Jack Wakefield

Conning the connoisseurs

Philip Hook’s history of the murky world of art dealing is disappointingly short on gossip and scandal

Conning the connoisseurs
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Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers

Philip Hook

Profile, pp. 282, £

Rogues’ Gallery describes itself as a history of art and its dealers, and Philip Hook, who has worked at the top of Sotheby’s for decades, is well versed in his subject. Sadly for the prurient, this is not an exposé of the excesses of the market from one of its high priests; and Hook says that where possible he has avoided writing about the living. It is hard not to feel a bit disappointed. For an alarming moment in the introduction, it seemed as if he was preparing to write an academic treatise about how dealers influence art and taste.

The book does start as more of a conventional history of art-dealing, but it quickly gets into its stride, rattling off the lives of the great dealers of French impressionism and European and American modernism in an engaging style spiced with mordant humour. Peter Wilson fleeces an intoxicated billionairess from the Sotheby’s podium, while the Marlborough Gallery director Frank Lloyd leans on a client like this: ‘You can change your décor, you can change your wife, but you won’t want to change this Bacon once you own it.’

The collective biography is a good idea. Different dealers, and indeed different markets, influence art in different ways. More problematically, the book covers both dealers who represented artists and those, like Lord Duveen, who traded secondhand masterpieces. Perhaps it is impossible to extricate the two types of dealing but the questions raised by each are very different. Nevertheless, one part of the story is the same: art’s centre of gravity moves from Europe to America and the last rogue in Hook’s gallery is Leo Castelli, the dealer most identified with pop art. By this stage, not only has the art been shipped to America, it has also become American. This seems to point to a depressing truth: that beyond dealers and even beyond artists it has always been the same invisible hand pulling the strings: the economy.

The first dealer to realise the potential of America seems to have been Paul Durand-Ruel, and if it is appropriate to talk about a hero in this book then Durand-Ruel is the man. He is the model for all the later art dealers: fixing prices, hiring public relations men and sucking up to museums. Hook draws an interesting parallel between Durand-Ruel and the Belgian-born impressario of the London art market, Ernest Gambart, 17 years his senior. Gambart sold spectacular paintings by Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema of an idealised and often silly antiquity to mighty Victorian industrialists for vast sums, but he made even more money from selling prints after the paintings and tickets to exhibitions. Yet for all his success in enriching himself and his stable of artists, his version of art-dealing, and the reputation of the art he sold, was all but extinguished by the success of Durand-Ruel, who created the market for impressionism. Perhaps the entertainment value of art for a penny a peep was destroyed by the cinema, but the author also suggests that Gambart sold spectacular subject matter (irrespective of artist) whereas impressionism sold the artist.

Either way, this clearly worked well for the art market both then, and as it does now. Impressionists make up a much bigger volume of work than academic artists and the market needs volume. Many of Hook’s rogues were passionate about modern art, with great personal collections of their own, but it certainly suited the bottom line. Meanwhile, the use of spectacular showmanship to sell expensive art was reinvented by the auction houses, and specifically by Peter Wilson, chairman of Sotheby’s, who pioneered the dinner- jacketed evening sale as an entertainment to rival the opera. Here he is clearly presented as a crook, with the ear of Wilson’s now-ancient younger colleagues; so this is as close as Hook gets to giving out insider knowledge.

It is a shame that Hook chose not to continue his narrative into living memory, past Castelli’s championing of pop art, past the rise and fall of Japan (which he doesn’t cover), up to the explosion of contemporary art prices. He does allude to that market briefly at the end, pointing out the mega-galleries with global presence that camouflage themselves as museums. But if he had covered the 2008 Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby’s it would have elucidated his principal question of the relationship between art and the market. That year, while Lehman Brothers was collapsing, Sotheby’s was directly marketing £111 million of Hirst’s work to successive ranks of the international rich.

Durand-Ruel and his successors all used their taste to make the market in art. But a century later a non-discriminatory marketplace was trying to get rid of dealers altogether. And did this global marketplace affect the art that was sold in it? Of course it did. It allowed it to be meretricious rubbish.