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Art History’s Oddest Dealers
They need to have a big network and an even bigger mouth.
Career 14 Sep 2021

From knighthoods and bees to murder plots and fake babies, we’ve rounded up some of the art world’s wackiest dealers.

It’s not surprising that some art dealers throughout history have been a bit weird: their job is to find buyers that aren’t them for art works they didn’t make. They need to have a big network and an even bigger mouth. 

From knighthood and bees to murder plots and fake babies, we’ve rounded up some of the art world’s most interesting dealers.

Peggy Guggenheim: 1898 – 1979

Guggenheim is known for her gallry, American nobility family, and fabulous taste in sunglasses. She viewed herself as an outsider within her family and shaved off her eyebrows as a teenager in an act of teen rebellion. During the second world war, she smuggled artworks out of Paris (which she was buying at a rapid rate because artists were desperate to make money so they could flee at-risk Europe) by disguising them as domestic items, covering them with sheets and bowls, and posting them to America.

Paul Guillaume: 1891 – 1934

Guillaume was a dealer in African art as well as in paintings by Matisse, Picasso and the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Guillaume discovered his love for art when one day a delivery of rubber tires arrived at the garage he worked in, accompanied by a tribal mask from Gabon. Guillaume died under suddenly and under suspicious circumstances and it is rumoured that he was murdered by his wife – Domenica – who was cleared of all charges when she agreed to donate Guillaume’s collection to the French state after she died. Domenica was an unhinged character, who had faked a pregnancy to ensure she was left Guillaume’s collection in his will, and is thought to have paid up to 5000 francs for a newborn baby to present once she had “given birth”!

Paul Durand-Ruel: 1831 – 1922

Durand-Ruel wasn’t afraid to take on huge personal debt in order to keep the flow of Impressionist works selling through the free markets and supporting his artists – in 1884 he was nearly 1 million francs in debt. Age 89 and having cemented the Impressionists as one of the most significant art historical movement ever, Durand-Ruel said: “My madness has been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at 60, I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures”. He bought nearly 12,000 paintings in the space of 30 years.

Joseph Duveen: 1869 – 1939

Duveen has largely been remembered for his terrible instructions on restoring Old Master paintings – he told restorers to scrape off the original varnish and replace it with modern gloss, and he was also in charge of the disastrous restoration done on the Elgin Marbles. Duveen was knighted for his philanthropy and became a Baron in 1933 and had a coat of arms featuring three bees!

Ambroise Vollard: 1866 – 1939

Ambroise Vollard worked with many of today’s best-known artists including Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir, Gaugin and with the work of Van Gogh after his death. He was painted multiple times by these famous artists, who – according to Picasso – painted competitively “each one wanting to do him better than the others”. Vollard commissioned Picasso to create 100 etchings known as the ‘Vollard Suite’ after commissioning Gaugin to do the same thing but didn’t like what the artist produced.

Guillam Forchondt the Elder: 1608-1678

Forchondt was a cabinet maker and art dealer, the son of an ebony craftsman. He was a member of the Guild of St Luke – a guild for artists – in Antwerp and helped to bring work to artists in the guild. Artists at the time viewed Forchondt and other art dealers (a new concept back then) as irritating interferers and guild members passed a law that he would need to pass a test to stay part of their club! Forchondt had found his position in the art world because of his family connections, rather than by skill. Sound familiar today?

Author: Verity Babbs

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