March 25, 2013 | Every so often a few wise things get said about the passions of people who are collectors (most famously in Walter Benjamin's essay "Unpacking My Library"). Rarely is anything of interest written about dealers, and oddly enough, almost nothing can be found on the nature of that intriguing hybrid, the dealer/collector, which brings us to the pre-eminent example of the type, Peter Tillou of Litchfield, Connecticut-and, more importantly, the world. Much has been said and written about Tillou over the years, but taking the measure of this phenom (an appropriate baseball expression for those with prodigious talent exhibited at an early age) requires going beyond the well-worn facts-his fifty-plus years in the trade, his pushing the American folk art market into the commercial stratosphere, his galleries on two continents in the 1990s, and his omnivorous taste-before raising a glass in astonishment. How does he do it?
Like any great dealer, only more so, Peter Tillou is a serial s…» More
March 19, 2010 | Erik Thomsen has learned Japanese twice. The first time he was a child living in Kyoto and Shizuoka Prefecture close to Mount Fuji, where his parents were missionaries in the 1950s and 1960s. “My brother and I were the only foreigners in school,” Thomsen recalls, and he and Hans, younger by a year and a half, naturally absorbed the language in school and in the streets, and just as naturally let it go when they left for Denmark, when Thomsen was ten. The second time he was at Middlebury College, in Vermont, where he and Hans wanted to see if they could revive their Japanese fluency by taking one of Middlebury’s intensive language courses. “Only the muscles remembered,” Thomsen says: their vocabulary and grammar had vanished, but their accents were perfect. It required three intensive summer courses for them to regain their fluency.
After the third summer, Thomsen decided to fill an apprenticeship at the Tanaka Onkodo Gallery in Tokyo. “I just saw it as an opportunity to be immersed with a Japanese family and to improve my Japanese,” he recalls. “I was planning to return afterward to graduate school in Heidelberg, Germany, to continue my studies in Far Eastern art history and to finish my master’s degree in German literature.”
January 14, 2010 | The precious textiles and clothing sold at Cora Ginsburg have as much charm, beauty, and depth as any other category of antiques, but like the firm itself, you may have to look for it. Tucked into two cozy rooms on the third floor of a nondescript residential building on Manhattan's East Seventy-fourth Street, the gallery is as sparely furnished as a designer boutique, and many of its choicest items are not on display but must be retrieved from a back room and unrolled for viewing. At which point the owner, Titi Halle, is liable to hand you a magnifying glass so you can understand what it is you are looking at.
Halle is as unimposing and intimate a presence as her shop. One of a select group of dealers in a field that requires knowledge of goods from all over the globe spanning three or four centuries, she has a command of many disciplines—textiles, fashion, folk art, handcraft, weaving and printing technology, even the history of tangential matters such as Mummers' performances. On Antiques Roadshow she comes across as elegantly erudite. But in her gallery, with her shy smile, eyeglasses, and girlishly long hair, she might remind you of a favorite librarian. Spreading one piece of fabric on the floor for a recent visitor, she cheerfully exclaimed, "That's what floats my boat!"
November 30, 2009 | With the country edging out of a recession, a newly elected Democratic president wrestling with a huge deficit, and art buyers seemingly sitting on their hands, the Palm Beach Post sent a reporter to John H. Surovek's Worth Avenue gallery to ask him how he, and collectors in the well-invested but deeply illiquid town, were coping with what the Post's eventual headline would call "market reality." The year was 1993, and Surovek, who deals chiefly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art, was the wrong guy to ask. "During the previous year, we had set six American records," Surovek recalls. One of those records was the $346,500 he had paid at Christie's for a painting of a boy by Robert Henri—more than doubling the record price for a Henri. "This kind of art has held its own," Surovek advised in 1993 when asked about a supposed slump. As for Palm Beach, Surovek told the Post reporter, "I have always believed I can sell a great painting in Paducah, Omaha, or Hammond, Indiana."
Sixteen years later, both of Surovek's claims still apply. The economic conditions are exponentially worse, and the toll taken by the Bernard Madoff scandal may have hit nowhere harder than in Palm Beach, where, since the scandal broke, the Post has run so many stories tracking Madoff's movements that Bernie might be a hurricane that ripped through town. American art, nonetheless, is holding its own. Prices for the stars of the period from the beginning of the Civil War to the beginning of the Cold War—figures like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper—continue to rise. They have been bolstered by the recent emerging interest in lesser known artists.
November 2, 2009 | One of the surprises of the huge Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sale this past February was the splendid selection of objets de vertu the two men had gathered for their twentieth-century Kunstkammer.
The way in which this assemblage contravened recent trends in collecting was on my mind as I waited to see the London dealer David Lavender, whose lifework has been hunting for rare, beautiful, and precious objects. Lavender has a worldwide clientele seduced, not I suspect just by his knowledge and love of the quality and rarity of the objects in which he deals, but also because of the personal attention he offers his clients, most of whom he counts among his friends. He has been doing it a long, long time. "Sixty-three years ago I went to work in an antiques shop belonging to a friend of my father," he says. "I swept the floors. I made the tea, and I worked there for four years. That," he says proudly, "was my one and only job working for somebody else."
In 1950 he started on his own, with very little money to play with. "I wandered all over England and Scotland, making a lot of friends and buying all sorts of things: glass, Chinese and English porcelain, paintings. Things cost very little in those days," he remembers.
Eventually he decided he ought to specialize. At school his best subjects had been history and English literature so he went for portrait miniatures, fine jewels, snuffboxes, and what he describes as other "objects with a history." He has specialized in these kinds of things ever since.
Portrait miniatures? "Yes, I chose them because they encompass a tremendous amount of history, which really interests me. So many of the subjects are literary personages, politicians who made history, or royalty, and I can say without exaggeration that we have probably had more things of historical significance than anyone else in the trade."
His first great discovery of a portrait miniature came about fifty years ago when he was offered an eighteenth-century likeness of Henry Howard, the twelfth Earl of Suffolk. He paid £25 for it, put it in a sale and it brought £600. "A few years later I bought it back," he remembers. "I think I sold it three times!"
[Compiled by Darrin Alfred, Associate Curator, Department of Architecture, Design and Graphics at the Denver Art Museum. Originally published in "Cur» View All