It behooves any budding art dealer to gain at least a cursory grounding in the giants of the field, if only because other dealers you will do business with may use them as shorthand for certain types of business models or cautionary tales. Exactly who the first person was to serve as the representative for an artist or to buy an artwork with the intention of turning around and reselling it for a profit may not be knowable now, but by the time Western art took that giant leap forward in the form of the Italian Renaissance, there were already vendors acting as middlemen between collectors and artists. Giovanni Battista della Palla was among the first international art dealers to make it into the history books by name. Immortalized in Giorgio Vasari’s marvelous series of biographies, The Lives of the Artists, for having sold work by the greatest artists of his day to the king of France, della Palla undoubtedly falls into the “cautionary tale” category. Called, among other things, a “two-bit merchant” by historians and eventually imprisoned as a traitor, he comes down to us as a somewhat inglorious character. Accounts vary as to whether he was eventually beheaded at Pisa or took his own life in prison, but della Palla is perhaps the basis for many of the negative stereotypes about art dealers that persist today. Things do get better for the profession’s reputation though, we promise.Throughout much of the history of art dealing, it was apparently not viewed as prudent to try to make a living selling artwork alone. The celebrated eighteenth-century French “luxury merchant” (marchand-mercier) Lazare Duvaux offered a mix of exquisite furniture, jewelry, ceramics, and sculpture to his fashionable and very wealthy clients. (Duvaux’s importance continues to the present day because sales ledgers he kept between 1748 and 1758 still provide contemporary scholars with a treasure trove of provenance information.) Well into the nineteenth century, in fact, art was often still viewed—even by many of its merchants—as parallel to a home furnishing, sold as a sideline in shops offering mirrors, furniture, or even toys. One of the earliest recorded dealers in America, for example, Boston craftsman John Doggett, opened his shop in 1810 to sell both pictures and frames. His shop would go on to become one of most important art galleries in America for a while (Williams and Everett), but selling art alone was not his original business plan. This diversification approach exists even today. Many art galleries continue to mix art and design objects in their inventory. In fact, there’s been an interesting resurgence of exhibiting high-end design in some of the most prestigious “fine art” galleries lately. Where that may lead the profession remains to be seen, but many dealers are keeping an eye on those enterprising souls daring enough to blur the lines after years spent separating out the two genres.
Advertisement for exhibition of European masters at John Doggett’s Boston gallery, 1821. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration for Williams & Everett gallery, 1882. Image via Via Wikimedia Commons.