The battle for the Masterpieces

"It's a question so often asked: 'Why is the Louvre still buying, have you not enough?'" Pierre Rosenberg says, smiling. But after accompanying him to the sale rooms the Hotel Drouot and hearing offhand remarks about what treasures are where and who snapped them up from what dealer, it looks to the neophyte as if all museums, not just the Louvre, are caught up in a feeding frenzy.

Most of those sought-after paintings were made at least 100 years ago. It's not as if there was anything newm about them, I naively thought. I mean a Chardin is a Chardin. but no. The lapin mortm I sigh over in the later part of the 20th century is an entirely different lapinm than was doted on by the Marcille family (still its owners) in the early 19th century, because we -- and more important, scholars -- see things differently as we stagger toward the 21 st. Not only is it a different painting, the monetary value has changed, too. In fact, it has probably changed since I last sighed over it, for Mr. Rosenberg's catalog has certainly established a new understanding of it.

So with all these shifting values, it is no wonder that trading, even of paintings by artists whose careers one would have assumed ended centuries ago, is still heated. And it is just plain silly to be surprised at people being able to assign a monetary value to such inestimable treasures. Inestimable they may be, but you can always at least gauge how badly a museum wants them.

Judging by today's art prices, very badly. When Rosenberg, ordinarily a scholarly-looking person (shaggy, rumpled, and thoughtful), goes to the marketplace, he livens up, covering long corridors in the twinkling of an eye, dodging other art prowlers with grace and economy of movement. His lips tighten and his eyes dart up and down the walls. Following him around, you are so amazed at his skill and knowledge that you forget how possessive he has to be. Grasping, almost. But he doesn't grasp. He eyes and appraises. He appreciates. And buys, of course. But, as he says, "The Louvre is a very special museum." He hasm to buy.

It's a double collection he is maintaining.Unlike the Hermitage, which "after the Russian Revolution collapsed in a certain way," the Louvre never stopped buying art and generally agitating in the art world. The Louvre is "the only museum which is combining the two thoughts: We have this old royal collection; no one in the world has as many Leonardo da Vincis as we have. But still we have kept ahead. . . . I feel that we are still trying to fill our gaps."

"Because we have the tremendous weight of the past on our heads, we are more obliged than other museums to move ahead."

Following him around the Marche Aux Puces, the Paris flea market, one Saturday, even though he complained that it was raining so hard that the dealers weren't in the spirit of things, I got a chance to see Pierre Rosenberg in his element.

There are about five different markets at the Marche Aux Puces, at the northern end of the Clignancourt line, on Paris's Metro, and two have what he is looking for. Though dampened by unseasonable weather, the place has more vitality than the Hotel Drouot, being slightly unofficial. There is amazing junk among the stalls. There are stacks of quilts, teacups, good and bad old furniture, real silver and silverplate, and there are paintings hung everywhere, of all schools and conditions. There is an old smell, too, kind of musty, brought out by the rain and seasoned with the tang of varnished wood. The stalls are tiny, and tenders in their smocks visit one another on this rather slow day with steaming takeout cups of coffee.

He stalks the stalls, muttering, snooping, noddling at dealers, and drawning up close to paintings, pointing out that they are fake, or amusing, or good in a quiet but extremely interestedm voice. He has a long conversation with his favorite dealer, a man in an ascot and natty tweed jacket who also sells to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as he flips through aged drawings in the drawer of a beautiful antique chest.

The dealer is animated, clearly glad to see him, and makes encouraging noises about "ce petit Poussin" while looking up the price in a large beautifully kept black ledger he fishes out of another gorgeous old bureau. Rosenberg pauses over a drawing he likes and has an exchange with the dealer, which to my slow apprehension is a series of gruff noises from him and quick chirps and exclamations, jolly and almost flirtatious, from the salesman.

"Ah, quel bon vendeur!" exclaims Rosenberg with affectionate sarcasm. The picture is too expensive, but both seem happy to have heard some of their favorite noises from each other, whether a deal is made this time or not.

With the traditions and the aspirations of the Louvre behind him, and the authority o being on the museum's board that decides, with the blessing of the French government, what artwork may be exported from France and what may not, Rosenberg has much more power in his dealings than the average art buyer, but he wields that power in a way the dealers respect. They admire his understanding of the market and, though he can decide that a painting they are trying to export should stay in France and recommend that the Louvre buy it at the market price, they admit he's fair.

"He is very intelligent in the way he acts for the museum, even at the expense of infuriating dealers," said Christophe Janet, a French dealer in New York, who must be infuriated himself once in a while as he tries to pry works of art out of the tightening grasp of the French government.

Pierre Rosenberg takes great interest in holding onto the patrimony -- French art or art which has been in French collections long enough to be considered part of its cultural heritage. Aside from wanting to keep what's left in France , this is also a way to fill the gaps in the collections in the provinces. "But he is not unfair in the way he uses his power," Janet says.

"he has his finger very much on the pulse of the market," says Clyde Newhouse , of Newhouse Galleries in New York. "He's a great scholar, thinking and breathing art 24 hours a day."

Though the Ministry of Culture once held onto a painting Mr. Newhouse, was trying to export for two years while trying to find the money to buyt it, he says without hesitation, "He's part of the heritage.He's part of the patrimony, they're lucky to have him."

This bonhomie can be confusing. But Christophe Janet explainst that "if you don't play games with him," like putting an impossible price on the painting you want to export so that the ministry will let it go, unable to buy it, "then later on, if you ask him the same question [whether you can export a painting], he'll say yes." It's not so much that he's been bribed by reasonable prices the first time, Janet insists, it's just that "one can have a very nice gentlemanly relation with him. He's quite a fair man. His enemies are enemies due to stupidity on the part of dealers."

The other side of the coin is that Rosenberg needs the dealers.

"Fifty years ago," he says, "the profession of the dealer was to sell pictures. I mean, they had pictures, and to sell them. Now the profession has changed completely. The profession is to find pictures. If they find a good picture, there are 20 museums to buy it immediately. And you have to be the first to reach the pictures, often." And to be the first to reach the pictures, one needs to have the best "gentlemanly relation" with the dealer.

A recent triumph is the purchase by the Louvre of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Friedrich and Turner have been, for the last 10 years or so, considered "perhaps the two greatest 19th-century non-French artists. If one includes Van Gogh among the French artists."

The Louvre bought the Friedrich in New York, "and we were very proud to buy it and Washington was very unhappy not to have gotten the picture before us. In this there is a great rivalry between the museums. Rivalry because it's not only a question of money, of course there is tremendous pride. Which is also a question of knowing first." The dealer who called Rosenberg to offer the Louvre the picture "would have shold it to five other museums by a phone call."

How does he establish that kind of connection?

"That's a lot of work," is all he will say.

But it has something to do with the constant visits to dealers and, no doubt, those exchanges of noises, his understanding of their world, their understanding of his, and the dealers' feeling that he is a great curator, and a man to be trusted.

"Still, I mean, money is important," Rosenberg says. Among the "ones that got away" is a small painting by Masaccio, unpresented in the Louvre, snapped up by the Getty Museum at Los Angeles, and a Seurat that went to San Francisco instead of Paris. "Or sometimes one doesn't understand the picture," he says, when it is offered and lets it get away. "This happens. Oh, yes. Life is hard. Well, sometimes one is happy, sometimes it is altogether a battle and one never knows what is happening."

With the rest of his colleagues he eyes warily the huge sum that many or man not fall to the Getty Museum from J. Paul Getty's estate, depending upon how courts decide on the contentions of his other heirs.

"It will be a pure disaster for all the museums who can now no longer compete. . . . Everything will be offered to them first. They will have more money than all the American museums together."

This is a situation which has never come up bofore. After all, in the old days when museums were royal preserves, furnished with all the king's money, there was a lot less competition. "We are not comint to an end, but there are less pictures than before and the price has gone up so much, it's crazy," says Rosenberg. "Very few museums are able to follow and I would say, quite sadly, very few private collectors are able to follow."

He feels the staff of the Getty Museum will act responsibly if they get the money, and try not to destroy the market. But, he says, "From the money point of view, and from the collecting point of view, California is, at this point, the great growing power. Texas and California."

He says this with resignation. In fact, he is at home in most of the museums in Texas and California, as he is in most other museums in the United States. The exhibitions he is most engaged with at the moment are a show of the French 17th-century pictures from American collections and a show of American 19 th-century paintings, both of which will open in Paris.

Of the former, he says, "The idea is to select a hunderd of the best French 17th-century pictures in American museums and Paris, and use this collection to help make a complete survey of French 17th-century art. That is not only to show Saint Cloud and La Tour and Le Nain, but also other artists of which there are very beautiful examples in America. . . . And to have at the end of the catalog a complete list of every French 17th-century picture owned in an American public institution."

The show will travel from Paris to the Metropolitan Museum in New York "and perhaps another big museum in America."

Why do we need a Frenchman to show us a selection to our own French pictures? if you knew Pierre rosenberg, you wouldn't ask. Even considering his vast knowledge, you wonder at the ambition of the catalog.

"He's been working on that since he was at Yale [1961]," says John Walsh, painting curator of Boston's museum of Fine Arts. French museum men on the Focillon Fellowship, Walsh said, "hit the raod. They get a Greyhound pass" and go to as many American museums as they can. In fact, Mr. Rosenberg will only admit to not having been making a list, and he will be writing to "a tremendous amount of friends" in American museums and traveling to as many as possible.

"I have traveled quite a lot in America, more than most of the American curators, obviously. Because when an American curator or scholar has some free time, his first idea is to go to Europe."

"It's a matter of great chic among French musuem curators to find pictures in obscure places," Mr. Walsh said, recalling the time rosenberg discovered a Greuze painting in Montclair, N.J., and exhibited it at the Grand Palais. The Paris art world found the Greuze of Montclair quite exotic.

Because of the great fashion in America for 19th-century American art, or perhaps in spite of the great ignorance of the same in Paris, Rosenberg will also organize a small 19th- century American painting exhibition in Paris.

"The French are always thinking in th e 19th century that the only great artists were French -- which is partly true, by the way," he says, with only a slight chuckle. "But it's also a moment in which the foreign schools are important. . . . We had an Italian exhibition, we had an English exhibition, we had a German exhibition, so it is now time to do an American exhibition. What is to be done? Very difficult, because it's the only occasion American will have, if I can say so, to try to popular in america, Church or Cole or Eakins or Mr. Homer, are really great artists. so one has to be very careful with the selection. One has to show the best pictures, but also, I think, the most exciting pictures."

his knowledge of American art and American cities and his English are so good that I am taken aback when, discussing the American scholars who will help the Louvre make selections, he remarks quite seriously, "I know absolutely nothing of American art of the 19th century, obviously. But the good thing about me ism that I know nothing, so I can really be a sort of piggy."

Pause. "Guinea pig?" I suggest.

"Guinea pig. To see how I am reacting to the pictures I would like to show here." he has very strong reactions. "where they are not at all European, really devoted to America, and devoted to a sort of American poetry, they are great artists."

It says a lot about French civilization that, as Americans alarmingly by up more and more of its works of art, Pierre Rosenberg sets out, calmly and studiously, to find out where they all are. He knows their whereabouts much better than the Americans who collect them, and will actually be in the position of rounding them all up and showing them to the Americans. Money may be powerful, but, in the Knighthood of Arts and Letters, so is knowledge.

Rosenberg takes the Greyhound bus and charts the vast inland seas of American art holdings, and will undoubtedly produce a fine catalog. As he says, the catalog is what remains when the pictures are taken down. In this way, he is reclaiming his country's oeuvre.m And, in the face of all the American money, especially in the West (California is so rich and often high-handed it is thought of as another country), what else can the Louvre do?

Inherit. That's where the patrimony comes in, and why the government watches exports. There is also the "dation," a law passed about 10 years ago, which allows an inheritor of a collection to give art to the government in lieu of inheritance taxes. Thus, the Musee Picasso, which is made up mostly of the taxes Picasso's children and widow paid in art. This law, Rosenberg says, "has quite changed our lives."

So, Even though the oil money may outbid them, the Louvre still has a heritage. It also owns the forests in Canada, houses, and trust funds. all those tourists pay a 9-franc ($2.25) entrance fee which goes to acquisitions."We are not very rich, but we are very poor, either," he says. And of course his charm and intelligence, not to mention his way with dealers, are priceless.

As for the public, the museum has almost too much of it. Rosenberg feels the hordes of tourists who wash through every day are not necessarily gaining a better appreciation of art. (He can't understand why tourists insulate themselves by travelling, in groups, to the same few places. "there are 12 museums in the world which are overcrowded. The rest are empty," he says."

The problem is that they go too fast, and also they may not have much experience of art. "If someone has not seen a picture before his 20s and goes to the museum, he's slightly lost." He likens looking at pictures to reading, something one should learn young, because "if you are 25 years old and don't know how to read, you don't say it. You are ashamed." On the other hand, "when people have been to museums since they were young, if they have the habit of going through the museum on Saturday, they have the possibility to love them." He feels schools should do more to bring young children to museums, not curators.

It's too hard to explain how to read a picture, he says. It has something to do with "asking each time what the picture is, exactly. Because it's not only an image, it's more than that. It's an idea very often, and a lot if hidden behind what one is looking at."

So that everything will be available to the public, hidden or obvious, he has to appreciate everything, whether he likes it or not. He can pursue with total dedication a painting that does nothing to him. "There are greatm artists I don't like," he says. "I'm not very fond of Rubens, Rembrandt, or Delacroix, to give great names. . . . I know perfectly well that they are very great artists. Perhaps this is the difference between an amateur and a professional. It's not a great one. But an amateur likes or does not like a picture, and by the fact that he does not like it he does not see its greatness." But, he adds, "I am able to change my mind. My taste has changed, and it gives me great pleasure to discover [that] things I had not liked I like now." He has finally come around, for example, to like Raphael.

Whatever his opinion of them, he knows where most of the pictures are, and he's after whatever the Louvre or the provinces need. He does allow himself a favorite: Poussin. He says Poussin may not be popular with the public, but most people who are "working and living with pictures all day long have with him great pleasures. . . ." because Poussin brings great themes to his paintings. "No other artist has moved and changed his way of thinking about things during his life so much. For me he is a great, great artist," says Rosenberg, who should know about moving and changing ways of thinking.

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