Carlo Orsi is President of The Association of Italian Antique Dealers (AAI).
Carlo, you come from a famous family of Milan antique dealers. What has changed in your profession over the years?
The world has changed and the way we perceive our profession of antique dealers has changed quite a bit everywhere, because taste and fashion have influenced what people want, not just as a matter of pleasure but also for a status symbol.
What do people want today?
Collectors of antique works of art want an absolute assurance of the quality and rarity of the pieces, this is partly because modern and contemporary artworks are the major players in the market. This is the case even when it comes to furniture, where designs from the 50s and 60s are preferred over antiques.
And what do you mean by quality and rarity?
I mean that nowadays what sells goes well beyond simple decoration, above all else it needs to be identified as the work of an important artist that is rare to find on the market. For example, a magnificent veduta by Guardi was sold at Christie’s in London for 8 million pounds and in the same way records were broken by Sotheby’s with a gold ground Giovanni da Rimini whose provenance was the collection of the Duke of Northumberland and it sold for more than 5 million pounds.
Who buys Old Master paintings and ancient sculptures nowadays?
There are only a few select people in the whole world, they are very sophisticated collectors and the national and international museums in whose galleries antique works of art are exhibited.
What do you intend to do as the newly elected President of the Italian Antique Dealers Association? What are your main objectives?
I will be lobbying the Minister of Heritage and Culture, Dario Franceschini, because our market is moribund, imprisoned by a series of laws, now totally obsolete, which impede the movement of Italian works of art out into overseas markets which are the only source working for our wares. In other words, a work that cannot be exported immediately loses value in the market and can only be sold in Italy. I congratulate the Minister for his cultural decree that gives private individuals the opportunity to contribute to the restoration of public works with a tax deduction, but I will also be urging him not to forget that such bureaucracy is killing us. This is the priority of my mandate.
So there are simply not enough Italian collectors?
No, those we have are very important, but they are not sufficient because they too are penalised by the legal situation of which I have just spoken. Certainly this is right for the protection of works that are considered to be of national importance, but we already have a large heritage of these in our museums. At the same time it is also true that there are several representative works that should not be subject to protection and which could also circulate freely. The simplification of these criteria would help us a lot in our work.
What else needs to change?
You need to understand that our world does not only involve us antiquarians but also other associations of dealers, like modern art dealers, antiquarian booksellers and all the different crafts that contribute to the makeup of our trade, such as for example restorers, upholsterers, framers, craftsmen who restore marble and so on …
Is it difficult to find important and certified pieces?
It is certainly difficult, but thanks to collaboration with museums, art historians, critics, and so on, you can more often than not confirm the identity of what the antique dealer has found.
Where do antique dealers make their discoveries?
In the major auction houses, amongst collectors or even in flea markets, thanks to their professional skills and a good network of relationships. Sometimes it happens that the same object is discovered by several dealers together, which is why there are associates working on the same deal.
Is there a lot of competition?
Yes, because there are so many capable professionals who are working continuously in the market.
How are Italian art and antique dealers viewed in the wider world?
They operate successfully both in Italy and abroad. There are plenty of examples of colleagues who have opened galleries in London and New York and who represent us in an excellent manner: I am thinking of Caesar Lampronti, Fabrizio Moretti, Edmondo di Robilant, Marco Voena and numerous others.
What period is most sought after by collectors today?
There is not any one period that is more sought after than any other. The major fairs such as Maastricht, the Florence Biennial and Masterpiece in London demonstrate that when it comes to paintings, objects and furnishings quality and uniqueness count far more than anything else.
What about your own business, how do you work?
I have a niche business. I do not have a lot of inventory and often work on a single piece. For example, I sold “The Portrait of a Gentleman with a Book” by Pontormo that is now on display at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence to a private collector. Now I am working on a sculpture in plaster by Canova that I will present at the next Biennial in Rome.
Are there many fakes?
There are fakes, but it’s more about incorrect attributions (for example, a Giotto which is not a Giotto but by a minor painter). Today art history has made great progress with scientific research and reference works, both are helpful in the process of attribution, as the eye can sometimes be misled despite knowledge and ability. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the market now prefers contemporary art, where such certification is not necessary.
Why then do, for example, a very famous contemporary artist like Jeff Koons or a well-known contemporary and modern art gallery like Gian Enzo Sperone also buy antique paintings?
First because they have a great historical and cultural content, in addition to being unique and unrepeatable. And it doesn’t hurt that they cost significantly less than contemporary art!
But even in Old Master paintings are there not fashions? Nowadays it seems that people seek out Caravaggio, Guercino, Canaletto, Mantegna and Poussin?
Because they are great artists and everyone is on the lookout for masterpieces. Fortunately, there are museums that own them and it’s still possible for all of us to enjoy them.