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Art: By Appointment Only

1970
1945
Time 3 August 1970

When Mary Tapie de Celeyran, the Comtesse Attems, was hard up for cash to repair the family's Chateau du Bosc and wished to sell ten family portraits by her famous uncle, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, she did not offer them to the public at an auction house or a public art gallery. Instead, through an intermediary, she got in touch with Private Dealer Charles Slatkin in New York, who bought all ten and eventually sold them to one of the U.S.'s shrewdest collectors. Not untypically in this secretive trade, the collector insists on remaining anonymous.

In using a private dealer to handle the sale, the Comtesse Attems followed the lead of many another titled owner who wished to dispose of ancestral holdings without the unseemly fuss of a public exhibition. The progress of her drawings through Slatkin's hands to their eventual resting place was typical of a private dealer's transactions. "We are the matchmakers of the art world," says Dealer Harold Diamond, who is himself so discreet that he refuses to disclose the names of any of his customers or sources. They are the middlemen who arrange the transfer of precious works of art from sellers (usually European) to buyers (usually American) with the tact of a diplomat and the cunning of a spy. They shun publicity, they do not have public openings or exhibitions, they most definitely do not open their doors to the hordes of art-loving housewives who trek up and down Manhattan from 57th Street to the upper reaches of Madison Avenue "doing the galleries" on Saturday afternoons. Few people even know they exist.

Richer by Degas. On East 76th Street, just a block from Collectors Edgar and Bernice Garbisch, is the six-story town house of Austrian-born Sam Salz, at 76 the dean of New York's private dealers. At the moment Salz is in Europe on a scouting and buying trip, a journey he makes two or three times each year. But during the season, the visitor who rings the plain, unmarked bell is let in by a deferential porter in livery and escorted past a larger than life-sized Maillol nude in terracotta and a 14th century A.D. wooden Chinese deity to Salz's reception room on the second floor.

The visitor is, of course, expected. If a collector, he has probably been invited to see a par ticular piece that Salz feels is right for him. Or if he is a newcomer, he has probably been referred by one of Salz's regular clients. The si lence is intense, almost op pressive — the kind of well-draped, deep-carpeted quiet that in New York costs a great deal of money, and the visitor has time to look around at Salz's private collection: Chinese bronzes in cases throughout the house, a large, handsome view of St. Tropez by Signac, busts by Despiau and Zadkine. Then Salz himself appears, a small man with penetrating eyes and a mild, humorous manner.

What happens after that is known only to the dealer and his client. But many a famous collector has left Salz's town house poorer by tens of thousands of dollars but richer by a prime Degas, Vuillard, Corot or Monet. As a young man in Paris in the early years of this century, Salz was a painter him self. "Not a great painter like these," he says, waving a hand toward the Segonzacs, Vlamincks and Van Dongens that line his walls. "But I was a friend of all the 20th century artists." The works of these friends were assembled by him for Actor Edward G. Robinson's justly celebrated collection. He proudly shows visitors black and white photographs of the Cézanne Paysage de Provence he sold to Robert Lehman, the Renoir bought by David Rockefeller, the Monet that went to Paul Mellon, the Bonnard, Redon and Cézanne he sold to New York's Metropolitan Mu seum of Art.

Not all private dealers are as well housed as Salz. Newcomer Ben Heller, 44, a textile tycoon and a well-known collector in his own right, makes do with a nine-room co-op apartment on Manhattan's Central Park West. Heller is also a friend of artists. He was an early patron of Pollock, Newman, and Kline, has sold many of the paintings thus acquired to Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art—keeping a few favorites for himself. Today he buys mostly primitive, classical and Oriental objects. "I buy as a collector, basically because it is beautiful, and I hope that someone else will love it, and maybe I can make a profit."

Between Salz's Old World grace and Heller's breezy New York style, the range of dealers is wide. One New York firm, Rosenberg and Stiebel, which numbers Oilman Paul Getty and CBS Chairman William Paley among its customers, traces itself back for more than 100 years to an antique dealer in Frankfurt. Its rising generation includes American-born and -educated Gerald Stiebel, 25, great-grandson of the founder. Rosenberg and Stiebel handle million-dollar sales with casual aplomb. The Metropolitan bought the Merode altarpiece for the Cloisters through them ("Probably our most important sale," says Father Eric Stiebel). Paul Magriel builds entire collections in some special area (Art Nouveau furniture, American still lifes), then calls in other dealers to dispose of them as a package.

Frederick Mont sells mostly European old masters mostly to U.S. museums; he was chosen as sole agent by the Prince of Liechtenstein for the sale of masterpieces from his collection. Mathias Komor, 61, comes from a family that has dealt in Chinese antiquities for 100 years. "A private dealer used to be terribly old or terribly rich, but now there are more younger people in the field," says Robert Osborne, 40, whose main interest is early Italian paintings.

Judge and Sleuth. No matter what their age or background, private dealers still have to find works to sell. Much of their sleuthing is done on regular trips to Europe, and, increasingly, by transatlantic telephone and color photography. "If you are a known buyer," says one, "things come to you"—as the ten Lautrecs came to Slatkin.

Finding pictures is only half the job. Equally challenging is evaluating and appraising them, which can take nerves of steel and the judgment of Solomon (or Berenson). "One of the most important pictures I ever handled was a late Rembrandt, A Praying Apostle," says Eugene V. Thaw, 42, who deals in European masters, both classic and modern, out of his ten-room Park Avenue apartment. "The painting was signed and dated, and I knew it was a Rembrandt, but something about it bothered me. Experts thought it was one of the artist's less important works, but I thought it needed cleaning. Even Germany's Doerner Institute labs, which do most of the cleaning for the big European museums, advised me not to touch it for fear of ruining a million-dollar painting. But I decided to take the chance, and sure enough, it was covered with a 50year-old brown tone applied for Prince Harrach of Vienna to make it look older. That was the fashion in those days. When I had it removed, the painting came alive. You could see the artist's brush strokes and even hairs from his brush. The Cleveland Museum had turned it down before. But when they saw it cleaned, they bought it."

Knowing More. This kind of scholarship and expertise is essential to a private dealer's success. "About nine years ago I was walking down Portobello Road in London when I saw a Venetian bronze in a stall," said Michael Hall, 44, a specialist in Renaissance sculpture. "I recognized it as an important piece and I bought it for a few pounds, but afterward I felt guilty because the dealer wasn't too well off and didn't know what he had. I can't tell you who the sculptor was just now, but last year I sold the piece to a private collector, and next year it will be in a very important museum with the rest of his collection. Later I went back to the dealer in Portobello and dropped £30 in his hand and told him to get his teeth fixed. He wasn't at all grateful; in fact, he resented my having known more than he did."

Jane Wade, one of the pioneer American-born private dealers, started out as a secretary to the late Curt Valentin, one of New York's most successful public dealers. "Do you paint?" asked Valentin when he interviewed her. "No." "Then you're hired." She soon was much more than a secretary, working with Valentin's artists—Calder, Lipchitz, Moore, Arp—on their shows. She became vice president of Marlborough-Gerson Gallery before going into business for herself. In judging the value of a painting or sculpture, she never seeks other opinions, relies exclusively on her own years of experience. "You just know," she says, "or you're not in the business."

Fine Line. The line between private dealers and public galleries is sometimes a fine one. In addition to selling drawings out of his Park Avenue apartment, Charles Slatkin sells tapestries in what he calls "a gallery," though it is nine floors up in an Upper East Side apartment building, and no sauntering art lover would be likely to find it without an invitation. Harold Reed, 33, goes farther. "He started with an artmobile," said one shocked colleague, "and advertises in the Sunday New York Times." Nevertheless, Reed's handsomely decorated East Side town house is open to customers by appointment only. Its four stories are jammed from basement to attic with works of mostly modern American art, and everything except the furniture is for sale in a relaxed atmosphere. In the elegant clutter of Reed's sunny house, it is easier for a prospective buyer to imagine how a painting or sculpture will look in his own home. As matchmakers, private dealers in effect aim to bring two strangers together. That homey atmosphere makes things easier on both sides. 

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,876703,00.html
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