Interview with an Art Dealer: Lucy Speelman talks to Johnny Van Haeften, an Old Master Paintings dealer in London

The name Johnny Van Haeften is synonymous with Old Masters, and he is known as one of the giants of the dealing world alongside Richard Green, Rafael Valls and others, but it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, he dreamed of opening a gallery in contemporary art, then opened the stamp department in Christie’s and was rejected year after year when he asked to move to Old Master paintings.  So I sat down with the man himself and asked him how he got to where he is today…

What made you want to go into the art world?

At school, I always dreamt that I would have a gallery dealing in contemporary art; I don’t know why, but the idea really appealed to me.  During most of my youth I was a fanatical stamp-collector, and at Eton I became President of the school Philatelic Society.

 

So where did you start?

I discovered that Christie’s were trying to take over a firm called Robson Lowe who were stamp auctioneers.  This was 1969 – when you left school, you either joined the army, went to university, or worked for Christie’s… and they desperately wanted someone to work in Robson Lowe and bring them into Christie’s.  I was 17 and very keen to get a job – I was far too stupid to go to university so I joined Christie’s and opened the stamp department.  But what happened (as it often does) is that you end up doing something completely different: as soon as I got there, I discovered Old Masters.  Stamps were a great hobby and still are, but it’s not a great career.

 

What did you enjoy about working for an auction house, and why did you set up on your own?

Working in an auction house is incredibly useful because you can actually handle the pictures; understand the panels and the backs of the pictures, which are often as important as the front.  I learnt about framing, lighting, condition and quality through handling them, and I became self-taught.  But they quite rightly realised that I had no knowledge, no background, no clients, no nothing!  So I failed for 6 years to get into the picture department.  After 8 years (1977) my wife and I decided we should start our own gallery.  We started off in New Bond Street.  Nobody knew where we were, or who we were, and the market was crashing anyway; it was a very tough time.

Auction houses are doing so many private treaty sales now; what sort of impact do you think that has on dealers?

I think it’s one of the greatest threats to the dealing world.  Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both announced that 20% of their turnover comes from private sales, which is quite scary.

 

Do you think it’s affected the quality of their auctions?

Certainly the quality of the sales has reduced considerably, as has the quantity.  The availability of pictures is diminishing, and it’s difficult for us to compete with them.  There is an attraction that Christie’s and Sotheby’s offer – they say, ‘if you sell with us, it will be totally discreet and private and it won’t go to auction’, but if you go through a gallery, that would happen anyway.  I suppose their main argument is that they have access to more clients.

 

What about the future of Old Master dealers?

I think it’s fairly bleak.  As the availability declines, the cost price gets higher.  But I think there will always be Old Master dealers and there will always be people who prefer to buy from dealers – as soon as they realise that at auction the price can only go up and at galleries it can only go down.  We’ve noticed already this year, that buyers are starting to come back to galleries, because the intensity of the pressure to make up your mind by a certain time is not present in a gallery – you have a little bit longer, you can try it out in your home and you don’t have to take a risk, like a dealer buying a very dirty picture that doesn’t clean well and then being stuck with it.  There always has been huge competition between the dealers and the auction houses, and there always will be.

 

Best thing about being a dealer?

The excitement of the chase – it’s more fun to buy something than to sell it.  It’s the discovery, watching the cleaning and all the detective work.  Some of the experiences I’ve had are almost fictional – Henry Wyndham and I flying to New York and finding ourselves sat next to each other, along with Damien Hirst and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So we’ve talked about auction houses impacting private sales, what about art fairs – how significant are they?

Fairs are very, very important – the Maastricht fair (TEFAF) for me is absolutely essential.  I would say about a quarter of our annual turnover is done either at the fair or as a result of it.  The fairs are good because there are people I see at Maastricht that I don’t often see.  A lot of clients have become friends and it’s nice to see them on an annual basis.  But by not doing so many other fairs in London (Grosvenor House, Masterpiece etc) anymore, we’ve found that people are starting to come back to the gallery, so I would say that fairs are vitally important, but selectively.

 

What about sales to museums and galleries?

Relatively small, because they take so long to make up their minds – they have to go through various processes.  A private collector can walk in and make up his mind on the spot.  Only about 3 or 4 pictures go to museums per year.

 

If you could own any work of art in the world, what would it be? Money and location no object…

It would be a Vermeer – not quite sure which one, but he is my favourite painter of all time.  Possibly the Kenwood picture [The Guitar Player], possibly The Art of Painting in Vienna.  The light is just incredible.  Possibly the Dresden picture [A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window], or The View of Delft in the Mauritshuis.

'The Art of Painting', Johannes Vermeer, 17th C (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)

Lots of Art History Abroad students want to go into the art world – what advice would you give them?

Start off in the auction houses – a grounding in Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonham’s is essential because you need to establish what discipline you really want to get into.  You need to play the field and see what really grabs you, and you often find it’s something completely unexpected.  If it’s pictures that you want to do, then you need to spend a lot of time in museums and see what moves you – for me it was the Dutch pictures.  Get to know your subject, and if you can do a course then great, if not beg for a job.  Everyone starts at the bottom and it’s the best place to start.

For more information, visit http://www.johnnyvanhaeften.com/ – with great thanks to Johnny van Haeften and his gallery.

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