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The secret lives of the great art dealers

27 June 2016

‘The maddest collector I have ever known’, ‘The art dealer who escaped penal servitude’, ‘The blackmailing of an expert’, and ‘Saved by the Camorra’. These are among the chapter headings in The Secrets of an Art Dealer (1937), James Henry Duveen’s cavalier account of the trade in ‘art treasures’ in the early decades of the 20th century. They transform art dealing into a sensation novel, or a giallo – promising that the thrill of buying, selling, and – in these pages – hoodwinking will be transferred from the participant to the eager reader.

Duveen’s book is an extreme case, but the genre of the art dealer memoir does carry an expectation of revelation – that experiences and anecdotes which have been carefully stockpiled over the years will find their way into print, as the dealer’s cloak of discretion is at least partly shrugged off. That is as much true of the historical recollections of Paul Durand-Ruel or Ambroise Vollard as it is of those of more recent figures. The latter, in particular, has an endearingly self-deprecating sense of how accident and good fortune contribute to success in the art trade; and charm is another familiar property of such books, in which readers willingly submit to all the beguilement of the salesman without having to commit to any of the outlay of the buyer.

Both careful divulgence, and that gently persuasive tone, are there in Great Masters and Unicorns (2015), Konrad Bernheimer’s engaging account of his family’s historical involvement in the art and antiques trade, and of his own career as one of the most widely respected picture dealers of his generation. This is a personal and at times very moving book, recounting as it does the expropriation of the Bernheimer business by the Nazis, the family’s subsequent exile in Venezuela, and Otto Bernheimer’s resolute return to Munich in 1945 to rebuild this great historical dealership. It speaks for itself as an eloquent defence of how art-historical knowledge is preserved by, and passed down through the trade.

The unicorns of the title refer to a narwhal tusk acquired by Bernheimer’s great grandfather Lehmann Bernheimer, a family relic that the author prizes to this day. Such objects have a long history as domestic talismans, since during the Renaissance they were thought to be unicorn horns that, if ground down to powder, offered a failsafe antidote to poisoning. But in a sense, it is Bernheimer and his peers in the picture trade who are themselves unicorns, insofar as they have come to seem like mythical beasts who survive from a time in which the Old Master trade flourished, and when a consistent supply of top-quality paintings was matched by the demand of numerous and highly knowledgeable collectors.

‘The art dealer, it seems, is on the retreat,’ Bernheimer writes – and reading his memoir, one cannot help but share a sense of wistfulness for the days that are no more. It is not only that seeking out paintings has increasingly become a ‘search for the pie-in-the-sky’ but also, for Bernheimer, that the opportunity to forge meaningful and enduring relationships with collectors – to build collections, that is – has been compromised by the type of collecting that prioritises market trends over aesthetic or historical significance. His concerns about the expansion of auction houses and their burgeoning private sales departments are shared by the dealers who Anna Brady speaks to for our art business column in this issue.

But there is optimism here, too, and a faith in a younger generation’s capacity to replenish the trade and protect its history. The publication of Great Masters and Unicorns coincided with the merger between Colnaghi, which Bernheimer took over in 2002, and Coll & Cortés, the young Spanish dealers Jorge Coll and Nicolás Cortés becoming partners in the oldest art dealership in London. There are kind words here, too, for Fabrizio Moretti, described as the ‘wunderkind of the younger generation of dealers’, and a sense of excitement in what Bernheimer’s daughter, Blanca, can achieve as a gallerist working with living artists. It is a treat to be admitted into some of this dealer’s secrets, and to share in his hope for the future.

From the July/August issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.