Impressionist & Modern Art

Rogues’ Gallery: Philip Hook Discusses His New Book

By Christian House

P hilip Hook, Sotheby’s senior specialist in Impressionist and Modern art, follows his bestselling Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World, with Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers. At his Bond Street office, Hook discusses art pioneers, Oscar Wilde, hearses and the Vatican with Christian House. On 14 and 15 March Philip Hook will be discussing his new book Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers at Sotheby's Geneva and Zurich. For full details see below.

Christian House: How would you describe Rogues’ Gallery?

Philip Hook: It’s a history of art dealing, which rather intriguingly has never been written before. I found it worked quite well to start from antiquity and go all the way through via the first modern art dealers that one sees in the 17th and 18th centuries, through to the 19th century, with the great dealer princes, like Duveen and Wildenstein, who sold fantastically expensive Renaissance works and major Old Masters, particularly to America, and on into that very interesting area of pioneer art dealers who really facilitated Modern art. The academies and the salons did not want to get involved with modern art, so the great masters of Modern art depended on dealers to get them through.


CH: Were those dealers a different breed?

PH: I think they were. I don’t think there had ever been a dealer like Paul Durand Ruel, for instance: marketing, promoting, generally waving the flag for and supporting the Impressionists. And he set a template which was then followed by Vollard with Cézanne, the Post-Impressionists and the Fauves, by Kahnweiler with the Cubists, and Leo Castelli later, post second world war, with the American Abstract Expressionists and Pop art. You could argue that without these art dealers the history, particularly of Modern art, would look different.  

CH: What differentiates dealers from auction house experts?

PH: Well art dealers are necessarily more entrepreneurial, they’re great risk takers. If you are an auction house specialist you do ultimately have the cocoon of the auction house to protect and support you. One of the ways in which an art dealer has an easier time of it is that he or she can choose what he or she deals in. Whereas if you work for an auction house you absolutely have to deal with absolutely everything that is presented to you and show enthusiasm for it.  I always think, in this respect, of the Oscar Wilde quotation that no man can like all schools of art unless he has been an auctioneer.   


CH: Your book is called Rogues’ Gallery, why do dealers have a reputation for being disreputable?

PH: Well I certainly don’t think all art dealers are rogues. Some were and are great scholars and operate to the highest ethical standards. But I think it’s the fact that art dealers are essentially selling fantasy. Delacroix called them “financiers du mystère”. I think that allows them a tremendous latitude to roam in that very exciting territory that exists between the price at which a work of art is bought and the price at which a work of art is sold.

CH: What was your most surprising or shocking discovery during your research?

PH: The story that Daniel Wildenstein recounts about how he was summoned to meet Pope Paul VI. The Pope was exercised by the way the art market was going up the whole time which meant the Vatican art collection was worth astronomic amounts of money and he couldn’t reconcile this huge amount with the church’s mission to help the poor. And Wildenstein suddenly realised that he had been summoned in order to informally discuss the viability of maybe offering for sale Michelangelo’s Pieta. Wildenstein for once in his life was horrified and said: “But your Holiness, you want me to sell this work? I mean could a Jew sell the Pieta of Michelangelo? I’d be crucified.” And his Holiness smiled benignly and said: “You wouldn’t be the first.”


CH: You were a dealer yourself in the 1990s. How did you fare?

PH: If I sold a picture I would go mad with joy and throw my money around and buy something I shouldn’t have bought. And at the other end of the scale, when things were not going well, I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried about how one was going to pay the electricity bill.

What I found so fascinating was the huge range of the dealer community. There were still the grandees, the Agnews and Colnaghis, and there were the small operators who scurried around all over the country. I remember one guy had a car that he drove hundreds of thousands of miles going to provincial sales. He bought it from an undertaker and the space in the back where the coffin used to go was where he kept all his pictures. I remember seeing his hearse arriving at the back door at Sotheby’s and you knew a new consignment was coming.   

Upcoming Events

14 March | 6pm | Sotheby's Geneva (022 908 48 33 or
15 March | 6pm | Sotheby's Zurich (+41 (0)44 226 22 73 or
Come and discover an insider’s view of the history of art dealing.
The Directors of Sotheby’s Geneva and Zurich are delighted to invite you to a talk by Philip Hook about his new book Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers, after which copies will be signed by the author.

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