First, it might be helpful to define Connoisseur.
connoisseur [kon-uh-sur], noun
1) a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgments in an art, particularly one of the fine arts, or in matters of taste: for example, a connoisseur of modern art.
2) a discerning judge of the best in any field: for example, a connoisseur of horses.
So, looking at this I would have to say that I am a connoisseur. How wonderful! I have spent over thirty years as an art dealer and so I am uniquely qualified to pass judgement, to determine the authenticity of an object. Or among objects, to know which is considered best. At least concerning the fine arts I have long studied and bought and sold all these years. Hurray!
But I think that any of us can be the second to some degree. But how? More important than saying that a particular piece of art is the best (I can help you with that), each of us can begin to understand what the best piece of art for us is. That is often the most important question, and that perspective has been lost.
How do we discern quality? How do we discern value?
Quality is more objective so let’s return to this later.
Value. What is value? In recent years, in good times and bad, value to the collector has meant market value. What is the monetary value of my artwork? In this equation, in this valuation, we are all outsiders subject to market forces beyond our control. When we assign our own value, based on our own joy-based criteria, then we have some agency in our own relationship to our collections.
So often it has been the unexpected discovery, the artwork by an artist previously unknown, that gives the most pleasure. Several years ago, a client purchased an artwork by a somewhat obscure American modernist. In flipping through an upcoming auction catalogue, something told me that he would love the work. We had been looking at the usual suspects, the artists we followed and always took a close look at during auction season. I told him I thought this painting was wonderful and that one rarely saw this artist at auction. He had looked through the catalogue several times but it had never caught his attention. Now he focused on it and it had an instant appeal. Relative to the price of the other paintings we usually considered, this was not an expensive painting. But it had a different price: the price of his consideration. Over the next two weeks before the sale, he had to decide if he would pursue the work at auction. He had to really look at it. He had to engage with something he was unfamiliar with.
It turns out there really wasn’t an active market for this artist’s works. One dealer handled the work. No auction records. No recent exhibitions which discussed the work. No affirmation coming from the corridors of the art world.
So what to pay? There was an auction estimate and so we decided we’d try and buy it at the lower end of this estimate. The collector loved the work. But he didn’t want to chase it. Here the value he put on his interest in the work was balanced with the value that the auction house put on the work.
We purchased the work at exactly the number we hoped to. In the years since we purchased that painting this remains one of his favorite works. It is the one he always mentions when we talk. One day when I was at his house, he lamented that many of his friends did not appreciate his art collection. But he did say that everyone always loved and responded to this piece. Perhaps they could also sense his strong connection to the work.
So, when I explore Connoisseurship in this blog, I will discuss not only how we look at paintings for their intrinsic value and objective qualities, that is, what makes a certain painting more successful than another. But also for what makes them truly valuable to us.