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|The Steinberg Saga
by Brook S. Mason
|How do you sell the greatest collection of 17th-century Dutch, Flemish and Italian Old Masters to come on the market in recent memory? If you're the longtime dealer Richard Feigen, you first present the celebrated collection of Reliance Group Holdings chairman Saul Steinberg quietly and privately to a select band of museum curators at the financier's Park Avenue penthouse. Then you feature some of the 61 paintings, together valued at $66 million, in New York's answer to the Maastricht art fair in the Netherlands -- Brian and Anna Haughton's International Fine Art Fair, which is slated to run May 12-17 at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 67th Street.
Up until last week, Feigen had been showing the storied collection right in Steinberg's 34-room penthouse at 740 Park Avenue. "Selling them this way -- judiciously and selectively, offering them first to museums, will prove best," says Feigen. Already, his methodology has reaped rewards. The dealer has achieved reserves on four paintings from four different American fine arts institutions.
Subsequently taking the paintings to the Haughton fair could not provide a more focused setting or a more ideal audience. An impressive 14,000-plus will attend the seventh annual fair, which is primarily composed of dealers in Old Master paintings. "I haven't had 14,000 people through my gallery in all my 43 years as a dealer," says Feigen.
The paintings in Feigen's booth will be the largest group of Old Masters fresh to the market on the floor of the Park Avenue Armory. "The paintings will definitely make a statement," says Feigen.
On view at the fair Feigen will have eight paintings priced in the $1 million range and over. These include works by Wtewael, Vasari, Moroni, Honthorst, Cranach, Brueghel, Beccafumi and Baburen. Among the stars are Jan Brueghel the Elder's Christ Preaching at the Seaport, (1597) priced at $3.2 million, and Vasari's Fishing, (ca. 1561-65) which is $3 million. Some paintings, like the brilliant Vasari, have been locked in private hands for centuries. Overall, the paintings are a veritable textbook of the high points of 17th-century art. Every genre from psychologically penetrating portraits to mythological and religious subjects is explored. Practically every major painter is represented.
Other works will begin at $55,000, such as a 17th-century Dutch tavern scene by Egbert van Heemskerk. All are in superb condition. "There is no other collection in this country that matches his for selectivity," says Feigen. At this time, the complete list of paintings to be mounted in Feigen's booth is not finalized. "Saul could change his mind at the last minute," says Feigen.
Clearly, the cache of Steinberg paintings will be a draw and boost attendance. While the 14,000 visitor figure is low by Maastricht's standards, where more than 70,000 trolled the halls this March, a substantial number of the Haughton fair-goers are serious collectors. Last year, curators from the Metropolitan, the Getty and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., prowled the aisles, along with shoppers from museums in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis and elsewhere.
"This is a serious fair and museum curators frequently bring collectors as well as board members to study paintings," says Brian Haughton, the British organizer of the fair.
Interestingly, Feigen reports that he rarely sells paintings from his booth. Last year, however, he sold a Girodet oil sketch to the Chicago Art Institute. He sees fairs as important venues for establishing a presence.
The May 11 opening-night crowd of 1,200 is bound to include prominent collectors. Such art enthusiasts as Michael Bloomberg, Henry Kravis and Iris Cantor will attend the $1,000-per-person benefit dinner for the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House.
The 65 dealers at the New York fair include some of the most important dealers in the world, Colnaghi and Richard Green, both of London; Galerie de Jonckheere of Paris; and Bob Haboldt and Jack Kilgore, both of New York. All show at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht.
Seven-figure sales are routine for the overwhelming number of dealers at this strictly vetted New York fair. At the 1998 version, when the Dow was perched at a lowly 9,162, Clovis Whitfield sold an Aaert van der Neer (1603-1677) for a seven-figure sum. Last year, de Jonckheere wrote up Jan Brueghel the Younger for $1.2 million.
Feigen brings considerable prowess, perhaps more than any other American dealer does on the scene today, to the Old Masters market. In February of last year, he told this reporter for a story in the Art Newspaper that he had just completed his 96th sale to a museum. He is known throughout the New York art world for his deft ability to nurture clients as to exacting standards of connoisseurship and condition.
Of note, Feigen learned that he was handling the Steinberg pictures long after the Haughton fair catalogue was in preparation. He had arranged to have a Bonnard portrait of a woman reproduced for his page. In March, when he knew he was handling the Steinberg paintings, he substituted Brueghel's Christ Preaching at the Seaport.
But why are the Steinberg paintings being handled by Feigen rather than the auction houses, notably Sotheby's, where the collector sold works in January and also in 1997? "We have a friendship going back 35 years," explains Feigen, who aided Steinberg in forming three pivotal collections: German Expressionists, 20th-century American Realists and Old Masters. The dealer even introduced Steinberg to his wife, Gayfryd. "They care where the paintings go. They want control over the destiny of the works," adds Feigen.
While not all of the paintings were acquired through the Feigen gallery, the overwhelming majority was. There are no auction house retreads; a large percentage of the paintings come out of private collections.
The Steinberg collection was first begun in Feigen's office in 1981. "Saul had sold his German Expressionists and Francis Bacons," recalls Feigen. At that time, the dealer sold Steinberg, then a celebrated corporate raider, Brueghel's Annunciation of the Shepherds. That painting will now be displayed at the Fine Art Fair. It is an oil on copper.
Feigen characterizes Steinberg as a rare breed of collector -- passionate, studied and visually instinctive. Early on, Feigen introduced Steinberg to such leading scholars in the field as Harvard's Seymour Slive, author of Dutch Painting: 1600-1800, considered the basic text on Old Masters (Yale, $60). "I took Slive to the Steinberg's apartment," says Feigen. A number of dealers, such as Jack Kilgore, start their novice collectors of the Slive book, which is taught in art history departments across the nation.
As for Steinberg's recent painting sales at auction, Feigen says, "Unluckily for Saul, they did not get the best prices." In regard to Steinberg's celebrated Rembrandt, Bust-Length Portrait of an Old Man, which brought $2.9 million at Sotheby's three years ago, Feigen says, "I've had higher offers for the picture than it brought at auction." Further emphasizing the fact that the auction houses are not the optimal venue for the paintings in question, Feigen noted that he could have sold the monumental Michael Sweerts Plague in an Ancient City to the National Gallery of London for $7.5 million but the sale needed time for financing. Sotheby's sold the picture for $3.8 million.
"The auction houses are a wholesale market," says Feigen. Reportedly, Sotheby's promised Steinberg a high guarantee, higher than Christie's. Now under criminal investigation for price fixing, Sotheby's is only selling a small portion of the financier's furniture, Chinese Export porcelain, silver and Renaissance bronzes.
"I wouldn't be a friend if I didn't say these paintings need to be carefully marketed and studied by curators," says Feigen, who went on to add that overall, museums by nature require repeated visits and scholarly discussion prior to purchase rather than the snap decisions that are made in the salesrooms. For example, curators from one American museum have already paid four visits to the apartment. "Intensive conversations were held; you can't do that kind of serious studying of a painting at auction," points out Feigen.
Feigen contends that he is not making an enormous profit on this sale. "I'm only charging a commission," he says. Despite the fact that the beleaguered financier, like many others on Wall Street, has suffered losses recently, he has purchased Old Masters as recently as this past year.
Without question, the Steinberg apartment, which was decorated by the late Mark Hampton in the early 1980s, could not be more felicitous for showing paintings. Close to two dozen Old Masters were hung in double tiers in the main salon, which had a rich burgundy brocade wall covering and was furnished with a magnificent William Kent gilt settee as well as the quintessential English stuffed chairs covered in faded chintz. Other paintings from Flemish portraits to Italian mannerists works were hung in the study.
The pride of the collection is Titian's Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, priced at more than $12 million, and Jacob Jordaens The King Drinks, selling for $8 million.
Currently, the large paintings are now in storage. The Jordaens, for instance, measures an enormous 10 by seven feet. Also massive in scale is Peter Paul Rubens' Death of Adonis, which Steinberg first saw hanging on loan at the Getty and purchased shortly thereafter. This painting may end up being donated to a museum. Both paintings were hoisted by derrick from the 15th floor apartment, which was once the residence of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The apartment was sold for a reported $35 million to Stephen Schwartzman, Blackstone Group investment firm CEO.
To prepare the Steinberg paintings for sale, Feigen's Anne Guite, a protégé of the famed Harvard scholar Sidney Freedberg, exhaustively updated all of the research over a period of weeks.
Feigen adds that the sale is by no means a swan song to the Steinberg collection. "Knowing his passion for Old Masters, Saul may start over again," concludes Feigen.
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and the art market.