Collecting stories: Richard Feigen
In an interview conducted in his New York home, the legendary Chicago-born dealer and collector reveals how even as a child he had an eye for undervalued or misattributed masterpieces
Stepping into the New York home of Richard Feigen is like walking into an Edith Wharton novel. There’s a sense of restraint and taste that belongs to an earlier century, a peaceful elegance that fills the well-proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms.
The apartment is in a block designed by Rosario Candela, the architect of the city’s 1920s living style; the furniture is harmonious and elegant. Yet it is the art on the walls that makes the place sing.
In the entrance hall you pass a bright Guercino, of Reuben showing his father Jacob the bloodied tunic of his brother Joseph. Painted in 1655, the biblical scene looks brand new: the brilliant red of Reuben’s hat standing out against an ultramarine sky; sad Jacob raising his eyes to heaven, folding his hands in his grief.
At the top of the stairs, Portrait of a Turk by the German expressionist Max Beckmann gazes down on the scene, grave in a grey suit, hand across his chest, dangling a cigarette.
In the drawing room there is a striking Pietà over the marbled fireplace, in which a gentle light shines on Mary’s face as she cradles the dead Christ in her arms, his head turned towards her. ‘I have a feeling it’s by Poussin,’ Feigen says. ‘I bought it at auction in Paris about 30 years ago and I had it in my apartment there for years.
‘Then I decided to bring it back here, because I felt more people pass through this room and I would get more opinions. A few people agree with me, but I haven’t got a definitive opinion yet.’
He looks hard at the painting, a delicate symphony of russet and blue tones. It is very beautiful. Does it give enough pleasure in itself, even if it’s not by Poussin, I ask.
‘Yes, it does,’ he says quietly. But he knows that his track record as a dealer and as a collector indicates that, in the end, his instinct will be vindicated. ‘I’ve bought things that I like, and I also have very good taste, so what I like is usually significant,’ he says with a smile.
Feigen, now 89, still cuts a dash in his yellow shirt, tweed jacket, red trousers and pink socks. The charm, intelligence and ability to spot a great painting, which turned him into one of the most influential art dealers since the end of the Second World War, are all present and correct. But the strongest quality that emanates from him is his simple love for paintings.
‘I am a collector in dealer’s clothes,’ he wrote in his fascinating book, Tales from the Art Crypt. In his preface to the catalogue of his sumptuous collection of Italian art from the 14th to the 17th century, he added, ‘I never believed in money, only in the objects into which it could be converted. Masterpieces are increasingly unavailable, but I never encountered one that was overpriced, only ones I couldn’t afford.’
When he consigned a group of paintings to Christie’s to ‘release some liquidity’ and build himself a retirement fund, he emphasised his reluctance. Even on the night before the May sale, he was joking with Christie’s Old Masters director François de Poortere: ‘I hope none of them will sell because I want them back in my living room.’
He was disappointed: all four works offered at auction sold, Annibale Carracci’s The Madonna and Child with Saint Lucy and the Young Saint John the Baptist for a record price of $6,063,500.
‘I was first attracted to things I thought were undervalued or underestimated, and that led me into keeping things I felt most attracted to’ — Richard Feigen
It is Feigen’s keen eye and vast experience that have made him such a powerful dealer and inspired collector. Take the Carracci, one of the earliest surviving panel paintings by the Bologna-born artist. Feigen had bought it at auction in 1987, when it was sold as a work by Sisto Badalocchio, Carracci’s pupil. It was Feigen who nailed down the attribution to Carracci.
A similar story attaches to a Poussin that still hangs in his living room, the macabre Saint Denis Frightening His Executioners with His Head, which shows the headless saint wandering around a wooded grove as his followers look on aghast.
Feigen acquired the painting from the scholar and dealer Malcolm Waddingham in 1975, paying just £2,500 for it. It was attributed to Filippo Napoletano, a contemporary of Poussin.
‘I found it beautiful, of extraordinary quality,’ he explains. He hung it on his wall and kept looking at it. ‘As my interest increased, it gravitated from over my hall table to over my dining-room fireplace,’ he wrote in his book. ‘Every time I looked at the painting, my mind turned to Poussin.’
Years of investigation followed; in 1993, Poussin’s authorship was accepted. It is a constant source of pleasure and pride. No painting ever becomes part of the furniture, he says — he still looks at them each day, just as he still makes a daily journey to his gallery, just half a block away.
Nothing in his background indicated this genius for discovery. He was born in Chicago, where his father was a lawyer and his mother looked after the home; they were comfortable rather than wealthy and they had no tradition of collecting. But at the age of 11, Feigen made his first purchase, a watercolour by Isaac Cruikshank, father of George, the cartoonist.
‘I was really first attracted to things I thought were undervalued or underestimated and that led me into keeping things I felt most attracted to, and that led me to collecting,’ he explains, looking back on that early acquisition.
He bought the Cruikshank, a commentary on the French Revolution, for $100 from a local antique shop. What on earth made him pick it out? ‘I liked it and I felt it was undervalued in terms of what it would cost me,’ he says. ‘I was sure it was good.’
The money came from a small business he ran, selling moustache cups with flowers in them — an enterprising career for a young boy. The same nose for commerce led him to sell the Cruikshank, though he later bought it back and it still hangs in his apartment.
After Yale, where he studied English literature and history of art, he went to Harvard Business School, arriving in New York in 1954 to work at Lehman Brothers. But by 1957 he had sold his stock exchange seat in order to start an art gallery in his native Chicago. He built his early success on Expressionism and Surrealism, propelled by his sense that these movements were important to the history of art and yet were underappreciated at the time.
He was also motivated by his passion for the art itself. On the wall of his living room, just along from the Poussin, there is Max Beckmann’s The Bark (below), a significant painting which includes portraits of Beckmann himself and his wife. The painting was prescient, predicting the rise of fascism, and looking at it prompts Feigen to tell another story.
‘There was a man living in California who was a friend of Beckmann and he had a large collection of his paintings. He would frequently offer me a Beckmann for sale and I told him, “Look, if you ever want to sell a really significant Beckmann, let me know.”
‘One day he called me and said, “OK, I’m ready to sell an important Beckmann. But I just want you to say yes or no, I don’t want any offers.” He told me it was The Bark — and said he wanted $30,000. And I said, “Well if you say you don’t want any offers, I have to say yes, I’ll take it,” not at that moment even knowing where I was going to get the $30,000 from.
‘Then I had a call from the biggest Beckmann collector in the world and he said, “Richard, you’ve just wrecked the Beckmann market by paying such a crazy price.”’
He tells the story with lively animation and a remembered glee. Is it still worth it to have it on his wall all these years later? ‘Oh yeah,’ he drawls, his face lighting up with a smile.
‘Cornell was a very strange man. He kept most of the significant things’ — Richard Feigen
Feigen handled contemporary art in his early years. He mounted the first exhibition of Francis Bacon paintings in America, although he only sold one of the 14 works on offer for prices between $900 and $1,300. Given Bacon’s world-beating value nowadays, he is one example of an artist whose work Feigen wishes he had held onto.
‘A lot of the things I sold I would have been better off keeping if I had had a choice,’ he says, somewhat mournfully. ‘Sometimes I sold more or less what I had to sell to finance what I was doing.’
He was also an early collector of Joseph Cornell, whose fairy-tale constructions, full of mysterious symbols, captured his imagination. ‘He lived close to LaGuardia and I used to stop there on my way to and from the airport, but I never got anything significant from him directly,’ he says.
In his book, he recalls long conversations and trips ‘through thimble forests, into 19th-century ballets, crumbling French seaside hotels, voyages to the bottom of the sea and up into starry nights of the interplanetary system and back down to Renaissance palaces’.
His Cornell collection at one point amounted to 23 works; although he was responsible for the sale of the Cornell estate after his death, his own holdings were bought at various places elsewhere. Five boxes still sit on a table, underneath a storm scene by Delacroix and Eugène Isabey and a pretty Corot seascape that Feigen bought at auction a decade ago.
‘Cornell was a very strange man,’ says Feigen. ‘He kept most of the significant things.’ The boxes — including one that shows a Pierrot in a blue frame, one an elegant silhouette of a woman wearing a tiny pearl necklace, one a surreal pipe puffing out smoke — are all from early in Cornell’s career.
‘I like them because they are significant works. They are usually less sought-after by the public, because the public idea of Cornell is based on later work, not on these early things. So, when they came up at auctions, I bought them for not a great deal of money.
‘The later Cornells that most people recognise have elements that he put in when he could no longer go around New York looking for old things. He used to go to the junk shops and buy stuff; later on, when he could no longer do that, he used more standardised things.’
This mission to buy the underappreciated and the undervalued was what took Feigen into the purchase of Old Masters. He had opened a second gallery in New York in 1962 and built his reputation further by selling works by contemporary artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns.
His book and his life are full of tales of finding an undiscovered masterpiece tucked away in an auction catalogue or antique shop... and finally selling it
As a dealer, he never entirely abandoned the modern, and Feigen Contemporary was one of SoHo’s earliest and largest galleries. But the art of the past began to hold him more and more strongly in its grip. Characteristically, he suggests that his initial motivation was financial. ‘One of the reasons I began to collect them was that they were cheaper, and I could afford them, and the other thing was that the modern things had gotten so expensive.’
He had studied art history briefly at Yale, but was otherwise self-taught. Yet his instinct often proved sound. His book and his life are full of tales of finding an undiscovered or misattributed masterpiece tucked away in an auction catalogue or antique shop, consulting scholars on its provenance and finally selling it, often to a museum or gallery. Regularly, he didn’t quite know what he had bought until after he had bought it — an extraordinary talent he cannot explain.
Those he loved best he kept, building in the process an astonishing collection of Italian art. They used to surround him every day, but sadly for him, though happily for the public, they are now on show at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven.
‘They’ve got my whole dining room,’ he says. ‘All the Italian paintings from the 14th century on. I’ve sent them off on loan, because the apartment above this one was sold and the man who bought it is going to completely remodel it, and I felt the dust and everything else would be hazardous for the paintings. It will be a lot of disruption, a lot of dirt.’
We sit and look at the catalogue Yale has produced, full of gleaming panel paintings and glorious religious portraits. Feigen managed to collect three Fra Angelicos, and when I ask him which painting in his collection he looks on with most pride, he turns to the tempera-on-panel depiction of Saint Sixtus, quill in one hand, staff in the other, his calm face gazing down the centuries.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Dating from around 1453-54, it is one of the final surviving expressions of Fra Angelico’s genius, and one of the finest. That is why he loves it so much. ‘And it’s in perfect condition,’ he says.
Feigen is still on the lookout for another bargain, scouring auction catalogues, searching for underappreciated works. His desire to acquire the good and the beautiful hasn’t left him. ‘I have always bought art if I’ve had any money,’ he says. ‘I cannot imagine life without art.’