tell whether a dirty picture hidden by layers of grime has any areas of quality beneath? We will also exhibit some newly discovered and rarely seen works by Van Dyck’s followers in England, including Sir Peter Lely, as well as a number of miniatures by the artist dubbed ‘Van Dyck in little’, Samuel Cooper.

The show opens on 15th June and closes on the 13th July, at 29 Dover Street. Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, and Saturdays 12pm-4pm. A catalogue will be available (that is, if I can finish it in time), which will also include essays by Dr Toby Osborne, Philip Mould and Emma Rutherford.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.