Posted On: 04 May 2020

The art world, a cruel unforgiving mistress.


It was only after reading an amusing book on the dealings (and mis-dealings) of the art trade that it occurred to me I knew, in a past life, the author. There he was, inside the back cover, photographed looking every part the English gentleman he was. His nickname in the London art trade, unsurprisingly not mentioned in the book, was ‘Sniff’.

To explain my getting to know why he was called Sniff requires a little background. Starting out in the art game, for me, was two summer holidays grubbing as a teenage porter for the now defunct fine art auctioneers, Hamilton Osborne & King, followed by four long drawn-out college years studying auctioneering (who knew), and yet another final year at Trinity studying Fine Arts. Only then, was my first rung on a rather lowly ladder grasped. Basically, I became an Old Master & European Paintings runner for a few of the better London dealerships, all the while trading some Irish Art on the side to help pay the bills.

An art trade runner tends to be this. An enthusiastic and lively young fellow with a better than meagre eye who inveigles his way onto the books of a top London dealership – or several (without one knowing of the other, this in order to help with the even less than meagre pay). In those pre-internet days, word would come to London via regional or foreign newspapers, telephone or telegram, that such-and-such a painting, or collection, was coming up for auction in the shires, or abroad. Could be Yorkshire, Cornwall, Scotland. Could be Johannesburg, Paris, New York. Could be anywhere. And, as the gallery owner generally would have neither the time or inclination to travel long-distance from the capital thus losing selling, research or pleasure time, he would order said enthusiastic young man – once he had proven his worth – to get on a train, plane or ferry, no matter time of day or night, and go look for him. Pronto. Basically be his eyes.

It might all sound slightly glamorous but, believe me, it wasn’t. You’re on call 24/7. The getting up in the middle of the night to catch an early morning flight to Sydney soon loses its lustre. Then, after a day on the run there, or wherever, catching another flight to God knows where, before eventually getting back to London 36 hours later to be then, yet again, commanded to go forth immediately to view an auction in deepest Dorset, five hours away in your 15 year old wheezer of a motor car. Believe me, the wonder soon wears off. It was grunt work all the way. And, if you weren’t travelling, you were researching.

In exchange for the paying of all this travel, and a few thin extra pounds for expenses, the boss would not only save a lot of that time, but if a really good painting was discovered – or you found something else in the same auction for him while digging around – an added morsel would be thrown your way. Occasionally, even a fine lunch on top. Every great art dealer I know, to a man, is a gourmand. No exception. Perk of the job. And, it was over some of those lunches, and a few spectacular dinners, that the greatest knowledge was shared. Always trust a man who knows his food and wine. Always.

Back to the travel. Once ordered there, wherever ‘there’ would be, my job would be to telephone back the bad, or good, news. Mostly bad. Sometimes you’d get to where you’d be sent, and, not liking what you’d seen – the painting not quite right, over-cleaned, added or strengthened signature, wrong colouring, relined badly, poorly composed. God knows, could be one or several of a thousand different things – you’d find a nearby telephone and call the boss with the news. That’s it, move on, search continues. But occasionally, as if was your fault the picture was sub-par, a grilling would occur. Judgement questioned. Are you sure? Declaimed, the opinion would have be defended. This was actually a free masterclass over the telephone, countering points raised in opposition from the master. Wonderful. But God forbid you were ever responsible for the purchasing of a dud. Or worse, letting one slip away. Pistols at dawn. As a grand master of the game pointedly said to me once, “I’m not always right, but I’m rarely wrong”.

One or two of the bigger men even had a multilingual clerk on staff, whose sole job it was to source each week, not just the regular trade papers, but every regional newspaper in England & Europe, along with some others in America & Australia. Then, laboriously, this clerk had to cut out any relevant auction advertisements to be shown to the boss. The decision would then be made to discreetly chase any leads. If a one-line description, or an artist’s name, a deceased collector’s obituary, or somesuch peaked the boss’s interest, it would be pounced upon as a bloodhound leaps on a convict. Actually, sometimes we’d quip amongst ourselves that museums were our jails. Once a great work went into a museum collection, that was it, it was never coming out. A lifer. It was our job was to try and get our hands on some of those convicts before they went inside. They could be marched into ‘art jail’ afterwards, no problem. But they had to hang on our walls first. That’s how the top trade works. Or would like to work. In a lot of cases, the more decorative, less serious paintings by well-known artists are more appealing to commercial galleries than museums. There wouldn’t be that much competition between us generally. But sometimes, the swords did cross. When the holy grail came up – a painting that was both ‘decorative’, and ‘serious’ – a ‘gallery painting’ and a ‘museum painting’ combined – then, a new world record would be set. That was, is, an exciting part of the trade.

Beside dealing in top end pictures in the general art market, a lost painting, or collection, appearing unbeknownst to others is what the great dealers live for, die for. Maximum opportunity arising from meticulous prior preparation. His secret files, the very best dealers possess them, are assiduously maintained. The art business may give the lowest wage, but it pays the highest renumeration. No doubt about it. But, in ways, by trading in it, monetising it, you prostitute the passion. One becomes a whore. It’s a trade-off. Main thing is though, have a good time while you’re at it. Sell your soul but keep your eyes. A great collector, on the other hand, gets to keep both. His soul and his eyes. A dealer, only the one. Such is the way.

The very top art dealers possess, guard, the hard earned secret knowledge of their chosen field – knowledge that some museums don’t even have. Patiently they wait their time, their run. Their basements or back-gallery libraries lined like soldiers in barracks. And not with only thousands and thousands of past auction catalogues and rare reference books. But private unseen letters, self-built artist files, folders on lost paintings, spider-like family connections to artists, etc. Each intensely researched file laying undisturbed, unused, for years, sometimes decades. But each, in order both chronologically and alphabetically, waits silently to be called forth to arms. And when that file’s moment of importance comes, it bears forth its bending fruit. Once bought, the more intensely researched a painting is, or was beforehand, the more added value can be brought to it. A lead appearing, perhaps in one of those cut-out regional newspaper advertisements, or perhaps, an off-the-cuff casual remark or name from a less informed source. A name said, that to someone else would mean nothing, be nothing, would, to him, our master, trigger his bloodhound lust, knitting its thread back to the waiting file. And then. The game was on. Those spots on the water appearing and we would circle.

Besides the occasional fine food, the low (practically non-existent) wages and the even lower expenses situation, being a runner wasn’t as bad as it sounded. For you see, these gallery men not only had the best eyes in the business, they also had the keenest trading acumen. They knew how best to ‘present’, and ‘place’, a painting. As a young man, unwise to the world but close to these dealers, whose minds possessed such knowledge, it was actually my privilege. Looking back, I would have done it all for free. But, you see, it was only after being close to the seat of knowledge for some years that the realisation came to me. The greatest, their minds work on several levels, like conveyor belts in Wille Wonka’s chocolate factory. They, as the greatest athletes do, naturally read the future, ignoring the noise of the present. You might hear the music, but they see it. A strenuous amount of mindplay can go into selling a top painting to a top client. My mind, on the other hand, is just a plain old ordinary mind. Plodding along; here, there. It’s good, it’s bad. Simple really. And that’s why I’m an auctioneer.

For them, the painting is just the start. In fact it’s not about the painting per se. It’s about how to extract the very best ‘value’ from the painting. And we’re not just talking about the price. The question, front and centre, always, in the greatest dealer’s minds is, what more can be gained by choosing to whom it will be offered. And when. Timing. Never to sell it at the wrong time. A great painting offered should always be a gateway, a leading to the next. The worst a top dealer can possibly do, the very worst, is sell a painting to a ‘stranger’. He never sees the buyer, or the painting, again. ‘Present’ and ‘Place’. The two key words in the very top-end of successful art dealing.

My advantage, paradoxically as it turned out, was being considered a non-threat (young, Irish, unconnected). Knowledge rarely shared with others came to me like tumbling water. Having devoted a life to their particular area of knowledge, they shared it with me, mostly I think because I was outside their tribe. To be given, first hand, a story, or background to an artist not to be found in any book, and that would probably die with them, was the jewel. I’m glad I ran as their runner, even if it did rob me of nearly ten years of my life! Passion (God I dislike that word)? It was crucifixion. A touch strong. Martyrdom. To art. Or rather, the dealing of art. Anyhow, there are worse ways to mis-spend one’s youth.

In one day, swear to God, did 1,022 miles in the car to view paintings in eleven different provincial English auctions. Not possible. Well, did it. Left London 3am returned 2am the following night. Timed it to perfection. Started out straight for the Scottish borders , viewed at 9am, then boomeranged it, viewing ten further auctions along the way. Dashed in, looked at my instructed prey, dashed out. The last, a late night auction in North London. If I remember rightly, I was up two hours later to rummage through Bermondsey early market on my own account. Sometimes one might be sent to an auction in a church hall in, say, Cumbria, to view an instructed painting with a day’s plan of further action ahead. But then, on the boss’s orders, be told to stay put. Sit it out. Wait the day for lot 644, or whatever, to come up. If the painting was what we wanted; in the top ten per cent of an artist’s output, original condition, no provenance problems, then nine times out of ten we bought it. Or else it made a very, very stiff price. Nobody back then could beat the top bid of a great St. James Gallery. In pre-internet days they had it to themselves, more or less.

I suppose, looking back, it was a little like working for an investment bank. They get you in young, they work you half to death, then you either make partner or you leave. In the art game you always leave. Very, very rarely is one invited to stay for the party. But what you do leave with is knowledge that nobody else has – the most precious knowledge of all. What you do with it is up to you. You’ve earned it. And this is where ‘Sniff’ comes in.

Joining one of the two big auction houses following Oxford, and a short apprenticeship in the trade, he was about twenty years older than me. Perennially impeccably dressed; Savile Row suit, Lobb loafers, Hermes tie, his was the very opposite of my attire; worn tweed jacket better days far behind, suede slip-ons down at the heel, shirt frayed on the collar. Put simply, I was back office, he was front of house. Occasionally we’d encounter each other along New Bond Street as I came dragging in from yet another chase. A nod between us, but that was about it. No doubt though, he had a natural eye. His opinion mattered in his field, but he just wasn’t a ‘dealer’, or a ‘runner’. He was a company man. Perhaps, like myself, he lacked that true killer instinct, the lust for blood. He was instead happy to be co-head of his department, on a good company wage with fairly lavish entertainment expenses allowed – for the lunching of dowagers, duchesses and such. And it remained so for over thirty years. With a slightly exasperated look being his go-to face, those clothes, and being rather tall, I’d assumed his nickname came from his appearance – the art trade can be a touch irreverent. But no. One afternoon over lunch at The Grenadier an old trade hand spluttered with laughter over his claret that it was because he sniffed pictures.
“Sniffs pictures, but why?” I replied.
“Damned if I know, the oddest thing, maybe he thinks he’s a dog!” And with that, his glass shook into another fit of laughter.

Could it be true?

Next day, deciding to test the hypothesis, I booked an appointment to see Sniff over the telephone. Making sure to ask his secretary that we meet in private, a viewing room, where close inspection would be required. Monday booked, I grabbed one of my own hopeful duds off the rack (a weak study in the style of Seurat, bought on the side, and in bad light). Wrapped it up good and well for the experiment. And not too soon after, there I was, walking under the hallowed arch of an auctioneering firm founded over two hundred and fifty years before, bait tucked safely under my arm.

Graciously shown into the requested private viewing room, a blue velvet lined cubicle no bigger than a Soho peepshow booth, I sit. And wait.
Minutes pass. Wait a little more. Then. The grand bespoke entrance.
Door swings open all smiles and in comes a hand with that slightly depreciating air above it. I stand to greet him.
“Ah, I thought it was you, Damien, isn’t it, what have you found?”
Straight in to business, I’m obviously not a Duchess.
“Well, it’s something, but I’m not too sure what. Seurat, on an off-day maybe?”
“Lets see”.
He reaches for it.
No so fast. I’m all eyes, and ears. Targeted. On mission.
Need to slow him down a touch.
Rest it on the small table between us, and make to unwrap it, slowly, discreetly looking at his nose. Nothing. Not even a crinkle. Obviously not true, a cruel insiders joke.
Unwrapped now, I hold it close to me, making that I’m looking at it first, considering it once more before handing it over.
He hovers in. Close. Comes right at it. Goes to take it, the supposed masterpiece. It’s a watercolour securely framed under glass, sealed. Front and back. It emits no scent.
Bending down, he is a very tall man, he prises it from my hands. I look upwards, searching, looking. Nothing.
He moves away from me. Holds it, upward, towards the light. Then closer toward him. Closer again. Does a sort of half-turn, half-away from me. Lowers it, bends over it, and Bingo! Sniff. He does, he does, he’s a sniffer!! Deffo. Couldn’t help it. Dear, dear. I badly fumble a chortle. Well, the daggers in that small room. Oh boy, he knew I knew. And now I really did.

Somehow, unfortunately, he had acquired the tick of a sniff in much the same way others acquire a needless blink. He simply couldn’t help himself, he was a sniffer, Sniff.
The art world, a cruel unforgiving mistress.

Damien Matthews