Published: July 16, 2019
In an era when many art history students prefer to study modern and contemporary art, those that study older periods give hope for the continued commercial existence of those fields. David Pollack is recognized by colleagues as one of Sotheby’s youngest auctioneers for some of the oldest material Sotheby’s sells. He admits his passion for Old Masters began in elementary school, when he was drawn to the technical capabilities of the artists. An art history undergraduate degree led to a summer internship at Sotheby’s and from that, a place in Sotheby’s training program. If the Old Master paintings field (which those in the know reference simply as “OMP”) has a future, it is in the hands of people like Pollack, so Antiques and The Arts Weekly asked him for some insights on how he got his start, what Sotheby’s Old Master department is doing at the moment, and where he thinks the field is headed.
What good advice did you receive early on?
From a career advancement perspective, the best piece of advice I was given was provided to me in the first hour of my first day by my current boss and mentor George Wachter: “Put your head down and work.” I took that to mean to take a long-term approach to development and success. Most of the leaders in our company have been at this for decades, and success doesn’t come in one, two or even three years. It takes a long time to build bridges in the Old Master world, both internally and externally, and “put your head down and work” mantra really does apply well to our line of business.
Another invaluable piece of advice I received seemed simple and obvious, but important nonetheless: LOOK. Everyone I spoke to early on urged me to travel to see art. See every exhibition. Look as much as possible. Our greatest asset as a specialist is our eye, and creating a mental rolodex of pictures, artists, attributions, etc, is the key to success as a specialist. This, thankfully, is a very happy mission and one that doesn’t really feel like work.
Now on view at Sotheby’s is a private selling exhibition, “Inspired by Chatsworth.” What was the inspiration for the exhibition?
In “Inspired by Chatsworth,” we have tried to assemble a group of property that, while not at the level of what one finds at Chatsworth, still represents the extraordinary quality of the legendary collection. Works by major artists in the Devonshire Collection are represented in our exhibition, such as a commanding Frans Hals portrait, and we have also included a selection of top quality decorative arts, from a beautiful set of Meissen birds modeled by Kändler to a Louis XIV silver soup tureen made by Antoine Boullier for the Duke de Mortemart. Adrian Sassoon has also provided an extraordinary selection of objets d’art by Hiroshi Suzuki, Junko Mori and Pippin Drysdale, some of whose work is collected by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and can be seen at Chatsworth today.
How do you keep the Old Master field relevant to contemporary audiences?
This is a question I’m asked a lot and here are a couple of thoughts, of several: The first way is through education. I have hosted a number of “OMP 101” events where I attempt to give the attendees a 1 to 2 hour working knowledge of Old Masters from the perspective of a specialist or connoisseur. Once people have a working framework for understanding the field, I think it becomes much more interesting.
We make OMP’s relevant to contemporary audiences by presenting them in new, fresh, and cool ways. Whether it is through working with Victoria Beckham, or partnering with contemporary art galleries on special exhibitions, for a younger audience, the idea of Old Masters as dark, brown and not hangable in modern living spaces needs to be eradicated. Luckily, the fashion and music worlds have caught on to the timeless appeal of Old Masters, and so we are seeing their influence crop up in unexpected and refreshing mass-appeal ways.
What do you do to bring in or attract new / younger buyers?
Aligning ourselves with interesting external brands and thinkers is important. I also think it is important to admit and embrace the way people live with art today. The decorating trends are simply different than they were years ago, with, in my opinion, a desire to mix all collecting categories and be more individual. This leads to an opportunity to promote Old Masters in a new way and to a new audience.
Is there an area within the broad field of Old Masters (including prints and drawings) that you recognize as a good place to start collecting, particularly if one does not have unlimited funds?
The Old Master field is historically cyclical, and there are sub-genres which have come in and out of fashion over the years. It used to be that baroque Italian paintings were extremely commercial; today they are harder to sell in the middle range of the market so that is one area I would say is currently undervalued. Dutch Golden-age pictures, the traditional bread and butter of the market, are also less sought after today than in years past, so Dutch landscapes, genre pictures and portraits are a great place to start. They are usually by known artists who sign their pictures and who have a track record that spans centuries.
This year marks your 11th year at Sotheby’s. Does a particular work stand out as one you’ve been particularly proud to have brought in for sale, and why?
Two years ago, I was very proud to help bring in a Willem Drost, a very important Dutch Golden Age painter in the Rembrandt school. It was owned by a family that had acquired it generations ago and did not know it was by Drost. We helped them through the research process and what they had once believed was an anonymous painting ultimately turned out to be a rare Venetian period work that sold for around $1 million. A dealer helped the Rijksmuseum acquire it recently, so I will be very happy to see it hanging there among some of the world’s greatest Dutch paintings.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
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