NEW YORK - It is a bright November morning in New York and like many international art dealers, Fabrizio Moretti is in town for the autumn auctions of contemporary art. Only he does not sell contemporary work from his galleries in London, Florence and New York. Moretti has made a name for himself specialising in works from the 14th to the 18th centuries, most notably Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture. At 38, he is young for his field. And while he may live and work surrounded by Madonnas and saints, he’s also an avid collector of the new: Jeff Koons, Wade Guyton, Richard Prince and Gerhard Richter. That Moretti sees no contradiction between the two interests is the key to his sensibility.
“I’m here to look, to learn, to improve my knowledge of contemporary art,” Moretti says modestly. He is seated on a velvet-covered sofa inside the East 82nd Street town house that is his New York outpost. Impeccably dressed in a pinstriped suit and holding an elegant walking stick, he has a formal, almost courtly manner. He grew up in the Tuscan city of Prato, where his father, Alfredo Moretti was an art dealer, and spent his youth horseback riding and show jumping. “If I wasn’t an art dealer I would be a show-jumping rider,” Moretti says. “I was not interested in art until I was 18. Slowly I began to fall in love with it.”
In 1999 when he was just 22, Moretti inaugurated his gallery in Florence. Ten years ago this month, Moretti Fine Art Ltd opened in London’s St. James’s. As a regular exhibitor at major art fairs like TEFAF Maastricht, the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris and Frieze Masters, he finds himself shuttling between cities more often than not. “I am the gypsy of the art world,” he says. Since 2007, Moretti has had the New York space. It happens to be around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, convenient for the curators who frequently come by to see pictures. It is also close to other galleries, he notes, before reviewing his whirlwind schedule. “This morning I’m going to see the Walter De Maria show at Gagosian and Albert Oehlen at Skarstedt. Then I have lunch with George.”
George is George Wachter, Sotheby’s Co-Chairman of Old Master Paintings Worldwide. Contemporary art is not the only thing on Moretti’s New York agenda; he is also finalising the details of an auction of Italian Renaissance and Mannerist art from his collection to be held at Sotheby’s on 29 January, during Old Masters week. Initially the sale was to be held in London and have a lower profile, but after gathering so many works in excellent condition with great provenance, he and Wachter decided to make the auction a headlining event in New York. “It’s an opportunity to have a room with my name on it during the hottest week of the year in this field,” says Moretti.
FABRIZIO MORETTI. PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRYAN DERBALLA.
Over lunch at art world favourite Sette Mezzo, he and Wachter determine the estimates for the 30 works, including a pair of 14th-century gold-ground panel paintings by Lorenzo Veneziano; a tondo depicting the Virgin and Child with Saint John that was painted in Botticelli’s workshop and worked on and completed by the master himself; and a glazed terracotta figure of Saint Michael by Giovanni della Robbia. “We have a lot of really covetable things, with very favourable estimates, much less than they would be in the gallery,” says Wachter. “There are buying opportunities that you can’t get in other areas, not in contemporary and not Impressionists.”
Moretti’s clientele comprises serious connoisseurs and museums worldwide, but the hope is to broaden the audience for Old Masters. He acknowledges the challenges of popularising a genre that is often perceived as rarefied, even stuffy, compared to modern and contemporary art. “Many people don’t look back. It’s a problem of culture, it’s a problem of fashion,” Moretti says. “I was lucky to be born into this field.” The key with the Sotheby’s auction, he adds, “is to bring excitement and new buyers for Renaissance art. These works can really match with contemporary. This is the lesson that we want to communicate.”
“Everybody thinks of Old Masters as dark and dreary but that’s just not the case,” says Wachter. That Moretti is a thirtysomething collector of contemporary art makes him the perfect envoy to deliver that message. “Fabrizio is young, smart and he knows the art very well,” continues Wachter. “He is the new generation, and there aren’t that many of them.”
With the next generation in mind, Moretti will give part of the sale proceeds to the Metropolitan Museum to provide fellowships for one art historian and one art restorer. “I want to provide money to teach young people who will become the next professionals,” he says. From his gallery he has strolled over to the Met, an institution he reveres and to which he has also donated works of art. “We are giving the knowledge, and the world needs knowledge,” he says standing on the museum’s grand front steps.
In addition to supporting the Met, the Sotheby’s auction will benefit his charity, the Fabrizio Moretti Foundation, which provides people with physical disabilities access to the therapeutic benefits of horses.
Despite his philanthropic intentions for the sale, Moretti does not expect unanimous support from his peers. “For sure I will be criticised by many of my colleagues,” he acknowledges as he hails a taxi from the sidewalk. “For many dealers, auction houses are the enemy. This is a way to make public that dealers should collaborate with auction houses. Today the world is globalised and, especially in America, they have the power of the market.”
Before he closes the taxi door, he says: “In the end it’s a gamble I need to do. I’ve got a lot of trust in Sotheby’s. I think the clients will judge for themselves.”
Meghan Dailey is Executive Editor of Sotheby’s magazine.
Lead Image: Photographs by Bryan Derballa.