Art dealing 101

Even though we don’t know the exact point in history when art dealing was invented, we do know that by the Italian Renaissance (1300s-1600s, respectively), there were already vendors acting as middlemen between collectors and artists. The origins can, however, 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. For a while, his gallery would go on to become one of the most important art galleries in America known as Williams and Everett. But as aforementioned, 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.

Illustration for Williams & Everett gallery, 1882. Image via Via Wikimedia Commons.


The turning point in relationships between the artist and dealer can really be seen with the arrival of the French dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel in the late 19th, early 20th century. He is considered on 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 be known as the “impressionists”. For Durand-Ruel, this was a huge gamble on his part, seeing as how the impressionists were widely ignored and ridiculed for decades. But Durand-Ruel persisted in exhibiting their artworks in Paris, London, and New York in hopes of recognition amongst elite buyers. Eventually he won the public’s eye for these kinds of artworks and managed to make generous amounts of profits from selling the artworks.

Photograph of Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery, about 1910 “Inventing Impressionism” at the National Gallery, London (2015)

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 artworks by artists with well established names. 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 to his wealthy clients by dramatically choking up a story about how he could not possibly part with his 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. After Duveen was pleased with the offering price, he would accept in a sad tone and say that he would just 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.

Portrait of art dealer Joseph Duveen by Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images.

While Duveen was making a lot of dough out of artist who have been long dead, 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 was 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 that he kept to himself. Kahnweiler worked in a similar manner, but was more respected among artists, critics and collectors. It mostly had to do with 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. He was reportedly at this point in the history of art dealing, one of the first reported art connoisseurs.

Portrait of Art Dealer Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939), Spring 1910. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Today, art dealing is compared similarly to how the stock market works. People who can afford to purchase a Banksy for $200,000 will hold on to the piece for a couple of 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, sometimes leaving the artists with no rights to the profits. This begs the question a lot of art historians have discussed – is the price tag solely connected to the impact of the artwork or in the artist’s name itself?

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