Connoisseurs are the intellectuals of the art market, animated by the history, subtlety, and attribution of objects. They buy methodically and rarely as an investment. At their best, they slow the world down and force us to stop and contemplate.
Despite the trappings and absurdities of their stuffy culture, I’ve found the tribe to be fiercely independent, so unaffected by accepted taste that you could almost call them the new avant-garde. They are, however, deeply invested in the opinions of a select few, not out of some noblesse oblige but because for this group, expert opinion often matters more than fact.
They socialize selectively, often excluding the layperson who is always bound to miss the subtle essentials. I recently sat between two voluble antiquities collectors at a dinner. At one point I had to curl my toes to prevent fainting from the sheer tedium of it, but was struck by the level of pleasure each derived from the conversation.
Connoisseurship is at times lucrative.
dealer-collector Robert Simon has spent decades looking at art, especially works by
, to whose birthplace (Vinci, Italy) he traveled when he was 14. In 2005, Simon and fellow art dealer Alexander Parish bought a murky, painted-over image of Christ on a panel from an estate sale in Louisiana. “I responded to the aura of the painting,” Simon told me. After six years of analysis and restoration, he, Parish, and a group of other dealers sold the picture in 2013 as Leonardo’s lost Salvator Mundi
for a reported $80 million.
Connoisseurship usually begins with a spark, but is developed over time, through relentless effort and devotion. Through his research, Simon said he learned that Kenneth Clark, author of the 1939 monograph on Leonardo, had attended a 1958 Sotheby’s auction in London where he passed on Salvator Mundi, which sold that day for $60. In November of last year, the work sold at Christie’s for $450 million.
Decades of looking enabled Simon to acquire, encode, and store enough visual data for him to see something when he encountered the Leonardo himself. “I certainly didn’t think it was a da Vinci, but there was something familiar,” he said. After seeing the image for the first time, “I began to bracket in my mind what it could be. 1500s? European? Italian? Florence? Studio?”
It was a discovery a lifetime in the making.