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Paulina Kolczynska Conversation with Johnny Van Haeften
Old Masters in contemporary times

Johnny van Haeften talks about the world of London Old Master dealing
(Interview was Published by Artindex/Gabrius in Winter 2003)

Jan Davidsz de Heem (Utrecht 1606-1684 Antwerp), A still life of fruit with grapes, figs, medlars, oil on canvas. 24.1 x 29.1 in (62.5 x 74 cm). Courtesy Johnny van Haeften

Johnny van Haeften was educated at Eton and joined Christie’s, London in 1969 at the age of seventeen. After 18 years variously employed in the Public Relations and Stamp departments, he left to open a gallery for Old Masters Paintings in New Bond Street. Five years later in 1982 he opened his present gallery at 13 Duke Street, St. James’s, and is now the only dealer in London dealing exclusively in Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries. He is a vice chairman of the Society of London Art Dealers and on the Executive Committee of The European Fine Art Foundation.

Paulina Kolczynska: Do you see Dutch 17th century masters as an investment or a commodity?

Johnny Van Haeften: First of all I do not think that any works of art, modern pictures or modern masters, should be regarded first and foremost as an investment. The prime motivation for buying works of art should always be that is something you enjoy and you find interesting and which looks wonderful in your home. The investment comes very much as a secondary benefit if you like. It is true that traditionally works of art and Old Masters in particular tend to go up in value over the years so from that point of view the purchase is a sensible one. But I really do not like the idea of art purely as an investment. It is rather an added benefit one can get from the work of art. Having said, that there is not question that in number of cases people look at works by Old Masters as some sort of safe haven. I can best illustrate this by giving an example of a client who recently purchased from us a picture for $100,000. It was not a particularly expensive nor cheap picture but a very attractive work by a 17th century Dutch painter. My client explained to me that the reason she was buying it was dictated by the fact that she lost lots of money on the stock market. Now each time she passes the picture she has a great deal of pleasure.  Secondly this picture represents the investment of $100,000. This person knows that she bought the piece from a reputable dealer who will always look after her interests. She also may feel safe and comfortable with this picture, which means that she does not have to worry that the price will go down from one day to another as the Old Masters market is stable one. In the corporate world there has recently been an increase in interest in Old Masters from the likes of Banks, stock brokers, corporations. Again, this interesting phenomenon is a result of growing confidence and stability of the  marketed is also image related. For relatively modest investment an institution gains an image of stability, permanence and strength due to the Old Master works displayed in the lobby or main hall of the bank or a corporation. These issues usually come to play a very important role with purchases of Old Masters.

Johnny van Haeften

Paulina Kolczynska: What is the average percentage of a growth in value of Old Master paintings?

Johnny Van Haeften: It is very difficult to say. I hear all the time, all different sorts of figures. It depends on the picture itself; the better the picture, than of course it more appreciates in value. If the picture is not first rate, or has been over cleaned or left for too long on the market, than these pictures do not appreciate that much. The works which values increase significantly are pictures of best quality. They have to be in best condition and to have been executed by more renown artists. You see very high prices at the auctions and at the galleries at the moment. There are however only for the best pictures, or those most sought after which serious collectors want. There is maybe  a place  for second best but for third rate there is no place at all with the exception of the decorative market. As far as the figures are concerned the average rate of appreciation is usually between 5%-10% per annum. Examples of artists, who fall into this category are Jan van Goyen, Solomon van Ruysdael and the classic landscape painters of the 17th century. It also includes still life painters like Willem van Aelst, and Jan David de Heem or monochrome still lifes by painters Pieter Claesz, Willem Claes Heda. Not mention the top rank painters like Rembrandt who command enormous prices at auction such as the picture of Minerva by Rembrandt which I think fetched in region of $40 million in the summer. As well as the famous picture by Rubens which fetched $77 million last June at Sotheby’s, London.  Think that Old Masters and both Dutch and Flemish in particular are on the same level with Impressionist and Modern painters while this was not the case a few years ago.

Paulina Kolcznska: Do you think that compared with some contemporary pieces Old masters still seem relatively inexpensive? I mean in comparison with works by Mark Rothko or even Andy Warhol.

Johnny Van Haeften: I think Old Masters have always been poor relations of Impressionist and contemporary works. Let me illustrate this point. If you had $10 million to spend you could get a reasonable good Renoir or watercolor by Cezanne, possibly not a bad Monet and a good Sisley. In contemporary art you are talking sometimes $6 million for a good Andy Warhol. This budget would not take us far in the Modern and 20th century Masters market. But for $10 million you can have a collection of Old Masters and you can have a collection of really good pictures.

Paulina Kolczynska: Are you effected by the shortage of good pieces in the Old Masters market?

Johnny Van Haefeten: The fact that there is such shortage of material can also be seen as an advantage. Otherwise, I agree that there is a drying up supply due to sales to museums, and private collections. The other thing to note is that a good number of paintings might not be in such a good condition which is also often a reason for shortage of material. We have to remember that the market is fueled by the fact that there are a number of very active collectors who are looking all the time for good pieces. There are possibly 300 of them around the world and maybe two dozen of them live in Britain. Another 3,000 are potential buyers but not as active as one would wish. What is interesting for instance, is that Christie’s New York cancelled their Old Masters sale scheduled in October because there was not enough material. I joined Christie’s in 1969 with my colleagues and the sales of Old Masters were nearly every Friday and they did not bother to illustrate the catalogues at that time, just gave a description of the piece. The good sales had number of works by great painters. For example there were couple of Van Goyens or few van Ruisdaels, or a Canaletto, Guardi, Bellini. We do have problems in sustaining the flow of good pictures, and it gets harder. As a result of this dried up supply I am on an aeroplane visiting clients at least once a week, andd we go and see everything and we pay attention to the sales around the world. We rely a lot on the Auction Houses. It is a question of very hard work.

Paulina Kolczynska: Do you think that deacquisition of the art from the museums could be an answer?

Johnny Van Haeften: It is a very hot issue that a large number of good pictures never see the light of day as they are in museum basements. I feel that introducing a special deacquisition program with sensible safeguards would be very beneficial to everybody. I am an advocate of giving museums the freedom to sell the works of art they want to. This would be good way of regenerating the market.

Paulina Kolczynska: Would you say that Britain still remains a good source for the Old Masters?

Johnny Van Haeften:  I think it is. In the 17th century and 18th century there were great collectors. As I mentioned earlier we may have perhaps a couple of dozen good Old Masters collectors in Britain today but no more.

Paulina Kolczynska: Dutch Masters seem to have a very special position on the market since they are sought after both in Europe and in the USA.

Johnny Van Haeften: This is true. Americans seem to have a great interest in Old Masters. Old Master works are more subtle and take a bit of time to understand. One has to learn about their symbolism and learn how to read them which is great fun. Going back to the situation on the market I must say that one of the strengths of the Old Masters market is that it has never crashed. When in 1990/1991 the Modern and Contemporary market crashed the Old Masters stayed the same.

Paulina Kolczynska: Do you come across pieces where authenticity is questionable and if so what do you do about it? This question seems topical given that only this summer we saw a Rubens sold for $77 million which had previously been authenticated as a minor Dutch painter.

Johnny Van Haeften: Luckily Dutch 17th century works are usually signed and the subject of authenticity is not such a big problem. Otherwise we rely on the opinions of experts and connoisseurs like Dr. Beck who is the leading expert on Van Goyen and his followers. All works are in the catalogues raisonnes and we have expertise reports and certificates.

Paulina Kolczynska: Which subject matter seem to be the most popular?

Johnny Van Haeften: Still lifes are always popular and recently breakfast and dinner still lifes become more popular than flowers. When it comes to interiors, there are high-life interior paintings and low-life interiors. High-life interiors are more popular but only slightly. Low-life interior scenes by Heemskerck, and Van Ostade are the most notable.

Paulina Kolczynska: What would be your best advice for start up collectors?

Johnny Van Haeften: First advice is to find something you like and something you can identify with. Clearly I am biased but I think it’s terribly important to have a long term relationship between the dealer and client as dealers genuinely want to encourage people to buy and make the most informed choices. The price comes from helping build a collection. It is also easier to buy and sell works for the client in the process of building a collection as a good dealer will always buy back works of art he sold. A client can always negotiate.

Paulina Kolczynska: Somebody asked me the other day what is the difference between buying at auction and buying at the gallery?

Johnny Van Haeften: It’s very simple. If you buy at auction the price can only go up and if you buy at the gallery the price can only go down. You can always negotiate with the dealer but you can’t really with an auction.

Paulina Kolczynska: What do you think the future holds for dealers and collections in the Old Masters field?

Johnny Van Haeften: I am very upbeat since the market is very strong. I think that there are lots of new collectors coming to the field. It is important to look after clients and help them build their collections. The dealer-client relationship is crucial to the serious task of collecting.