Even though we don’t know the exact point in history when the practice of art dealing began, we do know that by the Italian Renaissance (1300s-1600s), there were already vendors acting as middlemen between collectors and artists. Those origins can be traced to Giovanni Battista della Palla, who is said to have sold work by the greatest artists of his day to the king of France as mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists.
Throughout much of the early history of art dealing, many artists didn’t expect to make a living solely by selling their artworks. For example, the 18th century French merchant Lazare Duvaux was one of the first reported artists to offer a mix of luxurious furniture, jewelry, sculptures, paintings, and ceramics to his wealthy clients. This created a parallel between artworks and luxurious home furnishings that continued well into the 19th century. Boston craftsman John Doggett, who opened his shop in 1810, was one of the first recorded art dealers in America to sell both paintings and frames. His gallery would go on to become one of the most important art galleries in America at the time, known as Williams and Everett. But, as was mentioned above, artworks were not the only thing in Doggett’s business plan. We can still see this happening in many of today’s galleries, where a mix of art and design objects are exhibited.
The turning point in the relationship between artist and dealer can really be seen with the arrival of French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in the late 19th and early 20th century. He is considered to be one of the first modern art dealers to have supported his artists with monthly stipends and solo exhibitions. He first started with the painters of the Barbizon school, who would later come to be known as the “Impressionists”. This was a huge gamble for Durand-Ruel, as the Impressionists had been widely ignored and ridiculed in the art world for decades. But Durand-Ruel persisted in exhibiting their artworks in Paris, London, and New York, in the hopes of gaining recognition amongst elite buyers. Eventually he won the public’s eye for these kinds of artworks, and managed to make generous profits from selling the artwork.
From this point forward in the history of art dealing, we can now see a split between art dealers working to promote relatively unknown artists, and art dealers who prefer to sell works by well-established artists. This new split, focusing solely on well-established artists, came in the form of Joseph Duveen. In the early 20th century, Duveen exercised his excessively charming and exuberant salesman skills on his wealthy clientele by dramatically choking up a story about how he could not possibly part with the old master paintings he had recently acquired from some duke or count in Europe. He talked up the story about his wife’s deep attachment to the pieces, which was how he frequently got his clients to offer him even more money for the artwork. When Duveen was pleased with the offer price, he would accept in a sad tone and say that he would have to break the bad news to his wife about the painting later. Some of these wealthy clients that fell for his theatrical storytelling included Henry Clay Frick, William Randolph Hearst, J. P. Morgan, Henry E. Huntington, and John D. Rockefeller.
While Duveen was making a lot of dough off of long-dead artists, two of his contemporaries in the early 20th century were working tirelessly to gain the attention of living artists – Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. It is with these two where we see the first instance of an art dealer buying large quantities of artworks from an artist, and then selling them for an astounding profit which he kept to himself. Kahnweiler worked in a similar manner to Vollard, but was more respected among artists, critics, and collectors; this was mostly due to the fact that he was also a well-respected art historian, and one of the first people to recognize the importance of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. At this point in the history of art dealing, Kahnweiler was one of the first reported art connoisseurs.
Today, art dealing can be compared to the stock market in the way it operates. Those who can afford to purchase a Banksy for $200,000 will hold on to the piece for a few years, then sell it to make twice as much as what they paid for it. This unfortunately leaves a huge gap between the artist and art dealer, who eventually sells only to make a profit, often leaving the artists with no rights to the profits. This begs a question which many art historians have discussed – is the price tag solely connected to the impact of the artwork, or is it in the artist’s name itself?