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Professional Courtesy

Acceptance among peers as a legitimate art dealer requires adherence to codes unwritten. For instance, when approaching a potential new client, the protocol is fairly straightforward. If said collector is public in his persona—his name identified on the labels of works loaned or listed in published sources—then I am free and clear to make contact if I have what seems to be an appropriate offering. That public presence is my invitation to knock on his door. There may, however, be any number of reasons not to. The collector may be known to cherish his privacy. Or—and this is often the more crucial point here—I may know him to be strictly loyal to a given dealer or gallery. To get along in this sandbox, it is vital for dealers to respect certain relationships and be ever sensitive to the dynamics of the business.

There is no manual on this but for good manners, common courtesy, and an ear to the ground. I have learned these lessons from the best. Our business is not unlike others in this way; rules of engagement transcend inappropriate elbowing, and professional courtesies are all important. Still, tactics are employed—carefully, skillfully. I discovered early on, for example, that the sharing of a little proprietary knowledge has often been meant to stake out one’s territory.

Herb Roman was of that generation of dealers that met me with a welcoming gesture, but a wary eye. I was new to the scene and had much to prove. Herb dealt in everything from Old Masters to twentieth century American paintings with remarkable facility. Herb did business by keeping in touch. He faithfully called me when he got something which he suspected might be Southern and always took the short dollar. I’ve heard this phenomenon described as the velocity of capital; he never seemed to buy and hold. When I was in the city, Herb was always worth a stop (and always generous with his best bottle of single malt), greeting me with the news that he had been keeping something back for me. I liked to think it was a painting, but maybe it was just the scotch.

One January evening, I had gone by Herb’s to see if he had such a find for me. In the course of our pleasantries, he mentioned a painting that had just sold at a moving and storage company’s warehouse sale in West Orange, New Jersey. On and on he went about how good this cityscape was, rich with meticulous detail. Lamenting that the artist’s name meant nothing to him, he also offered the disclaimer that the piece had not struck him as Southern. Seeing his excitement, I could only wish that the canvas were indeed Southern. And then, Herb mentioned the hills dotted with buildings and the river that flowed before it all, with boats in abundance.

It was wishful thinking, I felt sure, but as we talked I drew a heavy block signature on my napkin and pushed it across the table: Ed. Beyer. Herb beamed. He remembered those letters, put down in red, and then the date, 1853. Herb also remembered seven hills. I suggested Cincinnati with the Ohio River between the viewer and the Kentucky shore. We had figured it out. I found the number for the authority on Beyer and made one of the many after-hours phone calls that have defined my career. There was confirmation on the other end of the line that Beyer had advertised in the Cincinnati paper in 1853, offering for sale a view of the city.

Unfortunately, Herb had not bought the painting in West Orange, or I would have owned it that night. He did, however, have the card of the woman who had made the purchase. With the sharing of that card, we entered a tacit contract; Herb had staked his claim in the outcome. He handed me the card and knew in that moment, as did I, that he was in for a fair share—though the work to be done going forward was mine. The painting’s owner was willing to meet me at eleven that evening in Red bank, New Jersey. In her determination to make sure she was not underselling, though, the initial rapidity of our negotiations slowed to a crawl, and the resulting agreement took a year to finalize. That painting is now in the collection of the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio.

Victor Spark was of the greatest interest to me, a generation older than Herb and already well established when Herb, then in his twenties, would run pictures to and for him. He was a dealer with an eye for pictures sharpened by decades in the trade. His wife called him Vicky. He was in his eighties when I first met him in 1986. Mr. Spark received me kindly, and I purchased a few juicy things from his vast collection. Among them was Charles Peale Polk’s life portrait of Thomas Jefferson. It was the last portrait of Jefferson as vice president and, having been painted in December of 1799 at Monticello, the last portrait of Jefferson painted in the eighteenth century. Mr. Spark allowed me to buy it on time, paying him $5,000 a month, an arrangement that continued with his granddaughters after his death.

Over the course of our relationship, Mr. Spark would typically treat me to the luncheon buffet at the Carlyle Hotel, the business of the day having concluded. The first time this happened, the two of us exited his Park Avenue apartment together, leaving Mrs. Spark behind. Mr. Spark told me he had ordered up his car and that after lunch he would be happy to give me a ride anywhere I might like to go. I politely refused, unnerved by the prospect of a tottering eighty-something- year-old behind the wheel in New York City traffic. This elder statesman of the art world sensed that which went unsaid and was sharp enough to change his tact without embarrassing me. His driver, he emphasized, was en route, ready to ferry us first to the Carlyle and then to points beyond.

I routinely made the circuit at the predictable roster of American art galleries on my trips to New York, always stopping at Hirschl & Adler. That particular afternoon, Mr. Spark and I had circled back down Fifth Avenue, so I suggested we take a left on East 70th Street. Stuart Feld rounded the corner from Madison Avenue as we approached, and the driver stopped at the gallery’s door. Slowing his steps, ready to be available were some important collector to emerge from the car, I can only say that Stuart seemed a little disappointed to see me. In the strange way that these things so often work, it was Stuart who eventually sold the Polk portrait of Jefferson to Jack Warner, not me.

Gerry Wunderlich has been the closest of friends and confidants in my professional life. We have partnered on paintings for three of my almost four decades in this business, and there was the pleasure of shared shows of Southern paintings in his gallery when he was on West 57th Street. Gerry’s father Rudy was a legendary dealer, and, between them, I was granted access to vast knowledge of both the formal and informal varieties. Rudy was the first New York dealer to whom I ever offered a painting.

Back at home, Eunice Chambers slipped by me. I had been in business in South Carolina for thirty years before I heard her name. Aris Newton in Charleston showed me a painting and with it came a file of correspondence between Chambers and his mother—and this was good stuff. The lady lived in Hartsville, buying, selling, and brokering pictures, as well as some decorative arts. She knew quality and cultivated relationships with those at the top. Her first letter to Henry Francis Du Pont from 1929 began, “I am an antique broker in South Carolina . . .” These letters are quite rich, and DuPont’s notations and responses are telling, though often brief. And in the end, the sale was made. I wonder if she knew Lieutaud?

The practice of dealing in fine and decorative arts has always been something of a co-mingled pursuit, though much less now than before. To my mind, Craig and Tarleton in Raleigh found more success in this than anyone else in the South, before or after. Though they didn’t go out of their way to deal in things Southern, they were both sensitive to and appreciative of the distinction. Sumpter Priddy raised the art of dealing in Southern decorative arts to a level that simply sets him apart; I’m not sure anyone could do it better.

Professional courtesies and peer support aside, dealers depend on each other for inventory. As in other industries, one man’s underappreciated piece of inventory is another’s piece de resistance. Dealers in New York have been able to acquire treasures that fetch a better price in my neighborhood and vice versa. Friendships formed in the pursuit and sale of good pictures have led me far beyond the reaches of Spanish moss.

Edward Beyer (1820-1865)
View of Cincinnati (1853)
Oil on canvas
35 1⁄2 x 72 inches
Signature Details: Lower center
Owner: Collection of the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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