The Old Guard Vanishes

INSIDE THE ART MARKET: THE OLD GUARD VANISHES

“When I joined the business in 1946 it was a cottage industry. Now it’s very big business. It’s nowhere near as pleasant. There’s so much money at stake. So many people carping and so much criticism. It used to be very gentlemanly. Now it’s a harsh business.”   

—Sir Hugh Leggatt (1925-2014)

The sense of genteel distress conveyed in this 1992 view of the art market sounds almost folksy today. But it rings so true! For in the intervening years has come a steady decline among the world’s most elite picture dealers as they try to make a living quietly and discretely, the old-fashioned way. Today the art market is all about hustle and profit, clamor and cash, real estate, China and Dubai, glamour, famous names. The Edwardian cottage industry that high-society dealer Sir Hugh Leggatt once ruled has all but vanished.

An art market obsessed with all things modern demands a certain brassy self-promotion, something the Old Guard would find wearying and repellant. But success today is all about up-tempo salesmanship and deal-closing. And for that one needs a loud voice and steely self-assurance; charm but also plenty of guile and insincerity; deep pockets, of course; and above all money-centric flash and boldness. The masterful Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) comes to mind as someone from an earlier era who’d succeed brilliantly in today’s market. So does the fiery, charismatic preacher played by Burt Lancaster in the 1952 screen version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry.

Indeed, today’s art market often appears to be something straight out of an MGM production from the Hollywood studio heydays, with marquee stars promising box-office dazzle. Seated at one of the glitzy, by-reservation-only Contemporary art evening sales at Sotheby’s or Christie’s one feels part of a lavish film set, half-expecting a voice to bark from the back of the room: “lights, camera, action!” Small wonder that celebrities, once peripheral to the art market as amusing amateurs, have moved center stage.

I often wonder where all this slick, publicity-crazed progress is leading. Yes, the Old Guard was sniffy and elitist to a fault, often haughty and remote in their Savile Row silkiness. But they also knew the value of tradition and the meaning of that tired, overused word service. Sir Hugh Leggatt not only sold fine paintings over many generations to a discerning and loyal clientele but also devoted five decades selflessly to the protection of English heritage, even on such unglamorous but public-minded matters as ensuring free admission to museums. “Hundreds of paintings in the National Portrait galleries of England and Scotland, in particular, were acquired with his help,” wrote a reporter for The Independent. He was admired as one of the few “gentleman dealers” left in London.

From its modest 19th century beginnings Leggatt Brothers steadily built a name for itself as an elegant jack-of-all-trades in the art world. Over the decades they sold old and modern pictures, watercolors, etchings and engravings, restored frames, did appraisals, sold books. Above all they bought pictures at the auction sales. In the old days Christie’s was known as a picture seller, Sotheby’s a book seller. Hence Leggatt Brothers bought exclusively at Christie’s, and prodigiously so. In the1907-08 season alone they acquired some 234 works—a staggering number by today’s standard. They became a powerhouse, with premises for a time on the aptly-named “Gentleman’s Row” in Cheapside.

Their last big moment in the saleroom took place in 1984, when Charles Leggatt, bidding furiously at Sotheby’s on behalf of an anonymous client, bought the magnificent Seascape: Folkestone, an 1845 oil painting by J.M.W. Turner, for a world record price of £7.37 million. The painting had been owned by Lord Clark of Saltwood, more popularly known as art historian Kenneth Clark and acclaimed for his television series “Civilization.” Leggatt Brothers’ triumph at Sotheby’s was like a meteor shower lighting up the London sky, a sublimely breathtaking moment for the Old Guard in the waning days of the “cottage industry.”

But Leggatts could not survive the crippling recession that swept over the art market in the early 1990s. Alas, the business now demanded more money than Sir Hugh was willing to borrow. So even with the sixth generation of the family now coming into its own at the venerable old firm, Sir Hugh took the painful decision of closing its doors after 172 years in business. The Leggatt Archive, a treasure trove comprising four hundred bound and annotated volumes of auction catalogues dating back to 1846, recording most of the major fine art sales held over more than a century and a half, was sold thereafter and digitized. So the legacy of the firm lives on.

“There’s so much money at stake.” These words of Sir Hugh’s echoed recently as I read an article online at Artnet.com reporting that the prominent Contemporary art dealer Yvon Lambert was shuttering his commercial space in Paris after fifty years in the trade. The occasion was marked by Lambert’s caustic commentary on the current market, especially what he deemed the “explosion in prices for young artists.”

How much had the market changed since he began his career in 1966? “It’s like night and day,” he said glumly. Collectors who used to stop into his gallery for lively discussions about collecting and connoisseurship now visited rarely, and when they did spoke of art more as an investment or an asset class than a collecting passion. The bedazzlements of Frieze Fair and Art Basel—those crowded bazaars offering a galaxy of works by the very latest and hottest names—now beckoned seductively to Lambert’s once-loyal clients. The market, he felt, was now all about speculation and money. And as for art advisors, these he deemed little better than interior decorators.

“Art advisors are a sad, American invention,” he intoned.

Certainly the auction houses have also played a part in the declining fortunes of the picture business. They seem today more than ever committed to Modern and Contemporary art while gently waffling on many other fields of painting that seem to them of lesser growth potential. One can hear them reciting in soothing tones the many rational reasons why landscapes, family portraits and soaring religious scenes by 17th, 18th and 19th century artists, heretofore so treasured by collectors the world over, no longer seem relevant.

What is relevant, they would say, is marketing. Hence Sotheby’s and Christie’s seem ever more zealous these days in bragging about their online bidding platforms and their mastery of social media promotion than, say, their long-vaunted expertise in any given collecting field. After all, experts come and go and can always be replaced. And if you’ve any lingering doubts about that just recall the recent company-wide buyouts offered by Sotheby’s. It was a humbling business tack occasioned by massive losses from the ill-starred sale of the Taubman Collection in 2015. Specialists with decades of experience and precious client relationships formed over decades—an Old Guard indeed—were invited to walk out the door. And they did.

And so one may well ask: “Where is the new generation of art historians coming from, the new class of auction house paintings specialists, those wishing to work as private dealers in traditional fields like Impressionists and Old Masters? Will there even be careers for them?”

Perhaps the very notion of being a scholar of art these days, with all the rigorous training and research implied, is becoming obsolete. After all the iPhone can summon a wealth of images and data instantly onto a small screen in the palm of your hand, anywhere and anytime, a thrilling little genius machine. It can make anyone feel like a scholar. Perhaps years of tedious and disciplined training, the sort that created the legendary auction house experts in so many diverse fields of collecting through the centuries, is a thing of the past—too old school.

But recently I came across an article that appeared in the July 2003 issue of the trade publication Art+Auction offering this cheering headline: “Old school London dealers move into new territory.”  The story reminded me that, for all its unsettling changes in the past quarter century, with many careers lost but others started, the art market remains one of constant renewal, reinvention.

The intriguing article explained how Sam Fogg, one of London’s most successful art dealers, had become a “serial diversifier:”

“A specialist in Western medieval manuscripts, he branched out into medieval works of art in 1989. In the mid-90s he moved sideways to embrace Eastern manuscripts of all kinds, and by the end of the decade he was also dealing in Islamic and Indian objects from a spacious new gallery on Clifford Street.”

This restless entrepreneurial spirit had spread to many other firms, the article went on to say, thus yielding a host of fascinating new art market ventures. A dealer who had previously sold only medieval and Renaissance antiquities, for example, was now offering stoneware ceramics made by his brother. An art and antiques dealer long specializing in Old Masters had now as well moved into the growing field of 20th century Scandinavian art and design. And so forth.

Most of the dealers quoted in the article concurred that “the traditional approach to antiques dealing is dead in the water.” As Sam Fogg said more emphatically: If I had not diversified my business, I would not have a business.” 

On that hopeful note let us end with a walk down Duke Street in London.

It is late autumn, with a chill in the air and the excitement that comes with the rush of art market activity as we hurtle into December and the Christmas holidays, culminating in the mid-Season break. The major November paintings sales in New York have ended, and the art market is now taking its blood pressure before the next major wave of sales commence in London in February, with the grand TEFAF Maastricht art fair—the grandest of all, and a mecca for the top dealers–looming in March.

At number 13 Duke Street, just up from Christie’s and across from Green’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, that hallowed retreat for the auction crowd and the picture trade, we find ourselves at the doorstep of dealer Johnny van Haeften. He’s been in this townhouse for some thirty-five years but will soon depart, having lost his lease.

We came to know Johnny a couple of years ago on a client situation, one that at first seemed alarming. A lady from North Carolina had come into a large inheritance and wanted to go straightaway to London and buy a painting, an expensive one. Perhaps it was the experience that mattered more than the painting, as she was suddenly immersed in the exotic London art trade in Mayfair and St. James’s, boldly entering one exclusive gallery after another, undaunted by the rarified old-world aura. It was a thrilling roller-coaster ride that ended at Number 13 Duke Street.

There she spotted in the window a pleasing Dutch genre painting of travelers stopping at an inn. It had, as they like to say, impressive wall power: colorful and decorative, lyrical and dramatic all at once. The painting had appeared not long ago in a major sale at Christie’s in London, where Johnny had acquired it. It had aristocratic provenance and was in superb condition. The lady’s financial advisors in Boston were kept fully apprised of her art odyssey abroad, and in turn they were relieved that she had bought something of enduring value from a dealer of peerless reputation. And the whole experience had been dreamy and fun for her, made all the more pleasing by the professional guidance and courtesies of Johnny van Haeften, indeed like Sir Hugh Leggatt one of the few gentleman dealers left in London.

While Johnny will soon close the shop on Duke Street, he will carry on business from Beaufort House in Richmond, Surrey. A recent tour of mainland China to visit new collectors there would suggest that he is not taking the revved-up changes and displacements of the current art market for granted.

One of the Old Guard for sure, Johnny van Haeften seems to have in mind his own particular reinvention.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Sir Hugh Leggatt and his son Martin. Photograph by Derry Moore.)