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Dealers and Collectors

I found art dealers at first quite difficult to understand with regard to pricing works of art. Being accustomed to a business where selling price is based on cost plus small overhead and ten percent profit, I found that art dealers’ prices in most cases bore little relationship to their costs, but were based on what the traffic could bear. I know of a pair of Douanier Rousseau portraits, for example, that were purchased at an auction in the Midi of France for about twenty dollars, repurchased by my French dealer friend for under $600, then sold to one of the New York galleries for $12,000; when I saw them exhibited here and asked the price I was advised that they could be bought for $30,000. Not being interested in owning these Rousseaus, I was amused by the gyrations of the prices. The last price I saw them offered for was $150,000 for the pair.

My first purchase from a gallery provided a revelation about prices. The painting in question was a very strong Soutine landscape. It was initially offered to me for $2,200, and I left with it an hour later having paid $1,200. The dealer may have thought it was good business to have my first purchase from his gallery with the hope of selling me others in the future. But it left me wondering what were the top price, the right price, and the low price for a given painting. After this experience I was quite wary until I learned values and the dealers got to know me; only then, many years later, would I be quoted prices very close to their selling price. A few dealers, of course, set a price which wouldn’t change, or which would only come down five percent or so.

On my first trip to Paris, I was in a gallery that was offering a Cézanne. It looked very good, and I asked whether the painting would have to be formally sent through the Louvre. The dealer said there was no problem: he would get Friese, a minor painter, to sign the painting, and I could remove the signature when I got to New York. I would not have to present it to the Louvre. I didn’t purchase it. Friese paints in the manner of Cézanne.

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I once had a visit from a collector who was buying important paintings. He had deep pockets, and wanted to build up a collection very fast. He visited my office, and at that time I had my most important paintings there. He went from one to another saying, “This is magnificent,” and “this is exceptional,” and so on. When he finished looking over the paintings, he said “Henry, how old are you?” I could just see what was going through his mind. He had visions of how long he would have to wait to see these paintings go up for auction.

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Some collectors harbor good feelings toward other collectors, and I believe I am one. Not long ago, another collector called me on the telephone, saying that he had just returned from a Zurich gallery and he had seen a wonderful Cézanne watercolor of a skull. As his wife objected to having a skull in their home, and he wasn’t going to buy it, he told me the price, and the name of the dealer in Zurich. Based on his description I cabled the dealer in Zurich and told him I was buying the skull, and to ship it on to me, which he did. It is a great watercolor, and I enjoy having it in my collection.

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A Japanese gallery once sent me a photograph of a Matisse portrait of a woman and offered it for sale. I sent it over to Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art, who had written a book on Matisse, and asked whether he thought it was authentic. He telephoned me to say that he thought he should send it to a gallery that specialized in Matisse and get their reaction to it. This he did, and the word came back that the owner of the gallery advised that the picture was not by the master. Several weeks later, I wrote to the Japanese gallery saying that I liked the Matisse, but I didn’t think it had a good enough pedigree. I was quite surprised to hear back from them that they had sold it to the very gallery that had told Barr it was not by Matisse. I called Barr, who called the gallery, and their explanation was that they had gotten in touch with the master, who was still alive at the time, and Matisse not only said it was real, but he pointed our where and when it had been painted. The ethical thing would have been for the gallery to come back to Barr and explain what they had found out, and see to it that I had an opportunity to buy the picture before they did. This is quite a reflection on one of the prominent galleries in New York.

I have found that it is difficult to do business with Japanese galleries. I was on the mailing list of one, and they sent me a photograph of a Degas, for which they were asking $6,000. It was a famous portrait of Mary Cassatt sitting on a chair, holding a fan in her hands. I immediately cabled saying that I wished to purchase the picture, and asked them whether I should cable the money or deposit it in a New York bank. Days and weeks went by, and I was pretty nervous, but finally I got word that the owner had changed his mind. I assumed that once the gallery had an acceptance from me of $6,000, he offered it to somebody else for more perhaps $10,000, and finally sold it at a much higher price than he had asked. I can only say now, more than ten years later, that they did make a mistake in selling the picture, because it would be worth far more today.

About a year later, this gallery offered me an unfinished Cézanne painting for $10,000. In light of my previous experience, I was in a quandary as to how to approach them. After a day or so, I cabled that I would accept the painting – and the very same thing happened. I got letters from them asking me to please be patient, and finally received a letter saying the owner had withdrawn the painting from sale.

A few years ago I went to Osaka, and looked up the gallery. I was introduced to the owner, and there I saw the unfinished Cézanne painting in the storage room of a museum. The owner, realizing that he had an expensive painting, was afraid to keep it at home. I became friendly with the owner, and we have corresponded. He promised to offer the painting to me when he was ready to sell it.

Very recently, through the Japanese gallery, he offered it to me by letter for $120,000. Before his quoting letter reached me, I received a cable from him saying, “I have severe competition,” and asking if I would pay $140,000. It seemed the gallery was auctioning the painting by telling somebody what I was willing to pay, and if they got a higher price, coming back to me. I telephoned the dealer and told him that the only way I would buy the painting would be for him to offer the painting at a fixed price, and give me a ten day option to go there, pay for the painting, pick it up, and take it back with me. I never heard from them again.

Several years ago, the American painter Max Weber visited me and stood transfixed in front of my Cézannes. He told me that he was always terribly emotional when he saw Cézannes, and recounted for me the time he had spent in Paris, when Cézanne had been his personal god. On looking up, I noticed that he was in tears.

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In my art dealings, I always wanted the dealer to make a fair profit, and saw to it that he did. I also tried to make sure he was not making a fabulous profit on his sale to me. I have found some dealers quite versed in economics; if they have had a good first nine months of business profits, they tend to prefer to hold back on selling until their new fiscal year starts, or until they can sell for much higher prices. I always feel with some dealers that a price is not fixed in their mind at the moment when they first quote you one; they seem to be weighing my interest in the particular artist, watching my reaction to the painting very closely, then they take a deep breath and try you out with a quotation.

With such thoughts in the back of my mind, I was recently in a somewhat embarrassing situation. I had for several years owned an early drawing by Cézanne—a mythological subject titled Aeneas Meeting Dido at Carthage. I subsequently found a photograph in a book on Cézanne’s works of a watercolor of the same subject. I was on the lookout for this watercolor, as it would complement my drawing. While in Zurich recently I dropped in at a well-known gallery, and the proprietor brought out the very watercolor I was looking for. She explained that she had just purchased it from the grandson of Cézanne and had not had time to study it. She knew it to be a mythological early work and, knowing of my great interest in Cézanne, asked me what I thought it represented. I did not want to stray from the truth; on the other hand, I did not want to play up the importance of the watercolor, so I somehow managed to change the subject. After I had purchased the watercolor, at an eight percent discount from the original asking price, I explained what the subject was and that I already owned the original drawing. I then asked the dealer what her reaction would have been as to the price if I had explained my knowledge before she quoted me. She was very frank in saying that her original asking price would not have been higher but neither would there have been a discount given.