This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher!
It was also a fascinating study of art dealership over the centuries (yes, centuries!), focusing on some of the main characters of the last two or three hundred years, and their modi operandi. It's also, in parallel, a study of greed, avarice and capitalism at its worst. I found it engrossing, and was pleased to see that one of my pet peeves about scholarly works like this: that they have margins far too wide, and text lines far too widely-spaced, and are thereby abusive to trees, circumvented in this case, because the margins were not ridiculously wide and the text was quite finely spaced, so you see? It can be done! Kudos to the author and publisher for achieving this.
Of course, none of that matters if the book is only to be released as an ebook, but usually these works are not, so this is important. In fact, one of only two complaints I might make is that this book it did not work as an ebook because it was in PDF format which is not ebook-friendly unless you read it on a reasonably large tablet or on a laptop or desktop computer.
On a smart phone, the text is far too small to read comfortably, and if you try to "stretch" the screen to enlarge it, it takes forever to get the fit right, and then you can't swipe to the next screen without reducing the text again! It was a real irritation. Another issue was that the PDF format did not lend itself to reading in "night mode" wherein the screen colors are inverted so the text is white and the page is black.
This is actually my preferred mode to read, and it's a great way to save energy (by reducing battery use so recharges are required less frequently), but it doesn't work with this because what happens is that the screen colors are quite literally inverted - not just the text, but also the images, so instead of looking at gray-scale photographs of people or art works, you're looking at photographic negatives. I think publishers have a long way to go before they can say they're in the ebook book business - and have that claim sound intelligent!
The other complaint I originally had was circumvented in one away but exacerbated in another! It was initially to be that the biggest problem with the book was that, for a work which talks about paintings, it was curiously lacking in pictures of them! In fact there are pictures, and in color, but they are set together in the middle of the book rather than appearing close to the text that references them. Again this is because the book as designed as a print book, not as an ebook.
There are also pictures of some of the characters brought to life here, but these are in gray-scale imagery. When I also saw a couple of pictures in that format too, I had feared this was all I would get, and not even at their best because of the lack of color, but I need not have worried because between pages 160 and 177 there is satisfaction to be had. It only served to leave me wanting more though.
If there is to be an ebook version of this, then it would have been a real joy to have had links directly in the text to an online source for color images of the paintings which are discussed. This would be a perfect use of an ebook, especially since I am also greedy when it comes to wanting to see everything that's talked about. Again this leads me to believe this was produced solely with thought to the print market and not to the electronic market, which begs the question as to why the review copy is being distributed in electronic from? It made little sense to me and did no justice to either the print version or to the e-version if there ever is to be one. But I have to blame the publisher, rather than the writer, for this! it did make me decide not to request any books of this nature for review in future. I don't think it's possible to adequately review a book designed for print by means of an electronic version of it when it contains art work as this one does.
But let's look at the writing because to me, that's typically far more important than anything else. This book focuses on the last four or five hundred years, becoming more detailed as we get into the twentieth century, but it reaches even as far back as ancient Grecian times, so it is very wide-ranging.
Art dealing is nothing new, but those dealers from yesteryear can scarcely have imagined the kinds of sums that modern art dealers routinely deal in, not when a dealer sells a picture in the USA and immediately claims $300 is the highest price that will ever be paid for a painting in America! LOL! Even in Victorian times, there were large sums of money exchanging hands in one direction as paintings moved in the other. Some of these characters, such as Joe Duveen, were both notorious and well-liked, others were merely notorious. For at least one character, his love of his partner's wife evidently exceeded his love of art, and this queered his pitch in a serious way in time.
Another dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who almost single-handedly brought Impressionist works into the spotlight when no one else gave them the time of day was an intriguing guy. The names of the people he personally knew are impressive: Degas, Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, and so on. It's pretty odd to think someone knew all of those guys and such a relationship would be a lot harder to have today, when artists names are not so legendary as those past masters.
There are controversial issues discussed here, too, such as how maligned should be those art dealers who dealt with the Nazis? On the one hand, they rescued paintings that would probably have been destroyed, since the Nazis considered them deviant. On the other hand, those who rescued the paintings by buying them from the Nazi art dealers (and others), were helping to fund that evil cult even as they preserved the paintings. Were they good or bad or were they, like the pictures of the people featured in this book - in a gray area?!
The author makes some fascinating observations and interesting points, and he's not afraid to ask awkward questions about dealers or about dealing in general. Does it really make it better to say that pictures are sources and placed rather bought or sold, for example?! It may rob the transaction of its 'filthy lucre' connotations, but does it really sanitize those transactions?
I should probably say before I close out this review, that I'm not widely knowledgeable about art, nor do I consider myself even remotely an expert on the topic. I'm not an artist either, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a book like this or learn something from it.
So while I can very much enjoy works of art, I can also see both sides of this world - the appreciative side, and the cynical side. What I think is that art is a very personal thing, and its most personal for all of course, for to the artist. Anyone beyond that artist who talks about art is doing it purely from their own perspective, not from any objective and authoritative position. Anyone who wants a laugh at the expense of art critics (not the same as dealers per se, but definitely in a parallel line of "business", they should look up Pierre Brassau in wikipedia.
On a related note, When we have a director of a state museum of art, Katja Schneider, mistaking a painting done by a chimpanzee, for a work by the artist Ernst Nay, it serves only to highlight how very personal a world this is, and sometimes i honestly have to wonder if any of these people really have a clue what they're talking about!
That Impressionism, which is today renowned, had to be kick-started against opposition for example, poses questions about what is art, who determines this, how the quality of one picture over another is to be honestly and fairly judged, and how some works get to become all but priceless, whereas others which to someone like me, seem every much the same, cannot even command a price. This book helped with some of those questions (it comes down to trust as often as it does dissimulation it would seem!), but it also raised others, and that's fine with me; ideal in fact!
Overall, I do recommend this for anyone interested in art and art history. It makes for an engrossing insight into the past, and into the world of the dealer, As well as into artists and dealers themselves, and the shifting, often contentious, yet at other times endearing and heartwarming relationship between them, and into people struggling to make a living, and those with more money than sense!