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Paulina Kolczynska Conversation with Robert Noortman
Mastering the Deal

Old Master dealer Robert Noortman discusses
the current state of the market.
(Interview Published by Artindex Gabrius Summer 2002)

Rembrandt Harmensz, van Rijn (1606-1669), Portrait of a Man in a Red Doubler, oil on panel, oval, 25 x 20 in (63.5 x 50.8 cm)

Robert Noortman began dealing in paintings in 1968 at the age of 22, opening his first gallery in Netherlands in mid-1960’s in the town of Hulsberg. Over the last three decades the international reputation of the Noortman firm grew, operating in New York and until, 1999, in London. Noortman gallery has also sponsored several art projects, such as the Noortman Cabinet Room in London’s National Gallery. He is also one of the founders of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) held yearly in Maastricht, which is regarded by many art specialists as the leading Old Masters fair in the world. The gallery was at the center of a good deal of press interest over the last two years, when the gallery bought Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man in red Doublet” and a “Portrait of a Lady”, at Christie’s New York and London respectively. This interview, conducted as the first in a series of discussions with front running dealers, talks about the power of publicity, the future of the art market in Europe and the best art buys in Old and Modern masters in the next decade.

Paulina Kolczynska: Would you agree that the percentage of the exceptional Old Master paintings available fro private collections are very small? If this is the case, how do you continue your search ?

Robert Noortman: I look for good Old Masters paintings all the time. In a number of cases, we know that some important pictures are still in private hands and that there is a chance to buy them. We keep in touch with old families in continental Europe and in Britain. We also keep an eye on Japan where, due to a bad economic climate, collectors are more prone to sell. Overall, though, locating outstanding Old Master pieces poses a challenge. Once you find them, since there a few top paintings around, you pay top price. Otherwise, once they have been acquired by a museum (especially in the case of Old Masters), paintings do not come back to the market at all. In fact, the same situation already applies to Impressionist works.

Paulina Kolczynska: How are prices established for Old Master paintings that are considered great masterpieces? Can you describe some of the variables and circumstances that influence the process?

Robert Noortman: It is difficult to predict what the price could be at the end. If the picture is in good condition and it is important, then we expect to sell it for a high price. When I try to buy it, I offer the best price I can that still leaves me a reasonable markup. I’ll give you an example: when I was bidding to buy “Portrait of a Lady, aged, 62” by Rembrandt, we thought that the picture would fetch 15 million GBP plus a million. In the course of bidding, in order to get it I had to go further and offer 18 million. In the case of another Rembrandt, I paid 11 million. In this situation I bought a picture for a little less than I thought. In some, we buy works of art in partnership with with other dealers, so the process of establishing the price is not contingent on one opinion. I always like to have a very transparent and open deal. I want people to know exactly how much I bought a picture for in the first place. This is the main variable that helps to establish the price. Therefore, I am asking 40 million Euro for “The Portrait of a Lady, aged 62”, and I am asking 20 million Euro for the “Portrait of Man in a Red Doublet”. I am quite busy negotiating on both paintings. We need to remember that political and economica situation in the world plays a great role in the swings of the art market. When times are hard, it is easier to buy paintings and more difficult to sell them and the other way round. One has to be mindful of the differences between the infrastructures of Europe, Japan, and Australia in a given economic moment. For that matter, Australian institutions are muh more open to acquisitions right now than they used to be - contrary to Japan, which has been struggling economically recently. There are the variables one has to bear in mind.

Paulina Kolczynska: There seems to be quite a strong trend among the galleries and dealers, especially in the area of Modern and Old Masters, to disclose the revenues and the seller’s original acquisitions price?

Robert Noortman: I was one of the first to do that because in this small world information travels fast and it is better to be open and transparent. From my experience, I must say that both private collectors and institutions appreciate this enormously.

Paulina Kolczynska: Isn’t it true to a large degree the whole idea of art market transparency may function as a tool for marketing and publicity?

Robert Noortman: It is absolutely true. By buying Rembrandts, we have received an enormous publicity, in fact it helped me to sell other paintings. I have also managed to draw the attention of potential new clients who started offering me pictures for sale from around the world. This publicity helped in establishing an important link: it helps establishing a confidence among the potential clients and my gallery. If you buy the kind of pictures that I have - Sir Peter Rubens, Frans Hals, Jacob Jordaens - people are very confident buying pictures from dealers who can prove quality. Everything is about the quality and trust.

Paulina Kolczynska: Do you feel that you are in competition with the auction houses?

Robert Noortman: There is always some kind of competition, but I feel that we are in favor because we can move quickly when it comes to making a purchase. And we are flexible when it comes to sales. We can give more time to the buyer to complete the sale so, it is good for a museum. There is another type of competition, especially regarding purchases. I sometimes succeed against the auction houses when buying pictures privately, but it sometimes happens the other way round. But, I like competiotion, I think that is healthy. Having said, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have started functioning out of Paris with their new auction salerooms, and we may see a lot more good artworks coming out of France.

Paulina Kolczynska: In view of the limited supply of good material, what is the future for the Old Master’s market?

Robert Noortman: As an Old Masters and Impressionists dealer, I see a great market in the next 10 years for best pictures by “secondary masters”. For instance, Rembrandt’s pupils, artists in the shadow of great names whose works are still in the $100,000 to $200,000 price range. The same is true in the area of Impressionist and late 19th and early 20th century works by Maurice Vlaminck, Henri Lebasque, Albert Lebourg and Stanislas Victor Eduard Lepine. For example, you can buy a really good Vlaminck for $50,000 to $200,000. I see great potential there.