The world of the international art dealer has long held an almost lurid fascination for those gazing up from the foot of Parnassus, those wandering like shades through the echoing halls of the famed museums, struggling to tell the difference between a Pablo Picasso and a Georges Braque, to distinguish between Pieter Bruegel (Pieter Bruegel the Elder) and his equally famous elder son Pieter Bruegel, or to understand why Marcel Duchamp would place a urinal into an art show much less why it could be considered a meaningful event. It is a world of closed doors and privilege, of perilously abrupt assessments and narrow escapes, of elaborate hoaxes and devastating blunders. It is a world in which an item small enough to fit into a suitcase or slender tube can be worth more than a sports car, mansion, even a whole estate; or less than the proverbial paper on which it is drawn. It is a naturally intriguing occupation, and it has spawned more than a few novels and films (think of the classic heist tales, the object nearly always jewels or paintings cut from their frames), even densely-plotted shows like England's Lovejoy. Now in his seventies, world-renowned art dealer Richard Feigen has stepped forward from the shadows to offer surprisingly gratifying stories from this world and pass equally gratifying judgments on its denizens. Not unlike an elder Roman statesman, he has, at the end of his career, penned a polemic describing the political and aesthetic straits he has navigated for over half a century.

Stemming as they do strictly from personal recollections, the stories tend to be incidental. In nearly every case, Feigen was in the room, so to speak. He covers the gamut, from the Praetorian intrigues of museum Boards of Directors to the desperate bluffing that takes place in squalid artists' dwellings (I swear these old pieces are worth X, and I'm not giving them up for less, certainly not for Y). Feigen does not hesitate to separate sheep from goats, either. Jean Dubuffet and Joseph Cornell emerge as permissibly abstruse adepts, combative because they are "true" artists and therefore entitled to what has come to be known as an artistic temperament. Jim Rosenquist and Jasper Johns come out as amiable, forthright artists, assured and genuinely American in character. Others, however, are pushed off the precipitous ledge of calumny typical of patrician memoirs. Mann Ray and Francis Picabia, for instance, are labeled fakes, perhaps the most deadly of descriptions in the highly indeterminate domain of avant-garde art. Wives and girlfriends, artists' "vestals", are, for the most part, painted as egotistical, contemptuous, frustrated, and deceptive. Much the same moral dilation applies to art collectors and museum directors. There are those who are noble, disinterested, and generous; and there are those who are foolish, profligate, and petty. Glimpses into sealed chambers are predictably seductive, and this makes Feigen's chronicle of the sins committed by Olympians of twentieth-century art inevitably compelling. Rather than the dry, presumably unbiased approach of the scholar, Feigen furnishes the reader with first-hand, invigoratingly opinioned portraits.

With a foot solidly in both the financial and art worlds (he possesses an MBA from Harvard and worked at Lehman Brothers), Feigen is able to construct a history of the art world across cities and continents that is sensitive to such seemingly inartistic issues as bond crashes, real estate booms, and the like. This makes his account all the more commanding, because the world of high art is one that is, in fact, sensitive to such things. It requires large investments, abundant speculation, and appropriately grand exhibition spaces. The fortunes of the gallerist and artist alike are subject to the whims of the economy at large. Patrons of one sort or another have been absolutely indispensable to art in the last five-hundred years, and few are more keenly aware of this than artists themselves.

If Tales from the Art Crypt can be said to have an organizing principal, it is one of nostalgia for a faded age of connoisseurship, which, not unironically, provides Feigen with his casual approach to the issues in hand, be they the contentious selection of an architect for a new museum, the regard for an artist's wishes after his death, or the discovery of a forgery. His pole star, connoisseurship, is a facet of life that is no longer fast-fading but long since departed from the art world. It is the legendary "eye" for quality and authenticity that some possess and which cannot be learned, much like the "ear" of a real musician or poet. The art world is today dominated by French-inflected cultural theory on the scholar's part and box-office receipts on the museum director's part. Feigen makes no move to conceal his disdain for the direction that the art business (make no mistake, it is very much a business) has assumed in America over the past two decades, and that is precisely one of the winning qualities of the book. He believes that it has drifted precariously from its aristocratic moorings. His style is frank and leans at times toward the acerbic and even openly hostile. Reputations are both fortified and sunk here. This chatty quality provides for an avuncular number of digressions, as is appropriate to drawing room conversation, and one comes away feeling that these are gentlemanly enough to be easily granted.

Tales from the Art Crypt is more exposé than history, and it is all the more readable for that. The art world, more than most others, is one governed by the capricious, the spontaneous, the unpredictable. It is therefore our good fortune that Mr. Feigen has resolved to offer his rare acumen and recount his many anecdotes from the past century of art, if for no other reason than to uncloud the heights of Parnassus, and bare the yielding, human element of high art. He has succeeded in negotiating paths jammed with frangible egos, undeclared rules, and hawkish gamesmanship with a decided amount of diplomacy and not a few well-placed arrows. Behind the millions of dollars and stifling elitism lies the enduring impulse toward creative expression. Mr. Feigen is aware of what is lost in the tangles of money and theory that tighten into a Gordian Knot, and he very selflessly extends his sword for us to cut through its all too often intimidating surface.

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Copyright © 2000 Ernie Hilbert.