Ray Waterhouse, Art Dealer and Gallerist, Reflects on 6,000 Deals and a 41-Year Career
At the age of 21, Ray Waterhouse started working at a small gallery in London. Four decades later, he’s a high-end art dealer, broker, and advisor who has bought and sold 6,000 paintings with deals totaling more than $500 million. He’s also the co-owner of Waterhouse & Dodd, a gallery with locations in New York and London. As a new show prepares to open at the London space, we talked with Waterhouse about multimillion-dollar profit margins, “the chase,” and how a fateful typo in The Times changed the course of his career.
Artsy: You’ve bought and sold over 6,000 paintings. Do any stand out—perhaps your first sale or a favorite artwork?
Ray Waterhouse: A few that stand out are those we made the greatest margin on, but there are many more which have struck a personal chord, either because the purchase involved a long chase and was satisfying when it happened, or because the sale was to someone I respected and [I] was pleased they bought a particular work.
Examples of works we made a big margin on include a 19th-century marine watercolor that I bought near Vancouver the year Waterhouse & Dodd began. It cost $250 and was unsigned and unattributed. I loved the quality and didn’t think we could go wrong at that price. We later identified it as a view of Madagascar, and we sold it for $11,000.
In the early days of Waterhouse & Dodd, Jonathan [Dodd] and I used to travel around the United States buying and selling. On one trip in the mid-1990s, I bought an oil in Dallas by the English artist Sir Alfred Munnings. We paid $85,000 and put it into a London auction, and it made $506,000.
And then there are examples of a “chase.” Like tracking down a painting of a Bedouin encampment by John Singer Sargent for a Middle Eastern client, or prizing a 19th-century painting by Martin Johnson Heade from the Seattle Art Museum.
Artsy: At the age of 21, you started working at a gallery in Central London that specialized in 19th- and 20th-century British art and contemporary French art. How did that experience influence your taste or shape your interests?
RW: In terms of taste, that experience only influenced me in knowing what I did not want to deal in. The owner liked sentimental Victorian paintings and overly commercial contemporary art. I also did not agree with his secretive business methods, hiding from me where he bought a painting and for how much. When he sold the business in 1981 with me “as an asset,” he actually cooked the books with his accountant, and they were both sued and had to refund the whole purchase price of the business.
At the age of 26, I was managing director of a Central London gallery, owned by a company which was headed by a businessman with a Ph.D. in finance who wanted to see if applying standard business structure to the weird and wonderful structure of an art gallery would work. We had an external finance director who produced monthly management accounts, and we had quarterly board meetings, so I learned a lot about how to run a business. I had a free hand in purchases and exhibitions.
It was also there that I met Jonathan Dodd. I put an ad in The Times supposed to read, “Leading London Art Gallery requires manager,” but they printed, “Leaking London Gallery....” Out of 60 replies, Jonathan’s stood out, as not only did he have a degree in law and art history from Cambridge, but he was working at a gallery with a leak and was expert in placing buckets!
Artsy: You started Fine Art Brokers in 2000. In this role, you often purchase high-value artworks for clients before they have a chance to view the paintings themselves. Can you talk about this process? How much do you have to understand the tastes of your individual clients?
RW: It’s true I have purchased two paintings at over $20 million each that the client didn’t see in person before buying and paying.
It is not a common occurrence that I buy something that a client has not seen. Clients always see an image, of course, but sometimes it is impossible for them to see in person—for example, if the painting is in Japan, which has happened a few times. In those circumstances, we obviously discuss the painting at length before I travel: value, importance, how it fits in the collection, provenance, etc. But it is my responsibility to check condition and authenticity and make a judgment call when I see it in person. I then make all the arrangements for secure payment, using an escrow account and a well-written contract, and arrange customs formalities and shipping.
As it happens, one of the paintings I went to Japan to buy for a client in 1998 was an oil of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas. Just last week, I concluded the sale of the painting back to a major museum in Japan, as my client sadly passed away.
I don’t work with many clients at a high level at one time, so I understand the taste and interests of each of them. They usually come to me by referral. We have various discussions about taste and their objectives, and I guide them, but they make the final decision. Some clients want a lot of personal input and opinion; with others, we work as a team, and others just use me as a sounding board.
At this stage of my career, I am able to work with clients I like and respect. As we have a flourishing gallery business and advisory company, I can afford not to work with clients who are too argumentative or who change their mind too often. We also work with clients at a lower price level, from $50,000, where I work with colleagues who are the main point of contact.
Artsy: You purchased a painting for $7.5 million and, six years later, resold it for $21.5 million. Why was its value so much higher for the second sale?
RW: Both the buying and the selling were at auction. One of my main roles is to advise clients when to buy and when to sell within a certain field. I sensed the time was right to sell the Matisse, as the market had moved substantially in just six years. I eventually got my client’s agreement, and we obtained a substantial guarantee.
Artsy: You’re increasingly involved in dealing contemporary art. Why? Do you have any favorite artists from that scene?
RW: We’ve moved with the market. We would have perhaps become wealthier and more well-known if we had stuck to become world specialists in one small area, but I like the variety.
I started in the 1970s, dealing mainly in Victorian paintings, and now the most volume in my business is in postwar and contemporary art, although the highest values for us are in Impressionist and early modern. In the past nine months, I’ve sold major oils by Cézanne, Renoir, and Degas.
I have favorites in each period. Cézanne in Post-Impressionist era, Cubist Picasso, Rothko, of course (we were lucky to handle a large oil a year ago), and a whole variety of contemporary painters and photographers.