The FT’s Peter Aspden lunched with William Acquavella where he got a re-capitulation of the dealer’s best moves over half a century in the art trade.
First, Acquavella characterized the state of play today: “There are three kinds of buyers, those who do it for social reasons, those who invest, and those for whom it is a passion. It has tilted a little towards the investment side, probably because there is so much money involved.”
- In 1964, father and son travelled to Paris once more, to be introduced to the “nieces of Madame Bonnard”. They negotiated the purchase of several works by Pierre Bonnard, having borrowed the money. They brought the works to New York, printed a colour catalogue (not a common practice then), and William wrote 10 letters to prospective buyers, among them Norton Simon, Nelson Rockefeller and Paul Mellon. “I didn’t know them but I knew they were wealthy and might have been interested in art,” he says. It was an inspired pitch. “Believe it or not, Mr Mellon came and bought $1m worth of Bonnards. That paid for all the works that we had committed to buy. And then the rest of the show sold out.”
- In 1973, he bought 17 “fabulous” paintings from the estate of the collector Henry Ittleson Jr, including works by Cézanne, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, for $5m, again borrowed from the bank. He describes, with no little wonderment, a “beautiful” pastel by Degas, which he immediately sold. “I recently tried to buy it back. I offered $80m but [the owner] wouldn’t sell it.”
- Acquavella’s greatest coup was the purchase, in 1990, of the entire stock of the Pierre Matisse gallery (the dealer was Henri’s son) in a joint venture with Sotheby’s, for $153m. […] He brought Sotheby’s on board, not least to help with the administrative burden of the purchase. “It was 4,700 works, we couldn’t have handled that.” Acquavella brilliantly made a virtue out of the sheer quantity of works on his hands. Knowing that serious collectors would try to cherry-pick the best work, he offered packages of works of varying qualities. “People had to buy the packages. I don’t think it had ever been done before.” Within 18 months, he had sold $300m worth of art.
Lunch with the FT: William Acquavella (Financial Times)