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Nicholas Penny

  • The Auctioneer: A Memoir of Great Art, Legendary Collectors and Record-Breaking Auctions by Simon de Pury and William Stadiem
    Allen and Unwin, 312 pp, £9.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 1 76011 350 6
  • Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and Its Dealers by Philip Hook
    Profile, 282 pp, £20.00, January 2017, ISBN 978 1 78125 570 4
  • Donald Judd: Writings edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray
    David Zwirner, 1054 pp, £28.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 941701 35 5

Simon de Pury, assisted by ‘a regular contributor to Vanity Fair’, has written a book about his ascent to the top of the art world: the auctions he conducted, the deals he struck, the parties he attended. It resembles a board game, with smaller parts assigned to the ‘hedge fund overlord’, the ‘polo-playing playboy millionaire’, the ‘James Bond of the Russian oligarchy’, the ‘French luxury goods tycoon’ (also appearing as the ‘French luxury titan’), the ‘serial dater of supermodels’, and the ‘leveraged-buyout king’. The book is illustrated with photographs of de Pury’s friends, such as Tita Thyssen-Bornemisza (wearing a ‘100+ carat diamond’), Al Taubman and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. De Pury was private curator to Baron ‘Heini’ – Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza – then chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, then established Phillips de Pury, which he hoped would ‘turn the auction house duoply that was Sotheby’s and Christie’s into a triumvirate that included myself’. ‘Courting Medicis is now what I do,’ he writes, ‘and every week seems to bring a trip to Qatar, Shanghai, or some other Neverland where fantastic people indulge their fantasies by collecting art. I’m there to help.’

De Pury has little to say about any particular work of art, other than a poor imitation of a Lucian Freud which he is proud to have commissioned. It shows him wearing a dark suit with Anh Duong – his girlfriend at the time – sprawled naked across his lap. Although de Pury modestly concedes that it would be an exaggeration to compare him to Christopher Columbus, he does want us to believe that he is a great explorer. He claims to have spotted Richter when he was still an ‘emerging’ artist. He hasn’t the slightest doubt that ‘contemporary art’ is ‘the New Old Masters’. When, in 2015, Hirst and Koons arrived in the Gulf at the behest of Sheikha Al-Mayassa, it was ‘like putting Michelangelo and da Vinci in the same room’.

De Pury offers one explanation for the huge market that has grown up for contemporary art. ‘There aren’t any more Old Masters for dealers and auction houses to sell. They’re all in museums. The same is becoming the case for Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.’ This isn’t exactly the truth. Jetting from art fair to celebrity auction, he has missed recent acquisitions by institutions like the Getty Museum (including a Bernini and a Rembrandt), and the two wonderful Titians bought by the National Gallery of Scotland together with the National Gallery in London. There are also new private collectors of Old Masters (Jeff Koons may be one of them). No mention is made of the changing market in ‘Modern’, which has in recent decades expanded to include a reappraisal of ‘Modern British’ – an area in which dealers, curators and collectors practise discrimination of a kind rarely found in the field of contemporary art. The discovery of neglected Masters (there is some uncertainty as to whether they should be classified as ‘Old’) such as, most recently, the Norwegian Peder Balke, may not warrant his notice, but he also makes no reference to the promotion of Klimt and Schiele to a position near Picasso in the Temple of Fame, or at least in the Art Price Index. De Pury once belonged to a partnership that did much to supply Ronald Lauder, who founded the Neue Galerie in New York and helped revise our understanding of the artistic importance of Vienna a hundred-odd years ago, yet his book contains next to nothing on this topic.

There has, of course, been a marked reduction in the availability of high-quality Old Masters, and the recent preference of the auction houses for private sales over public auctions has reinforced the impression of scarcity. But diminished supply isn’t the whole story. In fact, as we are reminded in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s survey of prominent art dealers from the Renaissance to today, the equivalents of de Pury’s ‘overlords’ and ‘titans’ were keen purchasers of very expensive contemporary art in the 19th century, when there was no shortage of Old Masters. The dominance of the Old Masters came about at the end of the century and lasted for more than fifty years. It was engineered by several extraordinarily persuasive dealers, most notably Joseph Duveen, who ensured that some of the richest men in the US – Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington, Joseph Widener and Andrew Mellon among them – employed only two types of contemporary artist (often recommended by Duveen himself): the conservative decorator and the conservative architect. They provided appropriate settings for Bellini and Botticelli among the tapestries and old enamels, and for Rembrandt and Hobbema, and portraits by Reynolds and Romney, alongside the finest French 18th-century furniture, Ming and Qing porcelain, and Persian rugs. How they managed to focus the wealthiest class of collector on a carefully selected range of highly esteemed old paintings, objets d’art and furniture is not entirely clear. The reaction against the idea that new money is more comfortable with new art may have helped. If the self-made man in 1870 was expected to buy Millais or Millet, their still wealthier successors (characterised by Hook as ‘rough-hewn moguls’) would be tempted into a world of more durable as well as princely taste – ‘princely’, because princes had a large supply of such works. Duveen, as well as Knoedler and the Wildensteins (each firm active in London, Paris and New York), were able to assure their clients that they were acquiring works of museum quality. And, indeed, the works are now to be seen in the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, in the Frick Collection in New York and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (the gift of Andrew Mellon and the final resting place of the Widener collection). Antique sculpture, perhaps surprisingly, was never given a major part in this story, though classical architecture certainly was. Duveen’s favourite architect, John Russell Pope, supplied a mausoleum for the Huntingtons, adapted Frick’s townhouse as a public gallery and designed the National Gallery of Art. The increasingly difficult and radical character of modern art may have further reinforced these preferences. And modern art in turn increasingly defined itself in opposition to the old.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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[*] Curationism was reviewed by Hal Foster in the LRB of 4 June 2015.