T he London-based dealer Daniel 'Danny' Katz is known for his enthusiasm and eclecticism. He runs a large gallery in a Mayfair townhouse which deals in everything from Renaissance sculpture to Impressionist paintings, reflecting his life-long pursuit of knowledge.
At the end of October, another facet of his character and life will come to light - his deep passion for Islamic pottery. Katz's selection of museum-quality ceramics, collected over the past 50 years, will be displayed for the first time in Setting the Heart on Fire, an exhibition coinciding with Sotheby's Islamic Week (21 October-3 November).
Crucially, Katz’s collecting tastes are as diverse as his dealing pursuits, which spring from a childhood spent selling and acquiring antiques, such as animalier bronze statues, at his parents’ shop in Brighton. His family had moved back to the UK from California in the early 1960s but Katz hated the relocation, defiantly walking out of public school at 14.
While his school teachers failed to inspire the young Katz, there were certain individuals in those teenage years who shaped his vision, such as the optician Michael Travers. He walked in to the family shop, bought a bronze and invited Danny to supper at his flat where Katz’s eyes feasted on, “Renaissance bronzes, Klimt drawings and Schiele watercolours”. This encounter led to a meeting with John Pope-Hennessy, then director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who in turn introduced him to Anthony Radcliffe, described by The Guardian as “the most gifted connoisseur of Italian bronzes and terracottas of his generation”. Katz's curiosity and compulsion for art deepened.
There were more pivotal points in his collecting and art knowledge trajectory to come. His first buy was an Egon Schiele print: “£800 from Fischer Fine Art” he recalls today. Meanwhile a trip to New York aged 23, gave the young Katz a Damascene moment of revelation. “I was walking down 57th Street," he remembers. "And I went in to see Rosenberg & Stiebel, a famous gallery. And as you came out of the lift, there was a vestibule [displaying] photographs with lovely frames of the objects and paintings they'd sold—Vincent Van Gogh, Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso.
“So, I pressed the button, and I opened the door. And there was a Bernard II van Risenburgh commode, along with a Boucher drawing of average quality. I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is an anteroom [leading] to the real stuff.’ There was nothing left. So, I said to myself, ‘I'm going to deal in sculpture, and I'll collect in another field, like paintings.’
As befits Katz’s intellectual curiosity, his collecting branched out into a myriad of areas, from early photography - calotypes by William Henry Fox Talbot and David Octavius Hill - to Scandinavian art. “I had nine [Vilhelm] Hammershøis at one point. I started collecting them in the 1970s. I sold the last one about a year ago,” he says.
Ceramics also preoccupied him, including pots by Picasso. Then came the Pre-Raphaelites. “I think everything is connected. Everything leads to something else.” Today his interests are just as eclectic, taking in the Old Masters, Modern British art, Impressionism and antiquities.
But Islamic ceramics have, pardon the pun, always fired him up. His passion for arts of the Middle East was initially sparked when the eminent film director Lewis Gilbert invited him to Iran. Katz toured the country, encountering historic sites in Persepolis, Shiraz and Isfahan in a trip that captured his imagination, so much so that he bought his first ceramic from Mansour Mokhtarzadeh, who had a gallery in London, in the early 1970s. This acquisition was a dish from 13th-century Kashan decorated with what he believes are sturgeon swimming merrily under a turquoise glaze (Katz cheekily calls this piece the “caviar bowl”).
Other Islamic art acquisitions followed, but Katz, who did not know experts in the field, felt ill-equipped to continue. His next surprising move was the sale of several of his Islamic ceramic works to a US collector in 1996. Throughout our conversation, he reiterates his regret at selling anything so when the opportunity to buy back the works arose in 2011, he jumped at the chance.
The collector initially planned to sell the works at auction. “I said to Edward Gibbs at Sotheby’s [chairman of Middle East and India]: ‘I used to own those pieces. Why don't you sell to me privately before the sale?’” This foray back into the field was bolstered by key mentors such as Stephen Wolff and Melanie Gibson. Katz, a proud autodidact, furthered his study by spending hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, studying ceramic traditions of the Middle East.
Other notable Islamic works in his collection were made in Fatimid Egypt in the 11th and 12th centuries, including a stunning jar (fritware with lustre decoration). “I think that is one of the greats—that's the holy grail of Islamic ceramics,” Katz says. The art critic Susan Moore writes in the magazine Apollo that “this substantial piece is striking for its deep, glowing copper glaze and interlocking geometrical trellis of braided cables, forming cartouches that enclose Kufic script.”
Over the years, Katz’s ceramics collection has evolved in a number of significant ways. There is 16th- and 17th-century pottery from Ottoman Turkey, while a recent acquisition possibly, a 16th-century tile with a cintamani design, may hail from Syria. A pair of substantial 14th-century albarello (jars) decorated in calligraphic script, made in Manises near Valencia, also stand out.
Meanwhile, a Kashan 13th-century bowl with an interlaced star motif looks weighty but feels feather light in the hand. Katz is entranced by the piece. “Just hold that in your hand. And take it to the light,” he observes. “Look how thin that pot is. And look at the incredible translucent glaze.” In typical Katz fashion, he wants to share his joy with the wider public who are for in a treat when this unique private collection is shared with the world.
‘Setting the Heart on Fire’ - A Collection of Ceramics from the Islamic World
Daniel Katz Gallery
6 Hill Street
London, W1J 5Nf
Saturday 21st October – Friday 3rd November, 2023
Saturday 10am -5pm
For more information click here.