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by Lisa Zeitz
"The most dependable way to figure out who painted a picture is to have an ‘eye’ -- to have taste, that ability to enter an artist's head, to see what he saw, to understand what he intended. Few people really have this flair. Although it has to be trained and honed, an 'eye' seems to be born, not made." Not an iota of doubt mars this passage from Richard Feigen's five-year-old memoir, Tales from the Art Crypt (Knopf). Feigen has an "eye," and his career seems to prove him right.

A recent visit to Richard L. Feigen & Co., an elegant New York townhouse at 34 East 69th Street between Madison and Park Avenue, found the dealer seated behind an impressive desk in an elegant wood-paneled office. His angular, tanned face, his silver streaked hair, his sporty figure and the perfectly ironed light blue shirt give him something of the aura of a California actor. His sophistication is clearly discernible, though not his age of 75 years. The gallery has been at its present location for 15 years.

A Giorgione-inspired portrait of an old woman, painted by the Baroque master Aert de Gelder, adorns a wall across from his library. Next to it hang the delicious little depiction of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Jan Liss, who died young in Venice in 1631, and a big Italian mannerist painting in a capacious golden frame. A black light and a magnifying glass the size of a dinner plate, tools of the trade, lie on a low table.

"I know of no other dealer or collector who loves Italian gold ground paintings as much as he loves Beckmann and Rosenquist!" says art historian Frances Beatty, who is vice-president of the gallery and who has been with Feigen for 25 years. Nine more employees work for the firm in its uptown offices. Feigen Contemporary on West 20th Street in Chelsea is run as a separate gallery by two longtime directors, with four other employees.

"I am a collector in dealer's clothes," Feigen says. His gravelly voice reflects his unquestioned authority, but it is not unpleasant. He recounts that he was "always collecting something as a little boy," and notes that he has been interested in German art since his teenage years. From a well-to-do Chicago family that had no particular artistic inclination, he went to study at Harvard, and moved to New York in 1953. Today he lives in Katonah, and maintains a house in Manhattan as well as an apartment in Paris.

During the 1950s he was able to buy art directly from German emigrés in New York, from prominent art dealers like Karl Lilienfeld, J.B. Neumann and Curt Valentin. "I liked Beckmann's work, but it was at least double or triple the price of everybody else’s. . . . Kirchner was $600. Beckmann was $1,500." Beckmann's paintings, when Feigen bought them after all, he kept for himself. "Most of the other stuff," works by German Expressionists like Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel and Pechstein, he has since sold, because they never captivated him as intensely as the austere Max Beckmann, or the bad boy George Grosz, whom, by the way, he counted among his friends.

Feigen opened his first gallery in Chicago in 1957 with an exhibition of "Masterpieces of 20th Century German Art." At first specializing in Expressionism and Surrealism, in 1963 he opened a second gallery in New York, where he started dealing with classics of 19th- and 20th-century art, figures such as van Gogh, Monet and Picasso. Between 1965 and 1973, Feigen also directed a contemporary art gallery in SoHo, a part of town that was just starting to bloom. As early as 1966 he showed the work of Joseph Beuys, and in 1970 he organized John Baldessari’s first exhibition. Meanwhile, Feigen has been enamored of Old Masters, especially Italian Mannerism and Baroque painting, as well as French Neo-Classicism and British Romanticism.

Feigen represents the estate of the enigmatic pop artist Ray Johnson, who took his own life in January 1995 by jumping from a Long Island bridge into the cold waters and swimming out to sea. Just before, Johnson had called Feigen’s partner Beatty to announce that he had finished his series of "nothings" and was working on "something." In mourning Johnson, the press also took note of his death as the ultimate performance. This year, a big exhibition of Johnson’s work will be staged at Feigen Contemporary.

Max Beckmann has remained Feigen’s great passion. Last year, he showed the museum-quality show, "Beckmann-Picasso/Picasso-Beckmann," on three floors of the gallery, in collaboration with fellow dealer Jan Krugier. Krugier and Feigen also jointly organized "The Third Eye: Fantasies, Dreams and Visions," Nov. 1, 2005-Jan. 28, 2006, which features works by Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Picasso and, of course, Beckmann.

In 2001, Beckmann’s ominous Self Portrait With Horn from the collection of Stephan Lackner came up for auction at Sotheby's. Feigen made a snazzy appearance when he placed his successful bid from one of the first rows -- for $20.5 million, still an unbroken record for any German work of art at auction -- then got up and left, striding down the middle aisle with the faintest of smiles on his face, while the audience still gasped and murmured. He had bought the painting for Ronald Lauder. Why did he leave? "I was at a dinner party, I ran out to buy it, and I ran back."

Still, the story left Feigen with a stale aftertaste. For 40 years, he says, Stephan Lackner had promised that Feigen could eventually sell the painting, but after his death, his sons decided otherwise. "I could have gotten more money for the picture, because I knew three people who wanted it. In the auction room, since they know each other, they would not bid against each other." He sighs. "Anyway it is in a good place now," referring to Lauder’s pet project, the Neue Galerie on East 86th Street.

The Neue, Feigen says, is "certainly a marvel of a museum. It does not have to be a huge museum by Renzo Piano!" Along with the Metropolitan Museum, Feigen counts Neue Galerie among the few institutions "with a clear mission." Don’t get him started on the state of museum governance today. "I am against all the museum building in this country," he says. "The boards and the corporate CEOs they are comprised of seem to measure success in terms of buildings they build. . . these institutions are not thinking about what they are going to put in the buildings once they are built -- It is excessive."

He shows mercy to the new Museum of Modern Art -- "a good building, but not a great building," he says. The installation, however, he deems "bizarre." The fact that MoMA’s curators put Beckmann’s Departure next to works by the Mexican masters shows "that they don't have a clue what Beckmann is all about, despite the fact that they have a formidable Beckmann collection."

Feigen strongly condemns the push towards populism in the arts in the United States. "A major museum director once said to me that our institutions are not demanding connoisseurship, but administration and fundraising. They measure success by the box office," he says, rather than by the level of excitement and creativity. "Cultural institutions are asking the people what they want to see and hear, so we are getting evenings of Jazz and square-dancing instead of Maxim Vengerov and Alfred Brendel," he says.

"At the top," Feigen says, "culture is regarded as subversive. We have the governor of New York telling the Drawing Center that it should not be at the 9/11 site, because the family members might be offended. Just like Giuliani threatening to take away a 150-year-old lease from the Brooklyn Museum because it hung a painting that might have been offensive to his political constituency. . . . The cultural elite is regarded almost as terrorists."

Clearly, Feigen doesn’t mince words. In his book he rails in turn against artists, collectors, dealers, conservators, art historians and museum directors. One unsparing chapter is devoted to artists’ wives, the women who were married to talents like Brauner, Kupka, Matta and Tamayo. Has he any regrets about his publication? Not in the least. The only exception is that they published the date of his birth, 1930. He says he got into trouble because it became apparent that he was older than the father of his girlfriend at the time.

Tales From the Art Crypt is a collage of his pleasant as well as some unpleasant experiences as an art dealer. Some deals were easy, and others went on over years and never bore any fruit. One of the better memories involves the time when he brought a small portrait of an old man by Rembrandt to the collector Saul Steinberg, one of his most important clients. Without even studying it, Steinberg called his wife. "Honey, come downstairs," he said. "We just bought a Rembrandt!" Feigen had not even told him the price. "I don’t care if you’re not dressed! Come downstairs!" Just before this episode, Steinberg had scolded Feigen for not bidding more than $10 million for another Rembrandt. (Financial difficulties later forced Steinberg to sell the painting at auction; it brought a little less than $3 million.)

The list of his successful deals is long. In almost 50 years, Feigen has sold works to 123 museums worldwide, ranging from the Louvre to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He sold Rembrandt’s Saint Peter to the Israel Museum, Jasper Johns' Double Flag to the Whitney Museum and James Rosenquist’s monumental triptych, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist, to the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. Beatty estimates that no other gallery has sold as many paintings by Rosenquist as Feigen.

Otto Naumann, the prominent New York dealer specializing in Netherlandish painting, calls Feigen "the world’s best Old Master dealer." He does not try to conceal his envy. "Richard Feigen is the last dealer who was able to build a great collection. He owns great works by Beckmann, Turner and Guercino, and has a whole room full of Trecento paintings."

The secrets of Feigen’s success are his incredibly good connections and his courage to buy things that are not in fashion, says Naumann. "He bought Guido Reni and Orazio Gentileschi years ago, when no one else was willing to pay those kind of prices." Feigen himself puts it this way: "My attitude about great art has always been that the printing press is closed, but for paper money it isn’t, they just keep printing away, so however many pieces of green paper it takes to get a great object, it’s cheap."

LISA ZEITZ is a New York correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.