Interview with dealer Richard Nagy on Schiele: “It is about sex, it is tense, anxious and emotional”

His new space in London will open with an exhibition on the Austrian painter


After 30 years of trading art in London, the Australian-born dealer Richard Nagy is opening his first solo gallery space in the city in May (22 Old Bond Street, Mayfair). His world-renowned expertise in Austrian and German Expressionism, and his passion for Egon Schiele in particular, come together for the gallery’s opening show, “Egon Schiele: Women”, which runs from 19 May to 30 June. The exhibition brings together nearly 50 major works from between 1910 and 1918 (around ten of which are for sale, priced between £100,000 and £5m) by an artist who is largely absent from museum collections in the United Kingdom and has been given little public attention in the past 20 years. The first and last museum exhibition in this country, “Egon Schiele and his Time”, was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1989. He is convinced that now is the time for this popular, yet institutionally overlooked, artist to show in London.

The Art Newspaper: What made you choose Schiele for your opening show?

Richard Nagy: It’s a new gallery, a new space and a new location, and I wanted to put it on the map. I’m more associated with Schiele than with any other artist so I started to think about what hasn’t really been done before. While I was thinking, I realised that there hasn’t been an exhibition focused on Schiele’s women, which is remarkable as he was obsessed with them. Almost 40% of his oeuvre is images of woman, and most collectors come to Schiele because of their exposure to his images of women, so it’s quite surprising.

Where are the works coming from?

Schiele collectors are really widespread. I’ve got a couple of pieces coming from Australia to this exhibition, some I am borrowing back from people I’ve sold to, and some are from my own stock.

Why are some of the works not for sale?

One can’t do a Schiele exhibition now with all the works for sale, you just can’t find them. There’s no question there’s a supply problem, an average of around ten a year come to auction now. Twenty years ago, I would have had two or three Albertina-quality works a year, no problem [the Vienna museum owns 130 key works by the artist and staged a landmark retrospective of these plus loaned works in 2005-06]. Now, if I get one at that level, it’s exciting. But I do get them and they are an important part of this exhibition. For example, Gerti Schiele in a Large Hat, 1910 [one of the works for sale] belonged to Christian Nebehay of the Vienna art dealing family that gave exhibitions to Schiele during his lifetime. It didn’t come out until he [Christian] died [in 1962].

What has driven the supply of Schiele works?

For the past 30 years there have been three avid collectors competing for his work: Rudolf Leopold [the Viennese collector, founder of Vienna’s Leopold Museum], Serge Sabarsky [an art dealer] and Ronald Lauder [the American businessman and owner of New York’s Neue Galerie], plus a second tier of very strong collectors. These guys respected each other’s experience and didn’t blow each other out of the water at auctions; there was an understanding of what the prices should be, and they worked with each other [The Neue Galerie hosted an exhibition of the Lauder and Sabarsky collections in 2005-06]. Those collections accounted for a lot of the highest quality works and once they were in the collections, they pretty much stayed there. Having said that, the Neue Galerie sold a group of works when they bought Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 [in 2006, for a reported £135m, the highest price paid for a painting at the time], and some of those pieces are in the exhibition. These include Gerti Schiele in Orange Hat, 1910 [also for sale].

You are also showing a few Schiele self-portraits. How do these fit with your “women” theme?

These are to give a sense of the man at the same time as he was drawing his women, they are a touchstone for the other works on view. For example, there’s one portrait where he is clearly more mature [a 1916 work that isn’t for sale], you get the feeling that the boy has gone, and the way he draws women at that time also shows a change.

Why do you think Schiele has been mostly overlooked by institutions in the UK?

It is scandalous that his work is not in museums here. He is confrontational, his work is about sex, it is tense, anxious and emotional, it is seen as very Germanic. But he resonates to a very wide public with a recognisable style: it is no coincidence that the Royal Academy used a Schiele image recently to promote what was essentially an old masters exhibition [“Treasures from Budapest”, 25 September-12 December 2010, had Schiele’s Two Women Embracing, 1915, on its posters].

How did you become involved with Austrian art?

I suppose in the environment I grew up in there was a lot of art and antiques. My family weren’t active collectors, but my grandparents had emigrated from Budapest with a house full of furniture, including Wiener Werkstätte [Vienna Workshop] and decorative art, but unfortunately no Klimts or Schieles. I grew up with a strong awareness of Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian culture, as well as having the opposite: a typical Australian upbringing.

What brought you to London?

When I finished university, I spent a year travelling around Europe, as Australians did at that time. I then joined Sotheby’s Works of Art course in London, which was the only place [offering such a subject] in those days, run by Derek Shrub. Derek was a pretty hard taskmaster in many ways, but he was really brilliant, especially at communicating the qualities of connoisseurship and I think that is a very difficult thing to try and teach.

Do you think there’s enough of that being taught today?

I don’t think it happens at all. It requires a very particular sort of rigour. In fact on that year of the course, more than half [of around 40] stayed in the art world and probably still are [including the London-based contemporary and modern art dealer Ivor Braka].

Did you go straight from that to dealing?

I spent a brief period with a company called Fine Art Consultants and then struck out on my own around 1980. At that time I was acting as an agent in London for Australian collectors.

What were they collecting at that time?

In the beginning they were collecting, primarily, colonial and topographical Australian art that was coming up at auctions in London—there was quite a lot here. In those days the auction catalogues never got to Australia before the sale so I would courier catalogues to different people who would give me bids to execute for them. Then—as one does in the folly of youth—I knocked on the doors of Australian captains of industry and offered my services to them. I think that people were prepared to give me a chance just because I was young and trying to get on. So some of the people who became clients at that time were the heads of major companies in Australia.

Tell me about your time at the Dover Street Gallery.

I opened the Dover Street Gallery in 1989 [with Edmondo di Robilant, now co-director of Robilant+Voena gallery, and David Fyfe-Jamieson, ex Sotheby’s]. They were looking for a space as well and we ended up at 9 Old Bond Street on the 4th floor, three of us in a tiny room. We showed old masters, primarily [but Nagy focused on the works of Schiele and Gustav Klimt]. The Dover Street Gallery ran from 1989-2005.

Why did you then decide to go it alone?

Edmondo wanted me to come across to the gallery space in Dover Street that he’s still in, and I just didn’t feel it was conducive to what I was doing. We had both compromised to a certain extent in Dover Street, on issues such as how we presented things, and it was just too big a space for works on paper or small paintings so I declined to continue with him. Although before I took this space I almost went in on the floor above him, but the guy that owned it hadn’t decided on whether or not to sell, so I signed this instead.

You’ve had great success working through art fairs and by private appointment, why are you opening a gallery space of your own now?

I would like to do some more exhibitions than I currently get the chance to do. And the fact remains, when you’re in the centre of things, opportunities are created. I was only ten minutes away from here [London’s Mayfair, where many high-end galleries operate], but ten minutes can be light years if you’re not in the same place as others. It’s easier to communicate with people in the industry when you bump into them in the street or a restaurant. There’s definitely an advantage being back in the mainstream.

What have been the highlights of the past 30 years?

I can’t say that I’ve ever stopped to think about that. I guess the highlights are the great works of art that one has coming through. I’ve handled what I think is probably the greatest of the Stanley Spencers on the market, The Crucifixion, 1958, which was bought from Ivor Braka and sold to an Australian collector. And if I go through the Albertina catalogue, I’ve organised loans for about 20 pieces in that [2005-06] show, which indicates the quality of the [works] that have passed through here. One great highlight was the George Grosz (1893-1959) painting Tempo der Strasse which came up at a bric-a-brac auction sale in Berne [Switzerland, in 2002] with an estimate of Swfr160,000 [$100,000] and which I bought for close to $1m [hammer price $683,654]. It hadn’t been seen since it was exhibited in 1920 and was presumed destroyed in the war. That was a great highlight.


1973-76 Enrolled at Sydney University to study law, later switching to history of art and archaeology

1977-78 In London to do Sotheby’s Works of Art course

1980 Begins dealing in old master paintings, soon switching commercial focus to artists from Germany and Austria

1985 Meets collector Rudolf Leopold and dealer Serge Sabarsky, with whom he develops strong professional relationships

1989-2005 Opens and runs the Dover Street Gallery with Edmondo di Robilant and David Fyfe-Jamieson

2005-11 Dealing at fairs and by private appointment

2011 Opens first solo gallery space