“There are a lot of memories here,” the scion of one of the world’s legendary art- dealing dynasties said as he showed a visitor around the palatial New York headquarters that the Wildenstein family built for itself in 1932. “Think of the people who have sat in this room,” David Wildenstein said wistfully, as he mentioned J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, Samuel H. Kress, and John D. Rockefeller.
To give up such sumptuous historic premises is a notable move, and the announcement in January that Wildenstein & Company was selling its Upper East Side building had art world insiders speculating about the intentions of the famously discreet clan.
“It’s a huge transformation of this great juggernaut which has been at the belly of Impressionist and Old Masters,” said Joseph Rishel, senior curator of European painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It will radically redefine them. It’s also a shifting of attitudes about what galleries are. These large palaces with marble stairs, plush walls, and dead silences are not where it’s at.”
Now in its fifth generation of family management, Wildenstein has played a pivotal role in the art market for well over a century, outlasting such venerable rivals as Duveen Brothers and Knoedler. But a new generation is taking over, and the firm has accepted a reported $90 million from the government of Qatar, which intends to install its consulate in the stately building. Designed by Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer, the limestone-clad showcase on East 64th Street has five floors, all with double-height ceilings, and, on the third floor, a paneled salon that came from the Paris townhouse of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister.
Wildenstein & Company was undoubtedly the grandest surviving commercial gallery in New York. But in recent years fewer buyers have been dropping by in person, and much of the firm’s business today is conducted over the Internet. “We never thought of selling the building, but it’s an opportunity to see what exactly is transpiring in the market and how we want to evolve,” said David Wildenstein, 34, the firm’s U.S.-born vice president.
Gary Tinterow, who has dealt with Wildenstein for decades as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of European paintings and now director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, said: “It’s been much more difficult for grand houses like Wildenstein to survive in a world dominated by auction houses. It’s like Amazon’s effect on independent booksellers.”
The sale of the historic building follows a series of scandals that have hit the Wildenstein family, which opened its first gallery in Paris in 1875. These include the publication in 1997 of Hector Feliciano’s book <ib>The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art<ib/> in which he wrote that David’s great-grandfather, Georges Wildenstein, worked secretly with an influential art dealer during World War II to buy and sell art plundered from Jews.
Guy Wildenstein—the 68-year-old father of David and the current president of Wildenstein & Company—filed a defamation suit against Feliciano, but a French court rejected it. David denied that his family, Jews who immigrated to France from Eastern Europe, had profited from works stolen from other Jews. “These accusations have been extremely hurtful,” he said. “I can’t picture anyone in my family having anything to do with that.”
In 2011, French police raided the nonprofit Wildenstein Institute in Paris as part of a separate investigation into charges by the late Sylvia Roth Wildenstein, stepmother of Guy and his late brother, Alec, that the family had evaded inheritance taxes.
David declined comment on charges still pending in French courts or on lawsuits that arose out of them. But he brushed aside any suggestion that the building’s sale was related to these matters or represented retrenchment.
In 1993, Wildenstein formed a joint venture with Pace Gallery to sell contemporary works, but Pace bought out Wildenstein’s share in the partnership in 2010. David said his family wasn’t happy dealing in new, or primary market, works, and preferred to buy and trade second-hand art. “You’re holding a portfolio,” he said of Wildenstein’s approach. “It’s really like running a private equity fund.”
David, who holds degrees in fine arts as well as in real estate from New York University, works alongside his father and is taking a growing role in the firm. Guy Wildenstein will remain president but is more involved with the Paris Institute, while David is focused on developing operations in New York. Over his desk hangs a stunning 18th-century painting by Louis-Léopold Boilly of the Jeu de Paume at Versailles. Asked if it was for sale, David replied, “At the right price.”
With new money tending toward contemporary art, the youngest family member in the business wants to steer some of it back in Wildenstein’s direction. “We have anything from Quattrocento up,” he said as he stood in one of the firm’s vaults, filled with thousands of paintings, and pulled out at random a Frans Hals portrait and a seascape by Matisse’s contemporary Albert Marquet.
The gallery spaces were still adorned with paintings by Fragonard and Boucher before the firm’s planned move to smaller Upper East Side premises, where, David said, it would discontinue public exhibitions but retain its entire New York staff of 29, including six art researchers and a retinue of liveried porters.
Wildenstein & Company has published more than 40 catalogues raisonnés since the l920s, for artists such as Fragonard, Chardin, Courbet, and Monet. Through the Wildenstein Institute, catalogues for Gauguin, Renoir, and Velázquez are in progress, and the gallery’s first catalogue devoted to a living artist, Jasper Johns, is scheduled to be published in five volumes next year in cooperation with Houston’s Menil Collection.
Wildenstein is talking to other leading contemporary artists about publishing their catalogues raisonnés, as well as to foundations representing artists’ estates, including that of Robert Rauschenberg. There are also plans to revive the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, an eminent art history journal Wildenstein published in print from 1928 until 2002, as an online publication.
The gallery’s U.S. publications are overseen by Joachim Pissarro, professor of art history at Hunter College and director of the college’s art galleries. The preparation of catalogues raisonnés represents a “colossal investment,” Pissarro said, with the Johns catalogue costing over $1 million. Pissarro was the coauthor of the catalogue raisonné of the paintings of his great-grandfather Camille Pissarro, which was published by the Wildenstein Institute in 2005.
Summing up the character of Wildenstein & Company, a paintings expert at a major auction house said, “Their discretion defines their identity and is their strength. They’re like private bankers, and this appeals to clients.” Among those clients have been Paul Mellon, Gianni Agnelli, Walter Annenberg, and Jayne Wrightsman.
Daniel Wildenstein, David’s grandfather, wrote in his memoirs that he met Pope John Paul VI in 1978 about selling Michelangelo’s Pietà in a bid to raise money for the poor. Although a Vatican spokesman denied that selling the sculpture was ever discussed, Wildenstein has long handled sales for major museums. In the past two years, it has sold works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada.