In 1989 Lawrence Steigrad and his wife and business partner, Peggy Stone, began dealing in Old Master paintings backed by only a thousand dollars and a few credit cards. For the first year, in case things didn’t work out, Stone continued to work as a cataloguer at William Doyle, returning home to help with research and cataloguing late into the night. Their astonishing gamble paid off. The New York-based dealers are now in their twenty-fifth year as leaders in the field and are firmly established exhibitors at TEFAF Maastricht, the world’s preeminent art and antiques fair.
All photographs courtesy of Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, New York.
The Women’s Speed-Skating Race on the Westersingel in Leeuwarden, January 21, 1809 by Nicolaus Baur (1767-1820), 1810. Signed and dated “N. Baur 1810” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 23 ½ by 29 ½ inches. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Portrait of a Family Group by an Ornamental Fountain in a Pastoral Landscape by Jan Mytens (1613/1614-1670), 1663. Signed and dated “A°:1663. Mytens F” (partially effaced) at lower left center. Oil on canvas, 51 3/8 by 61 ¾ inches.
Young Boy with a Dog by Hendrick Berckman (1629-1679), 1667. Oil on panel, 31 ¼ by 24 ¾ inches.
In 2011 Steigrad and Stone had the honor of having one of their paintings chosen from among the innumerable great works offered at the show as the cover of the TEFAF catalogue and its promotional materials. That exquisitely rendered portrait of 1667 by Hendrick Berckman depicts a young boy of about two so finely dressed in starched lace and colorful ribbons over his silken skirts that the picture was misidentified as representing a little princess when it sold in 1931. It exemplifies the Steigrad aesthetic.
Portraiture, particularly English and Netherlandish, has featured at the gallery from its inception because Steigrad and Stone saw that the genre was undervalued. Great pictures by well-known artists were available at rural auctions up and down the Eastern seaboard and in Chicago and selling for less than still-life paintings by the same artists. The market also had a taste for tavern scenes at the time, and, Stone says, virtually any “dark tavern scene with a man vomiting in the corner could sell.”
If the couple lacked deep pockets, they were not short on expertise. Both grew up in art world families. Steigrad is the son and grandson of Dutch collectors and has fond memories of his grandparents gathering the family at New York’s annual Winter Antiques Show, where they were expected to buy something modest and then sit over a proper lunch to discuss what they might have purchased if they had had a larger budget. Stone was raised in a family of prominent nineteenth-century paintings dealers.
Both further honed their knowledge by moving through the professional ranks of leading galleries and auction houses before going off on their own. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that it would be impossible for an aspiring dealer to follow their path today. Steigrad estimates that you would need at least a million dollars and probably a backer, too, to break in.
Their first purchases were made at an auction in Maine, where others in the room were so shocked that anyone would wish to buy a Jupiter and [very nude] Danae by Francesco Furini that they burst into applause when the hammer went down on it. They bought four paintings at that sale entirely on credit.
Much of their success undoubtedly derives from their ability to share their sense of adventure and excitement about collecting stunning works for modest prices with their clients. They take pride in having placed many works in major museums, but they take special pleasure in sales to clients of more limited means. It was Steigrad’s ability to offer unusual but high quality works for relatively modest prices that led TEFAF founder Rob Noortman to persuade the couple to take a booth at the fair. He knew that the show could not thrive only on multimillion dollar items and needed great pieces in the ten and twenty-five thousand dollar range.
Steigrad did not need much convincing. He had always participated in the fair by sending works on consignment through other dealers. Maastricht’s core audience of Dutch and German collectors offers a perfect match for the gallery’s Northern European stock. In a complete reversal of the robber baron generation, when European paintings and furniture arrived in the United States by the boatload, the vast majority of Steigrad and Stone’s offerings are now making the trip in reverse.
They have long operated out of an airy and elegant private gallery on EastSixty-ninth Street in New York, where they have hosted numerous exhibitions. In 1999 they published their first catalogue. Modest in size, it not only features a luscious array of portraits but also attests to works sold into the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the University of Arizona Museum of Art, and the Rienzi collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Since that time, the catalogues have become glossy and the list of museum sales has grown exponentially longer. However, Steigrad and Stone’s core interests and approach have remained the same.
Portraits, with a subspecialty of children’s portraits, continue to feature prominently. Last year, they brought to TEFAF a luminous picture of the three-year-old Willem van der Muelen of Utrecht painted by Jan Cornelisz van Loenen in 1634, which eventually sold to the Fritz Behrens Foundation for the Landesmuseum Hannover, Germany. This March they will exhibit a charming family group portrait of 1663 by Jan Mytens, which had been in a private collection in a Belgian castle until 2012.
Nevertheless, over time the gallery has ventured into new areas and has begun to embrace nineteenth- and even twentieth-century paintings and bronzes. Steigrad explains that they don’t have any fixed rule except that they won’t buy anything that’s “saccharine-y.”
One stunning example is The Women’s Speed-Skating Race on the Westersingel in Leeuwarden, January 21, 1809 by Nicolaas Baur. This image of skaters amidst a snowy landscape is a charming neoclassical reprisal of the seventeenth-century theme popularized by painters such as Hendrick Avercamp. The picture is also a significant historical document, recording what was only the second such race ever held.
The Rijksmuseum put it on hold during the first hour of TEFAF in 2013. No sooner had they completed the sale than an impassioned Dutch woman appeared in the stand begging for it because she is the fifth generation direct descendant of the race’s winner and had not only inherited the golden helmet awarded as the prize but bore her ancestor’s name. Although Steigrad and Stone felt terrible about doing so, they had to send her away empty-handed.
Unwilling to take no for an answer, the woman arranged to donate the funds to the museum, so the painting now hangs in its new home as the “Gift of Willem Jan Hacquebord and Houkje Anna Brandsma.”
Steigrad and Stone remain confident that by leading their clients away from the pack mentality they can continue to find relatively affordable works of extraordinary beauty and quality. Their commitment to putting their clients first is matched by a candor that one rarely finds among dealers. As a policy, they list their prices on their descriptive labels so that any passerby at TEFAF can see them quite easily. With genuine excitement (matched by a great sense of humor), both partners hope to expand collecting to numbers of people who did not know such fine things could be within their means.
Lawrence Stegrad Fine Arts * steigrad.com