TOP QUALITY. Fabrizio Moretti’s new London gallery in Duke Street, St. James’s, will open on July 1st 2022. The gallery will focus on Old Master paintings and sculptures for top clients and museums. A piece of extraordinary news is that Letizia Treves, one of the curators of the National Gallery of London, has left the Museum and will join Moretti Fine Art as a partner. This is a significant achievement, because the great knowledge and scholarship of Letizia will certainly help the new Moretti London gallery maintain high standards.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Fabrizio Moretti, as well as the new London gallery you have a gallery in Florence and one in Monte Carlo. Why do you need more than one?
Galleries are important. I hope that the art market will go back to how it was at the beginning of the 20th century, when people went to galleries on Saturdays and Sundays to see works of art and to enjoy their relationships with dealers. This is not the case these days. Auction houses and art fairs monopolize the market and it’s easier for a private collector to go to Basel, Maastricht or Florence and meet 80-100 dealers in one day under the same roof. But for me the romanticism of meeting a dealer in his or her gallery, to talk about a painting, maybe drink a nice coffee and build a collection, is irreplaceable.
What type of art do your galleries specialize in?
I deal in Italian Old Masters. I specialize in early Renaissance, and I love Mannerism the most. I collect some modern and contemporary art for myself, but I prefer to be recognized as an Old Master paintings dealer. This is a very rare business today. The Old Master market is like a chess game; there are not a lot of players and it is very sophisticated. We are trying to improve this situation, and to teach new generations to understand the beauty of the past. In both Monte Carlo and London we will make programmes of small exhibitions, and London will be my main residence as a private dealer. We work with institutions or private collectors, and sometimes I also collaborate with auction houses where I can create my own single sales.
You have sold very important paintings to prominent museums all over the world, to the Metropolitan in New York, to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, to the National Gallery in London. Do Old Masters really belong in museums, or should they also be in the hands of private collectors?
They are history, and museums have the major quantity of Old Masters in the world. This is very good, because art is a patrimony of humanity and should be free for everybody to enjoy. There are not many great masterpieces left on the market, which is different from modern and contemporary art, where there is a lot of stock in museums but also a lot of stock in private collections. Unfortunately it is a problem of culture that the new generation doesn’t think that it’s possible to buy Old Master paintings. To collect both Old Masters and contemporary art is not a bad idea. There is a fantastic sign outside the Modern Art Gallery in Turin that reads: L’ arte è sempre contemporanea (“Art is always contemporary”). You should always look at art as a whole, 360 degrees.
“Art is fundamental in my life.”
Artemesia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, about 1615-17, Oil on canvas. 71.4 × 69 cm. The painting was only discovered in 2017, and acquired by the National Gallery in London shortly afterwards.
Fabrizio Moretti, Old Masters are relatively inexpensive, but a contemporary artist can confirm the painting. How do you know if an Old Master is original or not?
When an investor buys modern or contemporary art there is an archive, and sometimes the artist can prove the originality of the item. In our case it is different, we call them attributions. In a few cases we can prove that paintings are right because they are documented and signed, but most of the time you come to an attribution because there is a unanimous consensus among art historians. On some paintings there will be a debate on the attribution, and an attribution could change, so what you need to see in an Old Master picture is the quality. You need to be very careful, and to consult the best art historians and go to the best art galleries, but when you buy top quality you can never go wrong.
How do you decide if a painting is real or a fake? Take for instance the very famous painting La Gioconda. There are many Giocondas. Which one is the real one? Or are there many painted by Leonardo? Or were they painted by some of his pupils?
We know that the original one is the one in the Louvre because it’s documented, because it went to France with Leonardo and was found in his house when he passed away. Afterwards many other versions came on the market, as workshop or as follower, and actually they make a lot of money. Maybe some of them are done by his followers, you need to be able to live with a doubt. Certainty is difficult to establish, but, as I said, quality is the main point to judge.
This is totally right. In the 15th century workshop there was the main actor. Verrocchio had Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo di Credi, Botticelli, Perugino in his top workshop, and sometimes it’s difficult to recognize the hand of the young artist. A painting may be designated workshop, but it doesn’t mean that it’s any less important than an autograph painting.
Has your ability to recognize paintings improved since you started your career?
Every day you learn a lesson. Every day a painting can put you in front of a mystery, a big doubt. Of course, there is the problem of fakes, and there are also fakes in modern art so you need to be very careful, but I’m able to recognize a fake quite quickly and I will tell you why. When you see an original painting you get the feeling that the painting sings. A fake is well done, but never sings. There’s always a mistake, something that doesn’t match. I deal in gold grounds and they were copied a lot. They were made in the 13/14/15th century, but at the beginning of the 20th century there was a big fashion for gold grounds and in Siena there was a restorer called Icilio Federico Ioni that used to do fake gold grounds from new, or sometimes got a very bad condition gold ground and redid it, making it beautiful to sell to the American market. Some of these fakes are now recognized in American museums. Maybe in the past it was difficult to recognize the difference between a good one and a bad one, but today for me the work of Icilio Federico Ioni is quite recognizable and I can see it from five metres.
Most Old Master paintings have been restored over the years, so there are not many that are completely original?
Yes, but this doesn’t mean it’s a fake. It’s very difficult to find a painting in mint condition today that has never been touched. There are not many examples in the world of paintings that were sitting in public institutions or in private collections for ages, untouched. When you buy an Old Master you need to put in your mind the idea that it will have had some restoration. Some paintings arrive in our hands in very good condition.
Does it happen that you discover out of the blue, somewhere in the world, a painting that nobody knew existed or that people were looking for?
The name for these is “sleepers”. These are great paintings that are mis-catalogued in small sales, and then you find out that these paintings are important. One came up in Spain in April 2021. The picture was catalogued as attributed to the workshop of Ribera at €1,500, and this fantastic painting turned out to be a masterpiece by Caravaggio. It was withdrawn by the auction house so didn’t go to public sale, unfortunately for me and my dear friend Marco Voena who went to Madrid with me to buy it. When we arrived the painting was no longer on the market. The Prado straight away “notified” the painting, that is they put a hold on it so the painting now is patrimony of Spain and unexportable. We hope that somebody will buy it as a gift to the Prado, or maybe the Prado will buy it directly from the family. The amazing story of this Caravaggio is as big a discovery as the famous Salvator Mundi that was found 20 years ago in a small sale in America.
How can you be sure that the Madrid Caravaggio is real and that the very similar one in the Genova museum is not?
The painting documented in Genova is this painting that was found in Madrid. The attribution of the Genova one was always questioned and never fully accepted by art historians as the work of Caravaggio. We know that this famous picture left Italy and went to Spain in the 17th century, and another proof is the quality and the mystery. I can tell you, I was in front of the picture and it sings. It was like looking at a cinema movie, because Caravaggio is the first artist to invent a scene in that way. The Ecce Homo at the front, at the back the soldier looking on. It’s an unbelievable picture, with a sense of reality that only Caravaggio can describe and teach to the world.
Since the painting cannot be exported from Spain its value is only national, as is also the case for many paintings in Italy. Are masterpieces of equal quality elsewhere in the world worth much more for people like you who deal in art?
Yes, for me it’s bad, but I believe that the State should look after its patrimony properly and some paintings should be stopped from leaving, although it’s difficult to judge between what could go out and what should stay in. Italy should work on this, but I am totally for the protection of patrimony. These laws are quite right and Spain did the right thing to stop it leaving. It would be amazing to see a painting that was in Spain since the 17th century in a national museum like the Prado. France and England have different laws. They can stop the export of pictures, but if there is an offer from another State and they’re not able to raise the same amount domestically they will give the picture an export license.
Is that what happened recently for some Rembrandts in France?
Exactly. Two Rembrandts were bought by the Rijksmuseum. Maybe this is better for the seller as it doesn’t disadvantage the owner and some countries, like Italy or Spain which have a lot of masterpieces, cannot afford to match the prices and recompense. Their only way is to put a stop on the item to make sure it doesn’t leave the country.
“I always hope to find more things for my collection, to wake up one morning and find another thing to add.”
Fabrizio Moretti, what about the story of the man who arrived at the Prado to ask them about his painting and they saw that it was a great masterpiece, Cristo alla Colonna, one of the very few paintings of Antonello da Messina? Do such things still happen?
These kinds of things happen, or used to happen in the past. In books about art history there are many paintings that we still don’t know where they are. My job is to try to find them. Every time you look at a small auction you always hope to find the great discovery. Recently an engraving was bought in a country sale for $30. It turned out not to be an engraving, but a drawing by Dürer – and the value is $30-50 million. The poor guy that sold this little piece of paper for $30 had a real Dürer.
Are Old Masters more affordable than contemporary art?
Yes, the Old Master paintings market today is totally undervalued. In the 50s or 60s Old Masters was a strong market and the values were very high, the same values as modern art. Today with $2 or $3 million you can buy a normal drawing by Basquiat, but with $3 million you can buy a great Old Master painting that could easily hang in any museum in the world. There are not many of the top Old Masters which go at the high values. The most expensive Old Master in a public sale was the famous Rubens Massacre of the Innocents that was sold for $45 million. It was bought by the Thomson family and now hangs in the National Gallery of Canada.
But the famous Leonardo, Salvator Mundi, sold for $450 million?
I didn’t mention it because I consider him like a superstar. Leonardo is not an Old Master painter. You cannot compare it to anything else, because Leonardo was the genius – architect, writer, painter, sculptor. Leonardo’s out of the game, and this discovery – which changed the lives of many people – makes you understand that when his brand comes on the market.
Some people are not sure this Salvator Mundi is the right one?
As I told you at the beginning, you always need to doubt Old Master attribution. There are others, but personally I believe the painting is fully autograph. It is not in good condition, so maybe it’s not as beautiful as when Leonardo first did it, but when you see the beauty of that hand – the strength, the power – only Leonardo could have done it. Remember, people also like to question things, because when they are on the market they like to create doubt to damage the picture. It’s a national game, actually an international game, to destroy other paintings.
What is the most valuable painting you ever sold?
Speaking about values is difficult and not fair to the buyer, but I have sold many paintings that I’m very proud of to public institutions. One of my first important sales was a beautiful Canaletto to the Getty in 2013, and I have helped other museums to buy other paintings. I sold to the Kimbell through other dealers, and with my dear friend Marco Voena I sold the beautiful self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi to the National Gallery in London. This was one of the most important sales, because it was one of the few occasions when the National Gallery decided to buy a picture that didn’t come from the UK. This picture came from France; and it’s also one of the first times that the National Gallery bought a painting from an Italian dealer. So there was great satisfaction in it.
Do private collectors and museums pay the same?
Yes and no. Museums always accept paying a good price and agree to give a profit to the dealers. It is easier to negotiate with a museum than with a private collector.
Where did you find the Artemisia?
We found her in Paris. It was attributed. It was sold in one of the auctions of Druout and the picture – I can tell you because it is in the public domain – was bought for €2.4 million and was sold to the National Gallery of London for £3.6 million.
When buying at auction the price moves very quickly. How do you decide what to do?
When you see a painting in auction and you like it, you give yourself a limit. I will bid until this amount of money, say $100,000. And then, if you are on the phone, you go higher, because at auction – and this is why the auction wins, especially with the people of China because they like gambling – you always go further, because you don’t want to lose it to somebody else. You need to decide in a fraction of a second, and normally always go over your limit.
How do you attribute the correct value to a painting?
Every Old Master has its own price, because every Old Master is unique. In modern art you can tell the value even without seeing the picture, because it’s like the stock market. But in Old Masters you can have a painting from the same artist – let’s say Luca Giordano, a very prolific artist whose paintings make $50 or $60,000 – and you suddenly get a painting of his that sells for a million or more. The painting makes the price.
Is the price of art also determined by fashion?
One day I was with Antonio Paolucci, the former superintendent of Florence and Minister of Art. He told me that at the beginning of the century a gold ground by Sano di Pietro in the Galleria Borghese was given a value of ten times more than a painting of Caravaggio, because at that time Caravaggio was not discovered. Caravaggio was discovered in the 60s by Roberto Longhi, the moment of the famous exhibition of Caravaggio in Milan changed the market. This proves that paintings should not be bought because of fashion, but because you like them.
Will Caravaggio be less important in 50 years’ time?
No, because Caravaggio today is a legend, a brand, and he invented something, and an artist who invented something will always stay in the market. Like Piero della Francesca. Like Lucio Fontana, who invented l’arte spaziale – concetto spaziale – spatial concept. He was the first and he will always stay on the market. In fact Lucio Fontana is still undervalued, because he’s Italian and hasn’t got the international crowd that some American artists have.
Is it a matter of regret to you that very few people under the age of 45 are interested in Old Masters?
Yes, I would like more people to collect them because it’s important to have new blood in the system. New blood can become donors to museums, which need money for young art historians and for restoration departments. It’s important that these new generations support, understand and love Old Masters. I’m quite worried, because it is totally a problem of culture.
Because contemporary art fits in better with today’s furniture and architecture?
The new generation lives in different houses, smaller houses, and they don’t like to have a lot of items around. Sometimes the bigger paintings are bought and, unfortunately, kept in storage, because the key to the success of modern and contemporary art is that most of the time people buy for investment. They see the item like a stock and say, I’ll buy it today because this artist will go up as an investment. I think that that is the wrong way to see art. Art is a luxury. You should buy it because you can afford it. You should make sure you buy the right thing at a fair price. You should live with it, love it. And then, in the end, if you want to resell it, you need to see how the market is.
Earlier we said there is only one prime Giaconda but many others. Would you apply the concept of the bottega to artists like Damien Hirst who have teams of people in their workshops?
The difference in contemporary art today is that you don’t have a bottega. Everything is autograph. If you go into Jeff Koons’ studio, he doesn’t touch anything. He’s got many workers and painters executing, but it’s not Jeff Koons’ bottega. It is Jeff Koons’ idea. In the Old Master world we are more picky and we try to understand where the main artist did the job from A to Z.
You said you would like more people to know and love Old Masters. Why do you personally collect contemporary art?
Collecting Old Masters is my priority. My collection is also modern and contemporary, because I love art 360 degrees. I don’t say this is A, this is B. I would like other people to do the same.
Being very knowledgeable in Old Masters and specializing in the Italian Mannerist painters from the 13th to 18th Century, are there some icons that you would like to own?
Caravaggio, who is impossible to find – unless I make a discovery in some small sale, the famous “sleepers”. One came out last year, so this year I think it’s difficult to have another one so soon. I always hope to find more things for my collection, to wake up one morning and find another thing to add. This is the beautiful part of the Old Master world.
Fabrizio Moretti in one of his three galleries.
Nicolò dell’Abate Modena, 1509 – Fontainebleau, 1571 Portrait of Ercole II d’Este (?)
Oil on canvas, 55.7 x 47.2
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Salvator Mundi, oil on panel, painted circa 1500, 65.7 x 45.7 cm.
Sano di Pietro. Siena, 1405 – 1481. Nativity.
Tempera on panel, cm 52.4 x 40.3
Giovanni Baronzio Rimini, active ca. 1320 – 1350 Christ as the Man of Sorrows
Tempera on Panel, 15,6 x 19 cm
“In my DNA I am a dealer.”
Fabrizio Moretti, with your eye for Old Masters, what is your view on the durability of contemporary artists?
The perfect judge is time, but there are some artists – like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter – who will survive. They are the top artists, who will stay there because they have invented something. The market will go up and down – remember that in the 80s there was a big crash in Andy Warhol‘s market – but Andy Warhol is a genius who will stay on the market. He is an icon. I would love to own a painting by Andy Warhol. He invented the system of contemporary art. He was the portrait man of the 20th century, like Pompeo Batoni was in the 18th century.
Is Duchamp, who invented art that is not art, another one of the iconic people?
You can call it provocation. It is the same with another Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, one of the most famous and recognizable Italian artists internationally. The prices of his works of art are very high and his art is provocation, as is Manzoni’s.
Who do you collect?
With the eye of an Old Master paintings man I collect Jenny Saville and paintings of Gerhard Richter from ‘68 when Gerhard Richter painted views. I have a Martin Kippenberger self-portrait – I’m obsessed by artists’ self-portraits. I collect the American artist George Condo, because I like the idea of reinterpreting the figures of Picasso in these days.
Will Impressionists remain important?
The Impressionists market niche has always been very powerful. In New York, Christie’s and Sotheby’s recently sold Impressionist paintings by van Gogh, Monet and others for top prices because they are recognizable, they are beautiful and they are easy to understand. This means that the market of these paintings is worldwide: China, Japan, America…. also the nouveau riche people from Russia and China start with them and have fallen in love with Impressionists. This is why the market is very strong. I never dealt an Impressionist, but it’s a very important market niche.
And then there is Picasso, who started like a very late Impressionist and then became completely different?
Picasso is a genius, because in 78 years of production he is not one artist, he is 1,000 artists. He changed so many times because he wanted to improve. He wanted the challenge. He was a curious guy. He was the opposite of some other artists that never change, like Morandi, for example, who stayed doing still life. The Picasso period that I love and the painting I would love to have one day if I can afford it will be a Blue Period or a Pink Period. I love the period when he is influenced by the circus. His painting Garçon à la Pipe was sold to benefit the Whitney collection in 2004 at one of the important record prices of $104 million. This picture is unbelievable. This is what I would like to have.
Is Picasso an Old Master somehow being very modern?
Picasso is everything.
Picasso goes with Leonardo?
I am sure if the two met in another world they would have a great connection. In art Picasso is the past, the present and the future.
Are there any other artists like him today?
No, I don’t think so. Every 200 or 300 years somebody is a person like Picasso.
As they do with Titian, people say they prefer the young Picasso, or the middle aged or the old man?
It is the same. Titian very strangely for the 16th and beginning of the 17th century, lived until 94 or 95 years. When you see the late works of Titian and of Rembrandt, even of Caravaggio who died young, they are not painting anymore with colour. They paint with the heart. It’s amazing. The late Titian and the late Rembrandt let go. You can see in those kinds of pictures, in that kind of art, the beginning of the Impressionists, because the painters no longer paint academically. They want to put pathos inside the painting.
Would you say that Manet made a bridge between Goya and the Impressionists?
Yes, we will call it the middle point.
Like Dürer he was able to make an asparagus as a painting?
Exactly. It’s quite difficult to paint one object and make that object be so iconic. Speaking about still life, I think the best still life of Zurburán is the one in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena in California and that it is the greatest still life in America.
They also have an amazing dog by Guercino.
Do these kinds of amazing collectors who were able to create first a collection and then a museum still exist?
At that level? No. In those years Norton Simon had the possibility of finding the pictures and he was incredibly clever and lucky to put together his amazing collection, because he got some of the best works in private hands – now public hands – in the world. Mr. Getty was the same. They lived in a moment when there were a lot of paintings available on the market and were able to put them together.
I would have loved to have been part of that game because there were not many export license restrictions in Italy in those days. Unfortunately for Italy, but fortunately for the world, many paintings became part of public collections so everybody can enjoy them today.
In America the wealthy have this idea to give back.
They give back, and so they’re now part of public institutions and also promoting Italian culture in the world. This was quite important for our tourism. People saw wonderful paintings in public museums and loved the idea of coming to Italy and seeing them in place. Italy is an irreplaceable state, and the cities of Italy are works of art, all of them.
Nowadays they go to Venice and buy palazzos to show contemporary art?
Yes, but it’s not really the right place to show contemporary art. Fondazione Prada built a fantastic place to show art a little outside of Milan. They have had a magnificent exhibition of Domenico Gnoli, an Italian artist that I adore. There are other collectors in Italy that wanted to make their collection public, for example, the Valsecchi family bought Palazzo Butera in Palermo and restored it in a very art historic way, and the Palazzo is open to the public with their foundation. There is a way to do it, but for the moment Italy is not at the same level as America.
Why does American art seem to be stronger than European art at the moment?
Because American art is supported by American clients, and the number of American clients is much bigger than all the European clients. Unlike the Europeans, when American people like something they buy it without thinking of the price. For them money is something to spend, and that’s why the economy is always active in America. The Europeans must think, think, think.
What about the Chinese?
The Chinese negotiate a lot. The Chinese like to negotiate. (he laughs)
Galleries are opening in Hong Kong and Seoul. Is Asia the world of tomorrow for art?
If I was 20 I would go to China, because I’m sure that in 20 years that will be the real market.
The Chinese like traditions, but they have their own. Are they really going to look at Rembrandt?
They do already. There are a number of top Chinese collectors that buy Old Masters, and in the future the number will increase and many of the museums will buy. At the moment I don’t know of a Chinese museum that has bought Old Masters, but I know of Chinese collectors that buy – mostly through auction houses – and this market will be drastically increased.
Some people don’t like to buy from dealers and prefer auctions because they believe that an auction gives the real value of the painting. Is it true?
Some people think that when you buy at auction you buy the value of the day, like on the stock market. I disagree with that, because sometimes you find two bidders that want something and because they want that item it makes a crazy price. That is not the value of the day. That is craziness. At other times it happens that a beautiful painting goes unsold, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad painting. It means that maybe that collector didn’t bid that day because he had problems. Or maybe there is an interested museum but they need months and months to bring everybody together and fund the painting. Nevertheless, the auction house is the market of today and of tomorrow, and this dealer generation cannot compete against them. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips will be the three centres of the art world for the future. But the auction value is never the real value. You always need to understand the circumstance of the day.
Fabrizio Moretti, you have many projects now and like to think of the future. You have three important galleries, and you are in scientific roles in several institutions, therefore you are very respected by museums, collectors and art historians. What is your aim?
I am never pleased with myself. I always wake up unhappy, because I think that you need to do more and different. Life is really a game, and you need to understand the opportunities that life puts your way; and I like to diversify a little bit, so I also like to look at other businesses.
You are also a businessman?
A dealer is a dealer. If you are a dealer, you can buy and sell everything. In my DNA I am a dealer.
You could buy and sell anything?
Only if I like it! I make some investments in real estate, but I would never invest in something that I don’t like or that was speculative. I always try to buy things that are beautiful, or that you can make beautiful. Works of art. Art is fundamental in my life.
Are you a loner who makes decisions by yourself or are you much influenced by the opinions of others?
No, I am quite by myself. I listen to people who are specialists, but normally when I ask them something it’s because I have already decided.
Do you act quickly?
Too much. This is a problem! I’m very impulsive. Sometimes you can make mistakes, and, like everybody, I do make some mistakes.
What is your attitude when you make a mistake?
C’est la vie. (he laughs)
Good luck for London and for your new book. What will be your first exhibition?
A selection of Old Master paintings and sculptures.
Thank you very much.
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