Magazine article The Spectator

'Rogues' Gallery: A History of Art and Its Dealers', by Philip Hook - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Rogues' Gallery: A History of Art and Its Dealers', by Philip Hook - Review

Article excerpt

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. …

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