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Interview with dealer Luca Baroni: “As I get older, I get more demanding, I only want the very best”

The old master dealer on market caution, setting the record straight with Colnaghi, and working for a very private collector

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Luca (or Jean-Luc) Baroni is probably best known as the world’s foremost dealer in old master drawings, although he is also a formidable specialist in the old master paintings field. The list of his prizes is impressive, and there is virtually no major drawing that he hasn’t acquired, or bid on, over the last half-century. Most recently he was the underbidder on Raphael’s Head of a Muse, around 1510-11, which sold for almost £30m at Christie’s London at the end of last year. While he was denied that treasure, which went to the US-based collector Leon Black (although it has been temporarily barred from export from the UK), he has been successful on other major drawings. He paid £5.9m for the pen and ink Study of a Mourning Woman, around 1490, by Michelangelo in a Sotheby’s sale in July 2001. He also acquired Andrea del Sarto’s Head of St Joseph, around 1523, for £6.5m at Christie’s in July 2005. In the paintings field, one of Baroni’s major coups was the sale of The Flagellation of Christ by the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion, around 1450, to the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe in 1999.

Baroni has often successfully outbid the Getty and the Metropolitan museums as he continues to build up an important collection of paintings and drawings for a collector who even trade sources cannot identify.

Equally at ease in French, English and Italian, Baroni is half-French and half-Italian. His grandfather started a business buying and selling paintings in Paris in 1919. After leaving his art-history studies, Baroni started working with his father in the Florence gallery, and stayed with him until 1982 when he was brought into the venerable London dealers Colnaghi—which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year—to deal in drawings as joint venture. He remained there for 20 years, saving the firm after its near-collapse in 1996 by taking over the entire business. He left in 2002, taking the senior staff with him, to start his own gallery. Colnaghi was bought by the Munich-based dealer Konrad Bernheimer the same year.

The Art Newspaper caught up with Baroni at the European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf), Maastricht, last month, where he was exhibiting, among other pieces, an evanescent Tiepolo, Portrait of a Lady as Flora, around 1762, and Carlo Dolci’s St Agatha, 1660s.

The Art Newspaper: How did you start dealing in old master drawings and paintings?

Luca Baroni: My father had a great eye, great drive, but he always wanted me to be independent. When I was working for him, if I sold something, I got a little commission, which I could use to buy something myself. But of course I didn’t have much money at the beginning, so that was why I started with drawings—you could buy three for the price of one painting.

TAN: Is the supply of great drawings shrinking compared with those times?

LB: There’s no doubt that there’s much less on the market—and yet in a fair like this you still find more than you do at auction. And I still manage to produce catalogues. An added difficulty for me is that as I get older, I get more demanding, I only want the very best, even if this is by a lesser-known artist. Collectors are more demanding too—particularly now, they are very concerned about what they are buying.

TAN: What about collectors and museums: are the numbers buying in this field also declining?

LB: It’s true I don’t see many young collectors coming into the market, and this is not a field for people in their 30s, but I do see people in their late 40s and 50s coming in, sometimes crossing over from modern art. With the collapse of the contemporary art bubble, some people are turning to old masters. And it is interesting that at the sale of the Raphael, the third bidder, on the telephone, was a new client for Christie’s. Don’t forget that it has always been fashionable to collect contemporary art—in his time, the Mannerist painter Passarotti (1529-92) was paid as much for his portraits as Titian. As for museums, their situation is dramatic at the moment because of their budget cuts. And [the New York dealer] Richard Feigen has written about how decisions are increasingly in the hands of trustees. I have great sympathy with curators, who must feel “why do they employ me, if they don’t trust what I do?”

TAN: What about connoisseurship? Is this increasing or declining?

LB: Scholarship is increasing, and becoming much more widely available, but today collectors are not necessarily interested in learning more in depth, they might rely on the eye of the dealer. But there is a decline of the professor/collector, who no longer has enough money to buy—and this certainly has weakened the middle market.

TAN: Why did you leave Colnaghi?

LB: I’d like to set the record straight about this, as Colnaghi’s recently published book says I was a “manager”. I was always independent: I was working with Colnaghi as a joint venture. When they were thinking of closing down the firm in 1996, I signed a five-year contract with the then-owners, the Oetker group [who had owned Colnaghi since 1985], to sell their painting stock. When my contract expired in January 2002, I had sold about 80% of the works and I then decided to leave. That was when I set up my own gallery, opening in Mason’s Yard in 2003.

So when we acquired Michelangelo’s Mourning Woman, around 1490, from Castle Howard, from Sotheby’s in July 2001 for £5.9m, it was bought by Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd (JLB Ltd), trading under the name of “Colnaghi Drawings.” When my contract with Colnaghi expired, the Michelangelo came along with me, with the rest of the stock of JLB Ltd.

TAN: When did you start working with this unnamed collector, on whose behalf you are building such a major collection?

LB: I met him in the early 1990s when he came to us as a client; then he financed some purchases. But what started as a commercial proposition changed when I realised that he preferred to keep things, rather than to continue to sell them. So in the mid-to-late 1990s we started building up his collection of drawings and paintings. It’s wonderful for me because we have a sort of symbiosis and I could never do this for myself. Most of the major purchases I have made have been for his collection. Here at Maastricht I am showing two works I bought for him—the Tiepolo, and a Ludovico Carracci, Salmacis and Hermaphrodite, painted around 1600.

TAN: You skipped Tefaf for three years—2007, 2008 and 2009. Why have you returned?

LB: There was a point when I took a step back; I didn’t even publish a catalogue in 2007. I felt I’d done enough; at that point no one wanted to continue my business, and I was very engaged with building up the collection for my client. I thought I could avoid the hassle of fairs, finding clients and just concentrate on the collection. But now my daughter Novella is working with me, she’s keen and passionate and this has brought me back in, it’s stimulated me. And she will continue the collection.

Gallery history

• 1949 Born in Paris.

• 1972 Quits art-history course at the Institut Michelet in Paris and joins family art gallery in Florence, holding consecutive exhibitions in London in 1979, 1980 and 1981.

• 1982 Approached by Richard Herner to set up a joint venture to sell old master drawings under the Colnaghi name: to do this establishes Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd (JLB Ltd), owning 50.1% of shares to Colnaghi’s 49.9%, trading under the name of “Colnaghi Drawings”.

• 1985 Oetker Group buys Colnaghi, including Colnaghi’s 49.9% stake in JLB Ltd.

• 1996 Following the departure of senior Colnaghi staff and the closure of the New York office, signs a deal with Oetker to sell Colnaghi’s paintings stock over a five-year period. To acquire new stock, sets up Luca Baroni Ltd, trading under the name “Colnaghi Paintings”.

• 2002 At the end of the five-year contract, buys out the 49.9% in Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd and moves to a temporary office in Ryder Street.

• 2003 Opens his own branded gallery in Mason’s Yard, London.

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