Young Blood, Old Masters

The artists, curators and dealers proving that passion for historical art is far from a thing of the past

BY Matthew McLean in Frieze Week Magazine | 03 OCT 17

Among the household names that populated the collection of David Bowie when it went on sale last year was one rather more unexpected: Jacobo Robusti, aka ‘the little dyer’, Tintoretto. The Angel Foretelling Saint Catherine of Alexandria of Her Martyrdom, completed in the late 1570s, had a long journey to Bowie’s Swiss home, where for 30 years he hung it next to a work by the late Scottish painter John Bellany. Commissioned for a Venetian chapel designed by Jacopo Sansovino, it hung for more than 200 years there to the admiration of visitors (including van Dyck), until the chapel was blown up by Napoleon in 1807. It ended up at Colanghi, the gallery from which Bowie acquired it – and whose 225 feet archive, reaching back to the gallery’s founding in 1760, documented this lively provenance.

‘Using the archives, we could piece together quite a dramatic story’, says Jorge Coll, co-founder of the Madrid-based Coll and Cortés and, since 2015, partners of Colnaghi. Coll’s respect for the heritage of the gallery is indicated by the presence of a library at the core of its new premises in London’s St James’s district, which opened late last year. ‘Colnaghi represents excellence, history, and placing the most amazing paintings with the most important institutions – the pinnacle of our field’, says Coll. He describes accepting a role at the gallery as ‘a no brainer’, comparing it to a footballer getting a transfer offer to FC Barcelona.

Coll and Cortés were not, to stick with the metaphor, transferring from the second division: founded in Madrid 
in only 2004, over a little more than decade the gallery has become a leader in the field of Spanish Old Masters, especially polychrome sculpture. This field had been relatively underrepresented, something which changing demography – specifically, North America’s growing Latino population – made increasingly incongruous. A turning point in wider perception of the field was ‘The Sacred Made Real’, a 2009 exhibition of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age, curated by Xavier Bray, who in May 2016 was appointed Director of London’s Wallace Collection. At 45, Bray is one of a crop of young directors of historical collections which also numbers the Rijksmuseum’s Taco Dibbits, the V&A’s Tristram Hunt and – since the recent bequest of the legendary Cerruti collection, which spans Pontormo and Renoir as well as twentieth century art – Castello di Rivoli’s Carolyn Christov-Bargakiev.

Kunstkammer Georg Laue / Peter Freeman Inc, B6, Frieze Masters 2017; photograph: Benjamin Westoby

‘The challenge was to make people realise that this was an art form in itself – not just devotional objects’, says Bray. To achieve this in the hang, Bray took cues from the era’s artists, whose works were painted and displayed by candlelight. Exceptionally sensitive lighting (‘tenebrous’ in Bray’s words) allowed the sculptures’ intense details – a glass tear, or combed human hair – to be perceived on the same level as the lucid hyperrealism of the canvasses. ‘It took five days to get the lighting right,’ Bray recalls, ‘but it was necessary.’

Coll likens Bray to a film director: someone who can combine technical knowledge with an ability to create atmosphere. Next year, he plans to present an exhibition juxtaposing Henry Moore’s ‘Helmet Head’ series with the Wallace’s holdings of Renaissance armour, which Moore visited as a student in the 1920s. ‘We will be able to show you exactly what Moore saw, even where he stood’ says Bray.

The response to ‘The Sacred Made Real’ (which travelled to Washington DC), and the efforts of the likes of Coll and Cortés, give the lie to the idea of Old Masters as an unchanging field, subject to fixed laws of supply and demand. Over the last decade, says Bray, ‘major museums that had no Spanish sculpture in their collection have all acquired some. We put back an art form on a map – as an art historian, that’s incredibly gratifying’. For the curious, Frieze week this year offers more insights into the Spanish school, with ‘El Greco to Goya’ (a show of works from the remote Bowes Museum in Northern England) on view at the Wallace, and a masterpiece by Murillo – a study for his final work, now lost – presented by Caylus Gallery at Frieze Masters.

We put an art form back on the map: as an art historian, that’s incredibly gratifying - Xavier Bray

While Coll and Cortés have placed works at institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and elsewhere, Coll himself is clear that museums are only part of the field’s future. ‘You can ask any curator or director and they will agree: we have to build a new generation of connoisseurs.’ To this end, Coll has begun initiatives at Colnaghi for enthusiasts not yet at the buying stage, like ‘The Price is Right’: a regular supper club held in London during which participants guess the price of upcoming Old Master lots, guided by advice from the gallery. In another attempt to develop connoisseurship in a convivial way, Coll and Bray are together developing the an informal but rigorously vetted course that
will teach participants, in Bray’s words, ‘to look, understand, feel and to recognise’.

For the London-based dealer Johnny van Haeften, this education came on the job. Having joined an auction house as a philatelist or stamp expert in 1969, he found an immediate affnity with the ‘small, jewel-like’ meticulousness of Dutch Old Masters, and began training his own eye – and hands. ‘At lunchtimes, I’d go to the National Gallery, and in the evenings I would go switch on the lights in the store rooms’ he recounts. There, he could handle the wares directly. ‘It like Arthur Negus said – you don’t know furniture until you feel it. For my field, you have to have a feel for copper, or the different textures of poplar, softwood, Baltic and Nordic oak.’ When van Haeften sold an American contemporary collector their first Old Master – a van Ruisdael landscape – at Frieze Masters in 2016, technical expertise was key to the process. ‘It was love at first sight for him, but I still had to explain how important the picture was, and demonstrate the condition, showing it under the blacklight’, van Haeften recalls. ‘Then he went to the National Gallery and the Wallace to make comparisons, and asked a museum director for advice.’ When he recounts the steps in making the sale, Van Haeften’s excitement is palpable; though having shuttered his St James’s premises early this year and now semi-retired, he will return to Frieze Masters in 2017.

Hauser & Wirth/ Moretti Fine Art, D1, Frieze Masters 2017; photograph: Benjamin Westoby 

Precisely because, as this anecdote indicates, acquiring historical art often means marshalling a high degree of expertise, art consultant Hugo Nathan plays down the seemingly perennial panic at the relative absence of young collectors of Old Masters. ‘In my career,’ says Nathan, who spent 15 years at the respected Dickinson dealership before cofounding Beaumont Nathan, ‘there has always been this spectral worry about young people not coming through. But even during the market’s strongest moment, it’s never been predominantly a young person’s sphere.’ Instead, Nathan says, the sophistication of the area requires ‘a commitment to learning’. In other words, demand for Old Masters is a question of life stage. ‘Very often it’s only later into the collecting career that people turn to it’, he adds ‘when they know more and want to be more ambitious.’

Van Haeften concurs, noting that it’s typical of artists well into their artistic or collecting careers to start to appreciate historical work. Indeed, when Dr. Thomas Kaplan, a natural resources investor now in his mid-fifties, put his Leiden Collection of Dutch Golden Age painting – which features the largest number of Rembrandts in private hands – on view in New York, artists including John Currin, Zeng Fanzhi, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons were among the wonderstruck visitors. A new series of works by Los Angeles based artist Catherine Opie, on view in London during this year’s Frieze week at Thomas Dane Gallery, is another manifestation of historical art’s profound ability to speak to the contemporary, with Opie bringing the sparse presentation and psychological intensity found in Dutch portraiture to bear on figures including David Hockney, Michelle Lamy and the heavily tattooed performance artist Ron Athey, whose pose in Ron (2013) evokes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665). ‘The history of painting has seeped into the portraits’, Opie says, describing how seeing Lady with an Ermine (1489–90) at the National Gallery’s 2011 Da Vinci exhibition in London immediately evoked her son Oliver holding his pet mouse. ‘I am interested in the history of how our desire functions when looking at a portrait’ says Opie, ‘to stare, to be seen but not see back.’

Lately I find I look more and more to the past - Mario Testino

For another great photographer of desire, Mario Testino, maturity too has brought a fresh appreciation of Old Masters. ‘Lately I find I look more and more to the past’, he says. ‘I love the juxtaposition of looking to both the old and the new.’ Such just a juxtaposition was made in a recent collaboration between Testino and Dibbits for Testino’s Mira Mira platform. For this, Testino selected works from the Rijksmuseum that inspired him, which Dibbits then compared to examples from Testino’s own oeuvre – likening the pronounced lips and ambiguous expression in a 2005 shot of Gwyneth Paltrow to those of the sitter in Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Blue (1641) by Johannes Verspronck, or drawing out the shared religious undertones of Testino’s Marcelle Bittar, Rio de Janeiro (2005) and Gabriël Metsu’s The Sick Child (c.1664–66). For Testino, being alive to both the past and to the contemporary is a means to ‘balance his eye’ and remain open to discover new things. ‘Contemporary art is unproven’ he says. ‘The Old Masters are the opposite. That’s the choice.’ It’s a sentiment shared by van Haeften, who notes that artists’ admiration of their forebears is entrenched in the modern era. ‘Picasso was obsessed with Cranach, among others; Bacon, Velasquez. Old Masters are the standard of art history, the blue chips, if you will’, he says. ‘They’ve held their value for hundreds of years, and that’s not likely to change’.

The allusion to financial value raises one of the most appealing aspects of Old Masters to new collectors – their relatively accessible prices. Bowie’s Tintoretto, for example, despite being of museum quality – it has gone on long-term loan to Antwerp’s Rubenshuis – hammered at £155,000, roughly equivalent to the price of an entry level piece by a mid-career contemporary painter. For Coll, it’s a key message to new clients that ‘for less than a Basquiat, you can form a museum – a proper one’. Indeed, this is almost exactly the insight that opened the way to Kaplan’s collection. During a vacation in Croatia, Kaplan had lunch with Sir Norman Rosenthal (former Head of Exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and now curator of the Collections section at Frieze Masters), who asked him why he didn’t collect anything. When Kaplan lamented that his passion was Dutch Old Masters, which was beyond his means, Rosenthal suggested that his dream might to how affordable than he realised. ‘When he was told he could get three Rembrandts for one Rothko – he went for Rembrandts!’ chuckles van Haeften.

Robilant + Voena, D2, Frieze Masters 2017; photograph: Benjamin Westoby

While Kaplan’s singular vision is key to his rapid assembly of masterpieces, so too was the support and expertise of the likes of Rosenthal, and experienced dealers in the field. ‘Otto Nauman, Boudy [the nickname of Salomon Lillian, of the eponymous gallery] and I all helped him’, says van Haeften, who estimates that more than half of the works in the Leiden collection ‘have either come through me or from me’. Nathan, too, recommends clients keen to develop a collection in this area treat galleries as key resources, despite the supply of material available at auctions. ‘A lot has always been made of dealers buying from auction and then re-selling’, he says ‘but with Old Masters it’s actually an extremely useful culling process for collectors – to have someone pick the things of merit then present a carefully edited selection’.

Having been exhibited at the Louvre, Paris, earlier this year, the Leiden Collection is currently on tour in China, opening at the National Museum in Beijing in June and Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei’s Long Museum, Shanghai in September (before heading to the Louvre Abu Dubai in 2018). China, indeed, is a growing market for historical works. Van Haeften, who says he has ‘fallen in love with China’ through organizing the Leiden tour, has developed a solid Chinese collector base, not least among collectors of Chinese porcelain, examples of which often feature in 17th Century still lifes by the likes of Kalf and de Heem. But the appeal is based on more than seeing national heritage reflected in these works. ‘Part of the Chinese mentality, as I know it, is a determination to look for good value, and what is underpriced. Often that’s a Rubens’, says van Haeften. Nathan too predicts that the Asian economies will produce ‘a new generation of collectors who won’t collect art like people collect yachts, but in a more dignified way’ – with figures like Henry Frick, Paul Mellon and Richard Wallace, as their inspirations.

Old Master collectors have the sophistication to see quality regardless of field - Hugo Nathan

‘At art fairs, I increasingly see something of a “Wallace imprint”’, says Bray (who notes that the Wallace Collection was a direct inspiration for Frick himself, who visited in 1903, six years after Wallace’s widow donated the collection to the nation). By this he means a focus on exceptional quality regardless of period or type. Besides masterpieces by Boucher, Hals and Fragonard, Bray notes, Wallace also acquired an Ashanti gold head, a Celtic bell, and a bronze acrobat by Barthélemy Prieur, sculptor to Henri IV. ‘For him’, thinks Bray, ‘it was about a completely sensory experience – a kind of ecstasy.’ Nathan likens diverse collections like those of Frick of Wallace to the juxtapositions offered by encyclcopaedic art fairs. ‘With antiquities, impressionism, modern and decorative art all together, you can get a much clearer idea of collecting like a museum would.’ Indeed, for Nathan, this porousness between categories and openness of appreciation is one of the great joys of historical collecting, citing specialists like Anthony Crichton-Stuart of London dealer Agnew’s, and Markus Marschall of Munich’s Daxer & Marschall, as ones who are ‘not afraid to champion artists people don’t know’, whether lesser-known Victorian painters or Scandinavian romanticists. ‘I can assure you Old Master collectors will get into manuscripts, or medieval, or Victorian, because they have the sophistication to see quality regardless of field’, he says, predicting that the kind of juxtapositions offered by art fairs like Frieze Masters will inspire collectors to acquire ‘Japanese prints, Mannerist bronzes, Cubism and contemporary art.’

Eclecticism is the name of the game at Kunstkammer Georg Laue, which deals in a field that encompasses everything from natural curiosities (a stuffed crocodile is one of founder Georg Laue’s most prized possessions), metalwork, decorated Nautilius shells, scientific instruments, Renaissance ivories and baroque skulls. The last of these are a special passion of Laue’s (‘It’s not sad or morbid’, he says of the motif, ‘it reminds me to enjoy life, to do things with energy and full of love.’ With examples starting at £15,000, they are apparently extremely saleable). Laue’s Munich gallery has quickly established itself as a leader in a field that (similar to Coll and Cortés’s at their outset) was somewhat neglected when he opened it in 1997. ‘We still don’t really have specialist Kunstkammer collectors’, Laue notes. Rather he thrives at placing individual objects or types of object with parties to who see them as complementing their existing collections. German collector Dr. Thomas Olbricht was so taken with Laue’s own Kunstkammer than he commissioned one for himself, which since 2012 has been on view at Oblricht’s me Collectors Room in Berlin. Much like the model Nathan and van Haeften describe, Olbricht ‘just buys something because he loves the item’, says Laue ‘whether it’s made of alabaster, or straw, or is a sculpture worth five hundred thousand Euros’. This individual approach to specific objects is common among collectors who branch out from contemporary into Kunstkammer, says Laue. ‘Often, they really love something we have, but don’t know exactly what it is, what it’s worth, or how to find it. What they do know that it will fit fantastically next to this or that painting or sculpture’.

This, he says, is where fairs like Frieze Masters come into their own. Since 2014, Laue has shared on a stand at the fair with Peter Freeman Inc., the New York-based modern dealer. The often show-stopping stands are meticulously planned. ‘Peter was here last week discussing the pieces we have and working out themes and resonances’, Laue says, before recalling previous unique pairings like that of a Thomas Schutte double-headed bust with a double-faced Memento Mori skull. ‘It’s impossible to do the exact thing again, as everything must fit perfectly’, he adds. For 2017, Laue and Freeman plan to offset the lucid geometry of an amber chessboard with the grid of a Mel Bochner canvas, while structural themes in works by Schutte and Richard Wentworth will be echoed by renaissance cabinets that mimic architecture. The opportunity to see another approach to carefully curated contrasts of old and new during Frieze week 2017 is the third edition of the collaborative stand, shared by London-based Moretti Fine Art’s and contemporary powerhouse Hauser & Wirth at Frieze Masters. Last year, the galleries commissioned an environment from architect Luis Laplace in which a sublime abstract Guston, a fiery Lee Lozano and a delicate Fausto Melotti created a dialogue with a pastel coloured Italian terracotta Madonna, a dramatic erupting Vesuvius by Michael Wutky and a wooden panel featuring St Anthony Abbot by Renaissance master Taddeo Gaddi – companion to a work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

‘I always think the coolest thing you can say about art you own’, Hugo Nathan says, ‘is not “X collector has one in this series”, or “Y collector has a similar one”’ – but ‘the other one of these is in the National Gallery’. If his predictions about the direction of collecting prove true, it will be a claim that will be heard more and more often.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.