Rogues’ Gallery of Whit, Drama and Deceit

Sotheby’s Senior Director Philip Hook takes the lid off the world of art dealing to reveal the brilliance, cunning, greed, daring and drama of its practitioners

By Dale King & Julia Hebert

Philip Hook

The throng of historic and contemporary figures tied to the vast profession of art and its purveyance is not easily measured or defined. In fact, Eugene Delacroix, an artist and leader of the French Romantic movement, once referred to art sellers as “financiers
du mystère.”

Philip Hook – a board member and senior director at Sotheby’s – will release in October his latest book Rogues’ Gallery, The Rise (and Occasional Fall) of Art Dealers, the Hidden Players in the History of Art, in which he scrutinizes creators of art, the sellers, purchasers, auctioneers, collectors and fanciers, among others. His tome present evidence suggesting that artists and their ilk walk a fine line between exquisite creativity and personal desire for notoriety, riches, splendor and gratification.

Did Van Gogh Trade Places With A Look-Alike?
Hook fills his newest volume with the eccentricities of the art world, an amalgam of scandals, near-scandals and plain old misbehavior told with the whimsy and irreverence of a cheeky storyteller.

Vincent van Gogh portrait of Alexander Reid

Perhaps the most tempting tidbit involves a renowned artist in a cryptic circumstance not totally unresolved today. Legend has it that Danish painter Vincent van Gogh and a Scottish friend, Alexander Reid, who looked as if he could be his twin, may have traded lives. The men looked so remarkably alike that even Van Gogh’s paintings of art dealer Reid were long misidentified as self-portraits.

As Hooks tells it, “When Reid suffered a romantic disappointment and confided it to Vincent, such was their closeness that Vincent – not feeling very positive about life either – proposed they should commit suicide together. After a night’s heavy drinking, they thought better of the plan.”

“That much is certain,” said Hook. “But conspiracy theorists enjoy the speculation that the two decided to exploit their similarity of appearance and exchange identities.” Perhaps, he speculates, Reid went off to Arles, the asylum at Saint-Rémy de Provence, and three years later shot himself. Or perhaps Van Gogh, as Reid, traveled back to Scotland and enjoyed a successful career as an art dealer.

Hook playfully debunks this supposition, saying, “It’s a wonderful fantasy in a world – the art world – that has in the past proved rich in human comedy.”

Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s Folly
Even a figure with the standing of Pablo Picasso wasn’t immune to the occasional jest. Hook writes, “When [art dealers] Mr. and Mrs. Sam Kootz were ushered in to Picasso’s… studio, he made great play of a drawing he was making for Douglas Cooper [another art dealer].” Purposefully goofing on the couple, Picasso maintained his intense pretense, ignoring the couple’s inquiries. Finally, an irritated Mrs. Kootz pointed to her hair – a gesture to her husband indicating a salon visit was imminent. “Picasso, who had been watching out of the corner of his eye, jumped up full of apologies and ushered them out with a ceremonious show of courtesy. So sorry to have held them up, he told them. Of course, he insisted, Madame Kootz’s coiffure took precedence over other considerations. Would they please let him know the next time they came to Europe?”

Commented the author, “Really, Picasso should have been given some sort of award for cruelty to dealers.”

Portrait Paul Cassirer

Cassirer’s Dramatic Departure
Art vendor Paul Cassirer’s troubles were many, and not particularly comic. Difficult, abrasive and suffering from depression, Paul and cousin Bruno severed their art dealing business after a serious disagreement, never to associate again. “Later, Paul Cassirer married actress Tilla Durieux, who, although vivacious and charming, was also demanding and difficult. Finally, worn down by the erraticism of the art market, the rampant inflation of the [German] mark and recurrent women trouble, Cassirer committed suicide in 1926 in the office of the lawyer handling their divorce.”

Portrait of Alfred Flechtheim by Otto Dix (1926)

Flechtheim’s Art Sale In The Knick Of Time
Taking one’s life is always a drastic solution. In late 1913, German art dealer Alfred Flechtheim considered such a dénouement when his finances ran dry, including his rich wife’s dowry, which he spent. He also discovered he had fallen in love with a young man, a Swedish artist.

“Confronting simultaneous bankruptcy and marital disaster, Flechtheim contemplated suicide,” said Hook. But it would pale by comparison to Van Gogh’s self-inflicted demise. In a major beyond-the-grave moment, the deceased Dane turned out to be Flechtheim’s salvation. The dealer “succeeded in selling a Van Gogh to the Düsseldorf Museum for 40,000 marks.” It was a deal that came just in time. In 1937, Flechtheim stepped on a rusty nail and died from blood poisoning.

Hook admits, in a missive to International Opulence, that “there are many fewer rogues now,” owing to professional standards and “an art market involving billions of dollars.”

Two Sides To The Coin
In addition, “Not all art dealers have been rogues. Some have been scholars and connoisseurs [while] others have been genuine pioneers,” Hook noted.

Throughout history, art dealers have sold what Hook calls “a heady mixture of intellectual and aesthetic stimulation, spiritual benefit, social and cultural status and investment opportunity. This offers certain temptations when it comes to pricing, which haven’t always been resisted.”

Rogues’ Gallery, The Rise (and Occasional Fall) of Art Dealers, the Hidden Players in the History of Art, will hit book stores on October 31, 2017.

Rogues’ Gallery of Whit, Drama and Deceit