O ne of the most original, charismatic and respected figures in the art world, Danny Katz has been dealing in sculpture and works of art for more than 50 years. He is also well known for his philanthropic commitments, both to the arts – fine arts, music and dance – as well as neurological charities. In the spirit of this, Danny has decided to donate the proceeds from 10 lots in the sale to two charities providing essential support for those most in need during the Covid-19 pandemic: The Trussell Trust and Refuge.
No other art dealer has been active at the highest level of the market across so many different categories. His interests embrace sculpture – the field in which his reputation was first established – as well as Ancient Art, Old Master and 19th Century Paintings, Modern British Art and Arts of the Islamic World. To all these areas Danny brings an encyclopedic knowledge and true passion for the objects he handles.
At this stage of his career, Danny has decided to shift his focus and spend his time handling a smaller number of important works of art, which has prompted him to select this carefully-curated group for sale at Sotheby's. The works included in the sale exemplify Danny's broad interests and provide an extraordinary opportunity for collectors to acquire works epitomizing his legendary taste.
Anyone who has had the privilege to spend time with Danny at his home in London, and to see and discuss his collection, will have been struck by its eclectic character. Most collectors acquire works within their comfort zone, often a relatively narrow one, restricted to paintings or works of art from one school or a relatively limited time period. Learning about an area of art takes time and a lot of effort: going to museums, galleries and auction houses, studying catalogues and talking to scholars and other collectors. For the majority of those who collect, one area of focus is therefore usually enough. But Danny is rather different – he acts on a much bigger stage. Why limit yourself to one or two areas of collecting when you can select from great art produced anywhere on Earth over the last three millennia?
It’s an ambitious approach – usually the preserve of a great museum rather than an individual – because it requires a vast knowledge and a profound understanding of all forms of art. That level of understanding is very seldom to be found in one person, but it is exemplified in Danny. I have often wondered what makes him such a brilliant connoisseur across such a huge range of fields. I think it is borne of an unceasing curiosity to look and learn – to be confronted by the familiar and unfamiliar, to make connections and to test himself. On many occasions, Danny has passed by my office at Sotheby’s and asked if there were any new paintings to see. Confronted with a selection of pictures, he will go through them rapidly one by one, fearlessly firing off attributions – usually hitting the bull’s eye with the first shot – but if not, coming up with alternatives and inevitably circling in on the right answer in the end. It all happens very quickly and it is exhilarating to be part of it. "I’m not bad at this, am I?" Danny will say. "You should give me a job here!".
The recall of images from his encyclopaedic brain is impressive enough but Danny will also occasionally come up with an extraordinarily obscure fact, "I remember that picture," he will say. "It was in a sale here in 1976, in March. It was hanging just to the left of the door on the way into the main gallery. It made £2,600. Go on check it." I do, and am staggered to find he is right on price and date. I shouldn’t be surprised after all these years of knowing him but I still am.
Danny’s appreciation and understanding of such a vast range of art is the result of an extraordinary talent to remember images and objects, combined with insatiable curiosity. His drive to see things, to look and learn is extraordinary. A typical phone call from Danny mid-morning on a Saturday, might go as follows: "I’m having an amazing day! I have been up since 5am, reading about philosophy and listening to Stravinsky; I have been in the V&A looking at Islamic works of art and am just leaving now to go to Sotheby’s to see the Impressionist and Modern sale before I go to the National Gallery. What are you up to?" Well, the answer is never quite as much. It is impossible for anyone else to move at Danny’s pace. Danny will regularly visit the galleries of dealers around the West End: "You never know what you might find". And, of course, very often he does find things, whose full potential only Danny has been able to recognise. He seems intrigued and rather disappointed that most dealers never visit his gallery. "What is it about me?" he says. "Aren’t they interested to see what I have?!"
Danny loves all his Old Masters but some hold a particularly special place for him. Bartholomeus Spranger’s Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine was the first major Old Master that he acquired. It is a superb painting, with its striking palette and sculptural forms, demonstrating cross-currents of artistic influence between Italy and the North, themes that particularly resonate with Danny. Another enduring favourite is his gold ground painting of the Madonna and Child with Saints by Carolinus da Viterbo. It is a quiet and contemplative picture. "Just look at it", Danny will say. "Look how it glows". And with its rich, untouched gold background it certainly does. Seeing a painting like this – still in perfect original state – reminds me of what Danny is looking for in a picture. It has to be the very best of its type. It doesn’t have to be by a household name but it does have to be exceptional, in extraordinary condition and with the power to move.
Perhaps the most profoundly moving of all his Old Masters is the depiction of Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Luis de Morales, with perfectly preserved details, such as the hairs of Christ’s head and beard, and the trickles of blood so beautifully and poignantly rendered. It is easy to see how the artist earned the epithet ‘El Divino’ when confronted by a picture of such spiritual intensity and directness.
Danny has a number of truly exceptional portraits in his collection: my favourites being the enigmatic portrait of Altobello di Averoldo by the wonderfully eccentric Amico Aspertini and the heads of St Peter and St Paul, both in pristine state, two of the finest works by Lucas Cranach the Elder to be found in a private collection. I have always thought that Danny is particularly drawn to portraits because he really likes people. He is curious about others and what makes them tick. I have often witnessed him asking someone question after question – sometimes more directly than the recipient is used to – in order to try to find out more about them. It is a reflection of his profound sense of humanity, an aspect of Danny’s character that is so valued by all who know him.
To be with Danny when he is looking at a great picture or object for the first time is an exciting thing. The reaction of most scholars and collectors in such circumstances is tempered with a certain degree of restraint. With Danny, the reaction is visceral and completely unselfconscious. Anyone who has seen Danny get up and give an impromptu dance in front of a crowd will know that he is not unduly troubled by shyness or what people may think! So, the work in question is not approached in silence and discussed in hushed, reverential tones, but with excitement and a lot of animated discussion. Of course, Danny’s unfiltered reaction can work against him in some circumstances, when showing him a picture for private sale or a painting well in advance of a future auction, where a degree of restraint may work to his advantage in not indicating how true the level of his interest. But his reaction is only ever genuine: "Oh my God. You know this is a masterpiece, don’t you? I shouldn’t be telling you this. But I have to own this. I’m hopeless at playing poker! But you know I can’t help myself – this is really a great work of art!"
When pursuing the acquisition of a painting, Danny can demonstrate both tenacity and – perhaps more unexpectedly – a good deal of patience. In 1998 he tried to buy Bernardo Strozzi’s lyrical and tender depiction of the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, when it came up for auction at Sotheby’s. Despite bidding nearly four times the estimate, he was pipped at the post by Sir Peter Moores, who acquired the work for the gallery he had recently established at Compton Verney House. Over the ensuing years, Danny would from time to time ruefully ponder "the ones that got away" and the Strozzi was always on the list. Most people – in fact anyone apart from Danny – would have been resigned to the fact that a painting now in a UK permanent collection, was forever out of reach. De-accessioning works from UK museums hardly ever happens. But he is not a man to be put off by a challenge. With a combination of dogged determination and ingenuity, Danny set about the task of encouraging the museum to sell the picture, which fell outside the core group of Old Masters, all of which were Neapolitan. Helped along by Danny’s charismatic powers of persuasion, the Trustees finally agreed to de-accession this Genoese Baroque masterpiece and it now forms a centrepiece in Danny’s drawing room.
One of the things I love most about Danny is his enthusiasm to share the excitement he feels about works of art with others. I have often answered a call from him to be asked, "Do you want to see something amazing? Come round to the gallery in ten minutes and I’ll show you something extraordinary!" You never know what you are going to be confronted with. It could be an Old Master, but just as likely something completely different: an antiquity; a modern drawing or a rococo sculpture. And once you are there, you seldom see just one thing anyway, but normally a succession of recent acquisitions. They are always eye-opening and uplifting visits. As you leave, you might think more about the new and exiting artworks you have just had the pleasure of seeing. But more likely you will reflect on the time you have just spent in Danny’s inspirational company – surely one of the most stimulating and life-affirming things that anyone can do.