What do you do, at the age of 65, after a long and successful career if your landlord sells your business premises? Most people would simply call it a day and retire. However, the London-based art dealer Daniel Katz is not, in any sense, the retiring kind.
In fact, the mercurial Katz has, instead, radically expanded and transformed his business, acquiring a grand six-storey, 6,000 sq ft Edwardian town house in Mayfair whose light, airy and elegantly proportioned interiors are now sparely punctuated with small, choice groups of Egyptian antiquities, Old Master paintings, western sculpture, classic modern painting and 20th-century British art. The breadth of the offering is not so extraordinary given that Katz began his 47-year career as an antiquities dealer and has, over the years, collected just about everything. And now he sees this eclectic way of “offering the greatest works of art available” as “where the market is moving”.
This new venture speaks volumes about changing tastes, the rise of London, and the shifting but ultimately cyclical nature of the art market. The trend towards specialisation of the art trade is, perhaps, reversing, with the approach now being to cherry-pick the best of the best.
Take Katz’s Treasure Room. In this spare, minimalist space stand just four works of art. A beady-eyed Egyptian grandiorite falcon of around the fourth century BC, its muscular, monumental form sharply defined, glares across at a sensuously smooth torso of one General Psamtik, governor of Upper Egypt, carved around the same time from green greywacke.
Flanking the torso on one side is a 1931 Henry Moore “Seated Girl” carved in stone at a time when the sculptor was looking at Egyptian art in the British Museum. On the other is Barbara Hepworth’s alabaster “Figure” of 1933: “Hepworth’s answer to a Cycladic Venus – a piece made to be felt,” declares the tousle-haired and infectiously enthusiastic Katz, running his hands around the figure’s belly. “The aesthetic and the materials are the connection. The Hepworth and Moore are very emotional, while the Egyptian is all about power, glory and divine rule. You don’t have to be a scholar to understand these pieces.”
Upstairs in his first-floor office the feel is more domestic – grey-green velvet lining the walls, comfortable furniture – but its display of a dozen or so works of art, from an Alessandro Algardi bronze to a Picasso portrait, retains a very contemporary sensibility. “You can mix old and new if the quality is high but you have to hone your taste,” says Katz. “A work of art does not have to be the most expensive, it just has to be the best example of its type, and it has to speak for itself. It is about getting an association.”
Self-taught and intellectually curious, Katz is no less passionate about dance, music and a great deal else, commissioning new pieces from the Rambert Dance Company, and supporting academic posts, museums and exhibitions. “I did think of retiring,” he admits, “but my son Robin is fully involved in the business, and I have a responsibility to my staff, so I decided to give it another 10 years.”
Although he claims the stresses of refurbishing the building have taken 10 years off his life (and cost a fortune), he is evidently delighted with the results – and the opportunities, commercial and otherwise, that the new venture offers.
One of the reasons for transforming the business relates, he says, to the changing state of museums. “Institutions have become difficult to work with as most museum trustees are business people and not art people,” says the ever-candid Katz. “There are only a handful of institutions I want to continue to work with, so we are looking to expand other markets and focus on the very rich private collector.”
For Katz this venture is also a personal declaration of faith not only in traditional works of art but in a traditional way of dealing.
“The gallery will represent everything I believe in,” says Katz. “We don’t go in for hoodwinking or optimistic attributions. We offer scholarly expertise and advice. It is true that I would like to see more people take an interest in works of art but they are not likely to be contemporary art collectors. This is not a glamorous world; it is not about doubling your investment in a couple of years. It is a refined world, a civilised world. I want this to be a meeting place, a salon, a venue for concerts, dinners and charity events.”
My tour also includes unexpected sculptural African tribal hats from Cameroon in Robin Katz’s gallery and project space on the fourth floor, and a Minoan ostrich egg drinking vessel painted with an octopus from around 1500BC at New York’s Ariadne Galleries, which has taken the building’s second floor. When I finish, I make my way down the grand staircase to find Katz hopping up and down in excitement as his latest acquisition is being unpacked. It is a huge cast-iron eagle that, when placed on its plinth, glares majestically across at Jean-Léon Gérôme’s recently rediscovered early portrait of his brother Armand in the uniform of the Ecole Polytechnique.
“I am not yet sure what it is but it is absolutely fantastic.”