31 | Founder, Oscar Graf Gallery, Paris, France
Back in June, an extremely rare pair of late 19th-century japoniste ‘Elephant’ vases, both signed ‘Christofle & Cie Paris’, re-emerged on to the market. ‘In terms of discoveries, they were definitely one of the best things I have uncovered,’ says the Paris-based art dealer Oscar Graf. The two vases, in patinated, gilt and silvered bronze with champlevé enamel, were exported to Canada in 1892 as part of the private collection of the French émigré Georges Janin. In Janin’s family for more than 120 years, they had never been seen, photographed, illustrated or published. That was until Graf unveiled them at Masterpiece London this summer. With only one other known example, residing in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, demand was unsurprisingly high; one of the two vases is currently being acquired by a major Midwestern American museum.
Graf was immersed in the world of art from an early age. His grandmother was a respected haute époque dealer, while his father is a celebrated decorator, whose work has encompassed designing museum and gallery exhibitions and stands. Graf insists, however, that it was his love of turn-of-the-century political history and, in particular, his interest in the First World War, that ignited his passion for American, French and British decorative arts and design from 1870 to 1918. After studying history, Graf pivoted towards art history. ‘There are not so many ways to earn money when you love history,’ Graf explains. But art, he figured, ‘the only living legacy of that history’, had viable commercial potential.
In 2010, Graf exhibited with another dealer at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris and, six months later, at only 24, opened his first gallery on the Quai Voltaire. Although he was young, ‘No one did me any favours,’ says Graf. ‘Whenever I wanted a piece, I had to pay the price.’ Finding things, though, was never the problem; selling them was. Starting out, Graf had no client database or network: ‘The big obstacle was to find a few people to trust me […], to get them to come back, and to get them to need to come back.’
But the hard work has paid off. Over the last eight years, Graf has developed strong working relationships with international collectors and museums, relocated to a bigger gallery in the Saint-Germain quarter, and helped to rekindle interest in late 19th- and early 20th-century decorative arts. He has also begun to exhibit at top art fairs around the world.
‘I go against the obvious fashion, which would be mid 20th century,’ Graf explains. ‘My only way to get a broader range of people interested is to find them the best of the best.’ The best on the market is, of course, to be found at TEFAF Maastricht. Following a successful display in the TEFAF Showcase section in 2016, this year Graf was invited to participate in the main event for the first time. At only 31, Graf was among the youngest dealers at the fair. ‘We had a great time,’ Graf says. ‘I was really honoured that they took me in.’ Graf’s stand intrigued swarms of visitors to TEFAF with a rare ‘Teremok’ armchair, a throne-like structure made of birch and designed by Sergeï Malyutin in around 1905–07. Despite great interest from private collectors, it was acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Indeed, this has been a remarkable year for Graf in terms of institutional relationships. In recent months, he has sold to three American museums and, at the time of writing, has pieces reserved by four more. He describes enriching museum collections as one of the most fulfilling elements of his work. ‘When a piece goes through an acquisition committee, you know that 15 people have been thinking about it,’ and that ‘the majority of those 15 agree with your eye.’ Somewhat surprisingly for an art dealer, the ‘money part’ of the sale is ‘secondary’. For Graf, the satisfying part is ‘the sharing of opinion’ and finding people who ‘understand your taste’. The sale of a piece confirms ‘in some way that you made the right choice in buying it’.
So, what’s next? Well, TEFAF Maastricht, TEFAF New York Spring and Masterpiece London in 2019. The three back-to-back fairs will make for a ‘dense’ few months. ‘I’m going to use the time [until then] to make the next Maastricht a really great thing.’ With a ‘confidential’ piece already lined up for the fair, 2019 looks set to be another momentous year for Oscar Graf.
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