Whether it be the rediscovery of Gothic art in the later 18th century, of Italian baroque painting after World War II, or of Victorian art in the 1960s and 70s, the reasons why long neglected works of art come again to be appreciated are complex and elusive. But the earliest stage in any revival occurs when works of art change hands in the dealer’s showroom or in the auction house. Precisely because members of the art trade have a strong practical motivation to find out about the art they are buying and selling, they are the ones who often provide the bedrock of scholarship that enables collectors, academics and the public to understand an artist or a style.
But once financial worth is established, the next stage in the revaluation of a neglected period or style is almost as important: its documentation. Who made the object? How? When? For whom? And where has it been in the years since it was made? The importance of scholarship for the functioning of the art trade can hardly be overestimated.
In the first half of the 20th century, dealers who were also important scholars existed mostly in Europe. The archetype of the scholar-dealer was César de Hauke, who not only left his outstanding collection of 19th-century French drawings to the British Museum, but was also the author of the catalogue of the complete work of Georges Seurat, and, with Paul Brame, was responsible for the catalogue raisonné of the works of Edgar Degas. The art dealer and connoisseur Paul Rosenberg published the first catalogue of Paul Cézanne’s complete work, while another dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt, Jr, brought John Rewald’s catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Paul Cézanne to its publication in 1996 (John Rewald having died in 1994) and is acknowledged as the world’s leading authority on Cézanne. The list goes on: Heinz Berggruen on Juan Gris, Eberhard Kornfeld on Max Beckmann, Otto and Jane Kallir on Egon Schiele. The point is that these figures saw no conflict between making their living by selling art and the demands of dispassionate scholarship. Though we rarely hear it said, dealers might well be world experts on the artists they handle—indeed greater connoisseurs than museum curators or university professors.
In England, where art history was not even taught at most universities until relatively recently, the tradition of the scholar-dealer did not exist until after the war when a number of world-renowned scholars were dealing in Old Master paintings and drawings. One was Jim Byam Shaw at Colnaghi’s, who wrote with authority on the art of Guardi and Tiepolo and who also published the catalogue of the Old Master drawings at Christ Church Picture Gallery. Another example is Evelyn Joll of Agnew’s, whose catalogue raisonné of J.M.W. Turner, written with the Tate Gallery’s Martin Butlin, won the prestigious Mitchell Prize for art history. Indeed, as soon as you begin looking around the London art trade for scholar-dealers, you realise how many of them there are: Richard Kingzett on Samuel Scott, Jane Abdy on both Tissot and the Danish Golden Age painters, Malcolm Waddingham on Adam Elsheimer, Clovis Whitfield on Domenichino, Kate Ganz on Annibale Carracci. All have made enormous contributions to our knowledge of the history of art every bit as valuable as research coming from our universities, and every one of them works in the trade.
Over and over you find that interest in a new or unexplored area of art history in Britain was and is dealer-led, whether one thinks of the Camden Town Group, whose art was championed by Julian Agnew, Anthony d’Offay and Lillian Browse, or Jeremy Maas’s and Christopher Wood’s numerous publications on all aspects of Victorian art. The tradition continues with Michael Whiteway’s recent Christopher Dresser exhibition in Milan, and in the superb catalogues on 19th-century furniture and decorative arts written by Martin Levy of Blairman’s Fine Art. Some of the most highly regarded scholars in the world, from Noël Annesley on Old Master drawings to John Christian on Victorian painting, work for the major auction houses.
Ever since Hogarth’s lampoons, art dealing has been unfairly caricatured as a business for crooks and frauds. But examples abound of men and women of the highest integrity working in the art trade. It is high time the contribution dealers make to the history of art is acknowledged and celebrated.
The writer is the art critic of the Daily Telegraph in London and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. A longer version of this article is published this month in “Art Market Matters” (TEFAF). The Maastricht fair takes place from 5 to 14 March. For details of the fair and the book see www.tefaf.com