Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 13
Art Dealers I:
Artists and Merchants in the Trade

In accord with Adam Smith’s famous dictum about specialization and the size of the market, most artists in the course of Holland’s spectacular development in the course of the 17th century chose to concentrate on increasingly specialized subjects. Still life, to take the most conspicuous example, developed as a separate subject toward the end of the 16th century. At first, specialization was limited to flowers, fruit, vanitas and “banquets”. Later, painters began to explore narrower subjects: fish, game, live and dead poultry, medallions enclosed in wreaths of flowers or fruit, and so forth. There also emerged within the artists’ community a group of individuals, perhaps not sufficiently talented to earn a living from their craft, who developed a side-trade in paintings and other objects of art.300 Some of these artist/dealers visited the yearly or biannual fairs and the estate auctions held in the various towns of the Republic to scout for paintings that were in demand in Amsterdam but that would-be buyers might not have had the time or the inclination to visit themselves. Some had direct contacts with artists in out-of-town communities from whom they bought works of art that could be sold at a profit in Amsterdam. “Arbitrage” of these various sorts was probably a mainstay of their activity. A few had the connections in municipalities to co-ordinate special projects, like the decoration of the Amsterdam town-hall in the late 1650s.301 Another category of dealers consisted of merchants endowed with capital who branched out into trading works of art and competed with the artist/dealers for the favor of rich clients. Both artist/dealers and merchant/dealers benefited from the expansion of the market in two ways: first, there was the increasing demand for art goods which lifted all boats; but there were also more opportunities for arbitrage, as a consequence of the growing specialization of artists, than there would have been if all artists had been painting more or less the same subjects. That is, there were more gains to be had from seeking out the works of specialized artists and reselling them to buyers who did not have the time, or perhaps the necessary information, to find the paintings they liked themselves.302 And, if the supply was not there to begin with, dealers could help augment it by setting painters and other artists to work to produce subjects and manners-of-painting that were in demand. This supply-augmenting function was itself a specialized branch of the trade.

In Amsterdam, we find artist/dealers from the 16th century on, the most important of them being the various members of the Conincxloo dynasty. Merchant/dealers emerged in the 1630s, some of them, like Johannes de Renialme and Jan le Thoor (the

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