You’re incorporating different things into your business recently. Could you tell me a little more about that?
I have been looking at many different fields, and it all stems out of the following scenario – I have a son, David Berry-Hill, who’s fourth generation, and two grandsons, Lincoln Berry-Hill and Robert Berry-Hill, who are fifth generation. Neither of them have attended nursery school yet, but they’re both destined to become prominent art dealers.
One day, I was just sitting and musing about where the industry was heading, and I recognized that it is very, very difficult to find really great, really fresh American masters. These have always been my number one area of expertise – not exclusively, but it’s been my concentration. And I said to myself, “If I’m having difficulty today, what is Lincoln, when he is in this business, going to experience?” And the likelihood is that the great American masters are all going to have been, some way or other, consumed by major institutions or family collections where the likelihood is that they would remain generationally.
I’m looking at maybe 30 years from now, but I said, “I have got to expand into other areas where I have a good deal of expertise myself,” as we start in this new project. A number of years ago, I did a fabulous old master exhibition, and I happen to believe that old masters are both undervalued and very interesting store of value. They have stood the test of time.
I also got involved in major impressionist paintings, I am pleased to say that I sold Steve Wynn literally the first painting he bought for his collection, it was a magnificent Renoir of two little children sitting on the bank of a riverbed. As I experimented with both, I realized that I had a real affinity for the impressionists, and regrettably, I had to admit that the old masters were particularly difficult.
Difficult to sell or to appreciate and feel a connection to?
I personally appreciate them a great deal, but the attribution issues, “Is it a Canaletto? Is it a school of Canaletto? No, maybe it’s a Guardi. It’s some painting from the 18th Century in Venice. Or is it a 19th Century copy?” The more I analyzed the scenario, I realized that I might collect them from a very knowledgeable dealer, but I am never going to be the very knowledgeable dealer who can impart on my clientele enough confidence that they think I know what I’m saying and doing.
I never want to place a work of art with somebody who entrusts money to me if I am not very comfortable within my own skin, and I wasn’t, and I’m the first to admit that I did not have enough expertise to really commit millions of dollars, which you have to do if you’re going into another field. You can’t have one old master painting. It was just too problematic.
Then, if I hadn’t had enough of dealing with the issue, I also recognized – and I have this same issue with the French impressionists, which I’m now focusing on to some degree, and post-impressionists – but there were very serious issues with the whole Nazi question with the old masters, and when I put the whole picture together, I said, “It was fun, I had this great exhibition, I did the most beautiful catalogue, I literally sold enough to make my expenses, and I got a tremendous lesson.”
What you see in other fields, and some of what you were saying about the old masters, does that not apply to American masters in the sense that as the A+ names and works go into institutions and disappear from the market, there’s a reevaluation and a new appreciation further down the structure, rediscovering other painters who weren’t as valued in the past?
It certainly has, and I’m proud to say I’ve been responsible for several rediscoveries of artists who, I believe, warranted a place in the upper echelon, but history had just not afforded them the space that they were, in my view, entitled to.
Artists like John Leslie Breck, artists like Robert Vonnoh, two of my favorites. I remember when I first got interested in Vonnoh. I was summering out in the Hamptons, where I have a home, and a local dealer said to me, “I’ve got this beautiful painting, it’s by an artist, Robert Vonnoh, I think it was painted in France, and I’d like you to take a look at it.”
I looked at it, and it was a mass of poppies in a poppy field. To tell you that it was ravishing and gorgeous would be the understatement. I asked him how much he wanted for it. He said $450; so I bought it.
Let it suffice to say that it wasn’t in my inventory very long, and I sold it to a collection, a fine collection, who appreciated it for what it was – a magnificent impressionist work. Do you call it American because he’s American, do you call it French because it’s painted in France?
Call it what you wish, it was a beautiful example. And I started looking for his work, and in the course of doing it, I found another little poppy painting, only this one was little. I remember I bought it for $300, and it was sitting in my office, and a curator from the Indianapolis museum came into the gallery, and he saw it, and his eyes popped out.
He said, “What am I looking at?” I said, “A Robert Vonnoh painting.” He said, “I don’t know much about him – I know he had a wife who was a sculptor, but I never thought about him,” and I said, “Nobody has, except me. I am telling you this artist is just extraordinary.” So he picked it up, and he said, “We have a problem.” I said, “What is the problem?” He said, “I have an acquisition fund, but we only have $3,000 in the fund for any purchase, but this is a natural. Would you consider selling it?” I said, “Well, I guess if you forced me, and if that was the maximum for this fund, it would please me that it would find such a beautiful home,” and I sold it.
These are the days that Sotheby’s was still Parke Bernet, and they were over on Madison Avenue. I went to a sale there. I saw a Robert Vonnoh. This one was middle of the two others, and it had a frame, a period frame, that today, many years later, if I went to buy this particular period frame, it would cost me $40,000 just for the frame.
But the painting was gorgeous, but it was something I hadn’t seen. It was a winter scene, and I remember it very well. It was called “Winter Sun and Shadow.” I went to the sale, and had no clue what the thing would sell for. For as far as I could determine, I was the only person in the world who had ever heard of this guy, let alone had any interest in him.
I bought it for the astonishing sum of $450, and I brought it back to the gallery. It was dirty, and we had it cleaned. It’s sitting on the easel. A curator from the North Carolina Museum of Art came in and he saw it, and he flipped.
He said, “What am I looking at?” I said, “You’re looking at a Robert Vonnoh.” He said, “That’s interesting. I don’t know much about him, but that’s the most beautiful painting I’ve seen in the whole American impressionist oeuvre.”
He said, “Would you ship it to North Carolina so that I can show my patrons?” I said, “Of course.” I sent the painting to the museum, and it was received so magnificently, and they bought it.
From that sale, I got very friendly with that curator, and he said, “You know, I have two paintings at home by an artist that nobody’s ever heard of, but they’re quite lovely,” and would I consider looking at them and might I be interested? I said, “Could you assure me that if I buy something from you, there’s no implication or nothing untoward about it?” He said, “Oh, no,” everything would be full disclosure. Believe me, that’s very important. There have been deals that have been done over the years that haven’t always been full disclosure.
You were concerned he might not have ownership of these?
No, that as a curator, selling to a dealer who had just sold him a painting, that they might construe…I said, “I just won’t go there.” He said, “No, the director of the museum and the board will know that I need to sell these paintings if I can,” and I said, “On that basis, I’m happy to proceed.” They were ravishing, and they were by an artist who I had not heard of, John Leslie Breck. I bought the two paintings.
First of all, a great and noted scholar, considers Breck the first true American impressionist. He died at a very early age, which is why he wasn’t all that well known then, and there are very few paintings. But today, if you go out to buy a French Vonnoh or a French Breck, you have to pay an arm and a leg. Most of them now are spoken for in major museums.
I’m interested in this recent growth of sales of African-American art. It’s still quite small, but there does seem to be something happening there. Do you have an opinion on that and how that fits, since American art is the centerpiece of your business, how that fits into the collecting world and the evolution of those kinds of collections?
It does fit into my business, and I am interested in African-American art. Not so long ago, I bought two remarkable sculptures by an artist by the name of William Edmondson, and Edmondson was quite a character, he was really based in Nashville, Tennessee. He was as poor as it was possible to be. He would look for buildings that were torn down, and he would take the stone and the rubble, and he would create his sculptures out of virtually any kind of material he could get his hands on.
In those days, if you were a visionary and you had a bottle of bourbon, you could get any Edmondson from him that you wanted, and you didn’t even have to trade him top shelf stuff. To cut a long story short, I bought these two fabulous Edmondsons, and I got in touch with a curator from the Houston museum, and they have an important African-American collection, and they did not have an Edmondson. They hightailed it to New York, and loved both of them, could not justify buying both, so they purchased the larger of the two, and they were seriously interested in that collection.
What about the collectors themselves, less the institutions…a lot of African-American art resides with African-American collectors or people who collect African-American art. It seems like, for all the reasons we were just talking about, there will be a certain amount of pressure, even in historical terms, of reading some of this work back into the history of American art, through the process of collections and those kinds of collections where someone will buy the work because of the work itself, the art as itself, rather than it being specifically an African-American collection. Is that part of the thinking or is it still something that is its own collecting field?
That’s a very interesting collection, and I’ll give you a sideline on it. When I first started looking at the field as a field, it was interesting to me that certain African-American works were selling almost for more than they should, certainly at auction.
I try and understand markets, and this one was perplexing to me until I realized that, at the early stages of this new phenomenon, there was an ongoing battle between Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, and they were buying in the area. Of course, that made sense, it only takes two people to send prices to certain levels that maybe were high.
Ironically, of course, they were right, and what they paid then is comical in terms of today.
Their very ownership validates creating a big enough collection…
There’s no question. But what I have noted is there are two aspects to your question. On the one hand, we’re talking about African-American art, i.e. paintings by a man called Duncanson, Tanner, et cetera, who are African-American artists.
Then there are paintings by Thomas Hart Benton of African-American subject matter. They’re different. The African-American subject matter has become very desirable, but doesn’t necessarily have to be by an African-American artists.
But I believe that the African-American field is seriously growing, and I’m sure that with an African-American president, that certainly is going to further fuel the enthusiasm for the area.
We’re going from African-American into more very contemporary things where they do happen overnight, and the question is not necessarily the validity of the artist, but who the dealer is and who the press people are and what behind the scenes is going on.
You’re not having a show of new art and placing it with a bunch of clients, you have to bring pieces to your clientele or find out what they’re interested, so you can’t have a role in it like you would a primary dealer of contemporary art.
No, there’s no question. The silliest thing that I have heard in my career is when somebody addresses the issue “the art market.” There is no such thing as the art market, there are any number of art markets, of fields. As I say, I think it is very different to look at the old masters, which I studied, and the very contemporary world. They’re like night and day. I don’t think when one’s really hot, the other may be over looked, but then that really hot one tends, for instance, at a time like this, to lose some of its luster. But the tried and true, in my view, is the great store of value.
What is your clientele looking for, what are they asking you for and you’re going out to find for them? Are there different artists, different periods, is there stuff that’s greatly in demand or valued at the moment that you wouldn’t have expected?
My own policy is I don’t buy for clients. That’s the kiss of death. I buy what I believe is highly important, in a wonderful state of preservation, and assume that if my judgment is correct, the museum or serious collector will, at some point in time, come to me, and I will be able to match my painting with their interests.
Every time I’ve tried to buy a Childe Hassam painting because I have a client who wants a Hassam, when I show it to them, they’ll say, “No, I didn’t want an Isle of Shoals, I wanted a Central Park.” But when they mention it, they say, “I want a Hassam.” So it just doesn’t work for me.
What I am buying right now are unique pieces. I had occasion this past week where I went out of town, because I learned of a painting in…I’m not at liberty to say where, but I will tell you it was in the American heartland, and I will tell you that my directions were to get on 80 West to 77 South, and when I saw a lot of cows, I turned left.
That’s true. I was in the middle of nowhere, and I found a painting that blew my mind, gave me hope that there are still discoveries out there, brought it back to New York, got in touch with the reigning scholar for this artist to find out that this is the lost masterpiece from the artist, painted in 1858, of Lake Winnipesaukee, and a huge panoramic landscape, enormous proportions.
When I got there and I bought it, I experienced something that is unique in the art world, because the people had gotten in touch with me and about three other dealers. Everybody sent the email. “This is incredible, we’re very interested.” Do you know why I got it? Because I went. I got off of my fanny, got in the most uncomfortable airplane of all times, flew to the most ridiculous place that nobody’s ever heard of, and bought a masterpiece.
The artist is…
Ferdinand Richardt, 1858.
They got in touch with you and a couple of other dealers because they knew about dealers, they had an agent working with them? Has this been sitting in someone’s house for generations of a family?
It’s been in the same family since the 1850s.
And I’m assuming the family now has no connection to the art world, they’re not buyers or sellers of art.
How did they find a list of names, how did they know which four names to send emails to?
I was actually offended that they would even think of the other three. [laughs] But computers…I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. This is the information age.
This is what’s so interesting about the art world. There was a Turner watercolor that a family was selling that had been in their family since the 1890s. The family was descendents of the Vanderbilts, but it was clear that the family had become somewhat isolated from the art market. They knew they had something valuable, and no one knew what it was. The scholars had been trying to find it for forever but didn’t know it existed.
The reason your story is interesting to me is on another of my journeys, I went to buy an American painting, which I did – again, in the middle of the universe – and it was a very pleasant, successful transaction, and the people who sold me the painting were delighted. They said, “You know, let us show you something.” They went into the kitchen and they had a kitchen drawer, opened the drawer, and pulled out two pieces of card and exposed a Turner watercolor, which I now have. The piece was acquired by the family at Christie’s in 1880, and direct descent. That’s my Turner story.
What happens if the economic climate doesn’t improve? Do you see more work coming on the market or less buying from collectors?
This is, right now, probably the best buying opportunity I’ve seen in my 40 years-plus of doing this. Not only are works coming out where the prices are reasonable – they’re not cheap, don’t misunderstand – but they’re reasonable in relation to where they might have been two or three years ago. But beyond that phenomenon is the fact that pieces that heretofore would never have come out at any price are coming out, out of necessity, and the essence of the art world today is liquidity. If you have the cash, it is king, and there are…I’ve never, in my career that I can remember, been offered so much material.
Are you confident that there are buyers on the other side, that if you buy some of these, you’ll be able to place it with a buyer in the next three to five years?
Yes, but also remember that I have the absolutely best business model known to man, and that is that if I manage to become the worst art dealer, I can’t sell anything, that’s what my children and grandchildren inherit. It’s a win-win.
There’s still liquidity, everyone needs some liquidity.
Right, I am being facetious to a point. But it is a good out strategy. Time cures all ills.
Especially in art.
No question about it. What you do not want to do is buy something mediocre and pass that along two generations further. Quality will always be the great store of value, and I know that the things that I’ve bought over the years that I have not sold, and I have a rather impressive warehouse of material that never gets seen, that’s actually where I’ve made most of whatever fortune I have.
You can have a thing of great quality, and if that quality isn’t recognized, that name, that style, that subject matter isn’t valued, we see plenty of work that was very valuable 50, 100 years ago, that is no longer that valuable.
But it will come back.
When someone comes to you to start collecting, where in your field do they start? Do they come with a laundry list or come saying, “I’m interested in American art.”
I think it’s very different. In my experience, every situation has its own set of parameters. I remember my favorite story was I had a painting in 1971 by Maurice Prendergast, an oil painting, and a man showed up and he was chewing gum, he was in a leisure suit, and he was with heavy hands.
He looked at the painting and he said, “How much is it?” and I told him, and he didn’t make me an offer, he did something even stranger. He took out a checkbook and he wrote down his figure for the painting. Remind you, I’ve never seen this guy, I don’t know him from Adam, and he’s chewing gum and jogging in place with heavy hands, and he gives me a check and he says, “I’m in New York on business, I’ll be back at five o’clock to either collect my check or my painting,” and he left.
Which did you give him back?
Well, family businesses are difficult. My father, who was still alive, and wasn’t maybe as venturesome as I am, said, “This character’s out of his mind. What nerve, who does he think he is? You’re not going to sell him the painting and barely make a profit. We are in business to make profits.” I said, “Yes I am.” He said, “How can you do that?” And I said, “Dad, you have to go with my instinct. Anybody this bizarre is worth knowing.” He said, “But it’s your best painting,” and I said, “Yeah, and if I’m wrong, I’ll be wrong many more times in my career, and hopefully I’ll be right more often than I’m wrong.”
The guy comes back, and he called me “son.” Right from that moment…he said, “Son, what’s your decision?” I said, “I’m going to sell you the painting,” and he got a big smile on his face. He said, “Good, you’ll hear from me, I’ll call you tomorrow.” He gave me shipping instructions, and I shipped the painting. He came back to New York about a week later, and he said, “I want to sit down with you.” He said, “I like what you did. Did you make any money on the deal?” I said, “No.” He said, “Did your dad agree with you?” I said, “No.” He said, “I like you. Let me tell you about what I’m doing.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. He said, “I run two public companies, I’m also very much involved in politics. I don’t have the time to do what I plan to do, but I have found somebody who I think can help me, and I’m going to make you rich.” From that day until the day that he died, I did hundreds of millions of dollars of business, and he, in the course of time, he put a president in the White House, he got me a White House appointment, which I proudly served for two terms, and he built two museums. In the course of doing that, at the end of his life, we were planning a third museum, and unfortunately God didn’t see it that way.
The museums were American art?
That was his first painting, the one he bought from you, or had he been buying works in other places?
He had English landscapes, and he had two absolutely typical seascapes, very nice paintings, sort of nondescript, I’d love to have them today to sell, but they don’t change your life in any collecting way, they’re just decoration on a wall. But he was a man, his name was Daniel Terra, and he built the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago, and he then went and built the Musée d’Art Américain in Giverny, France. Dan and I, over the span of 20 years, as I say, we traveled the world, we had fun, we built a great collection, and had I just simply said, “I can’t accept your check for the Prendergast,” my life would have been very different. It’s a classic case of Robert Frost, two roads, and you have to pick.