I can’t remember the first time I met Richard Feigen. It must have been in the 1980s, when I became an art dealer. Whenever it was, I already knew from his reputation that Richard was one of the most important and successful art dealers in the world. At any rate, my first memory of this extraordinary man was in 1997, when we both flew to Melbourne, Australia, to attend the symposium on Rembrandt organized by the National Gallery of Victoria. The gathering of scholars, professors, students, restorers, museum professionals (and just we two art dealers as far as I know), was hosted to commemorate a major exhibition entitled Rembrandt, a Genius and His Impact. In one of the lectures--an especially boring one--I could see Richard in the back row madly typing on his little laptop. I hadn’t realized then that this was to become his wonderful autobiography, Tales from the Art Crypt (2000). It was not a tell-all revelation of secrets from the art world, because as Richard explained in his book:
At the end of the day, an art dealer is usually left with two assets: a collection of objects he could not or would not sell, and a collection of stories he could not tell.
And man, did Richard hold on to some wonderful objects! For decades he owned the great Danaë by Orazio Gentileschi, which was sold in these rooms in 2016 to the J. Paul Getty Museum. He managed to buy and retain two great paintings by Turner, an early one that he sold at Sotheby’s in 2009, and a mature picture that he kept in his collection for his entire life. He owned at least eight paintings by Max Beckmann, an artist appreciated by few at the time, until Richard sold one of them for over $45 million in 2017. Another favorite artist was Richard Parkes Bonington, an early nineteenth-century British artist who painted for only five years of his brief life. And therein lay a unique feature of Richard’s brilliant mind. He was able to understand and discern quality in many varied aspects of European art, from Beckmann to Bonington; Beccafumi to Breenberg; Bloemaert to Bacon (and that’s just the Bs).
A more recent interest was in Italian gold-ground paintings, and he assembled a rich collection of these beautiful, but for most people difficult-to-understand, paintings. But Richard got it, he fully understood their complexity, and he put his money where his mouth was, assembling an impressive and comprehensive collection of Italian duecento and trecento panels. An example of Richard’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding is his return each week to his alma mater, Yale University, to attend Larry Kanter's class on Early Italian Paintings. Richard was in his eighties at the time!
Richard’s criteria for buying was one of his dicta, which he thought about every time he made an acquisition: “Is this an artist who looks ahead, or is he always looking in the rearview mirror?” Richard repeated this adage to me countless times. As you look at Richard’s collection on offer here, it would be wise to ask yourself that question. You will find that the answer is inevitably the former.
Few people realize that Richard earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and started his career in finance. If they knew about this background, they would be even more surprised to learn of Richard’s disdain for money. He had a total disregard for cash and never pursued it. He bought many paintings without worrying about where the money would come from. In his book he wrote:
My attitude about great art has always been that the printing press is closed, but for paper money it isn’t, they just keep printing away, so however many pieces of green paper it takes to get a great object, it’s cheap.
I can encourage everyone interested in any one of Richard’s paintings to go ahead and bid away until you get it. This would have been Richard’s attitude. And you may feel comforted that the object has already been vetted by one of the best eyes in the business.
On a personal note, I got to know Richard better in the past ten years, when we had many lunches in the Upper East Side, then eventually, when it became difficult for him to walk, across the street from his gallery. Because I always ordered the same dish, a Cajun rendering of Mahi-Mahi, he would always leave the same message for me, which my assistant would dutifully transcribe: “The Mahi-Mahi are running!” Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be handed that note again and join Richard for lunch, just one more time.