Art | Finders Keepers

Old Masters

Rich in provenance and scarce in availability, Dutch and Flemish Old Masters make for competitive – and rewarding – collecting. Claire Wrathall meets an enthusiast and his dealer.

June 01 2010
Claire Wrathall

The art market may have suffered recently, but if one sector has proved resilient it is Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, which, according to the latest report by Tefaf (The European Fine Art Foundation), rose in value by 36 per cent between 2002 and 2009. At a Sotheby’s New York sale in January three Van Dyck paintings fetched much more than expected, including a portrait that sold for $1.54m – 54 per cent over its lower estimate.

There’s a Van Dyck in David Kowitz’s collection of Dutch and Flemish 16th- and 17th-century paintings, a portrait of a Genoese cleric. But as Kowitz, founder and managing partner of the investment fund Indus Capital Partners, is keen to point out, he prefers not to buy at auction. “You’re competing with the whole world,” he cautions. “And even if you didn’t care about the price, anyone who knew anything about the Old Master world would know where you found it” – and what you paid for it.

Now a UK resident, US-born Kowitz bought his first Old Master in London in 1997, when he happened on Mark Weiss’s Jermyn Street gallery and an unattributed 16th-century Swiss portrait of a scientist caught his eye. “It was really on a lark,” he recalls. “It was quite crude, but quirky, kind of cool. And I was fascinated – I still am – by the idea that you could acquire an object that had survived four or five centuries.” At about £8,000, it also struck him as good value.

It was the start of an enduring passion and a close friendship with Weiss, through whom he’s bought about half his collection. The two met next in New York: “I remember Mark saying that he’d had a lot of very good things come through the gallery over the years and he regretted that there had never been one person captivated enough to collect, because had that person existed they would have a really great collection by now. I thought: I could be that person.”

A happy epiphany for both, it turned out. For, as Weiss puts it, “David is very much an old-school collector, a creature I used to bemoan didn’t exist any more. He’s passionately interested, knowledgeable, prepared to look at challenging pictures and put his money where his mouth is.” The two now enjoy not only “vigorous discussions about art” and other shared interests such as wine, but “boys’ sessions over dinner from time to time”, says Weiss.

Certainly, Kowitz takes a great interest in the provenance of the paintings. Among his most treasured, for example, is an exquisite little portrait of the infant Madeleine de France (c1524). It’s a rare oil by Jean Clouet, court painter to the child’s father, François I. “The king would have held this in his hands,” says Kowitz. But its subsequent owners are yet more extraordinary, among them Horace Walpole, the Rothschilds and even, after it was looted, Hermann Göring. “Think of the people who held it and beheld it. It’s pretty amazing to be part of that,” says Kowitz. “More than that, it’s just a beautiful image. Even people with no sensitivity to art see it and say, ‘What a cool little girl!’”

Though Kowitz doesn’t “go out of [his] way to lend to exhibitions”, the National Gallery borrowed Madeleine for its Renaissance Faces show in 2008, then it went on show at Yale. “I think I’m not going to lend that one any more,” says Kowitz, though he concedes that such loans can bring dividends. “If you exhibit a picture it typically helps its value and solidifies its importance.”

It’s not only the paintings that travel: Kowitz and Weiss also go abroad in search of particular works. When Weiss learnt that an Italian family was looking to sell a painting, Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Table (c1550) by Martin de Vos, which they had owned for 400 years, he and Kowitz went straight to Milan to see it. Kowitz bought it, only regretting that he wasn’t able to buy “another phenomenal masterpiece” he saw on the same trip, but on which there was an export ban. (In the end Weiss brokered a sale between the vendor and a friend of Kowitz’s with an Italian wife.)

And travel can play a part in their research too. Prior to the purchase of “perhaps my favourite painting”, a triptych by Joachim Patinir (c1517-24), which Weiss had also sourced, the two flew to Madrid and spent a day and a half at an exhibition of Patinir’s work at the Prado, as well as a couple of hours with the show’s curator.

Of course, there have been misses. For example, a Marinus van Reymerswaele painting that came up at Sotheby’s and on which Kowitz “did a lot of work, meeting with Susan Foister [director of collections at the National Gallery] and Maryan Ainsworth [curator of European paintings] at the Met. But it went nuts and sold for £2,057,250 [against a lower estimate of £100,000]. I bid a fraction of that.”

As to whether there’s anything Kowitz longs to acquire, Weiss insists it’s better “to be object than artist driven. You should never buy a painting for the sake of the name but because you want it. David has always been guided by his heart; he’s very much his own master.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Kowitz occasionally buys contemporary art too, an experience he considers “really very different. It’s flashier, people recognise it and in almost every case I’ve got to know the artist. But if you change your mind and decide to sell, you can really take a bath. Whereas with Old Masters, if you’ve done your homework, you can almost always sell for what you paid, probably more.”

In any case, he likes that the scarcity of these paintings means there’s always competition for them, especially as “there are some collectors with much deeper pockets, so I need to outrun them”. After he bought the Patinir he received several offers from “people who just hadn’t had their wits about them, or the energy” to do the groundwork. “In that respect,” he says, satisfied, “I beat them to the punch.”

See also

Collecting, Paintings