Snaring Rights to Steinberg Art, Richard Feigen Returns to Dish

Art dealer Richard Feigen is so certain about his taste in Old Master paintings that in 1984 he arrived unannounced at the Park Avenue home of Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg bearing a small, but rare, Rembrandt oil entitled Head of an Old Man , complete with the case Andrew Mellon had made for it and a $1.5 million bill.

Mr. Feigen spent 20 years guiding the lavishly spending Steinbergs through the Byzantine process of amassing a world-class collection. Still, whenever the time came for Mr. Steinberg, the chairman and former chief executive of Reliance Group Holdings Inc., to sell off one or two of the works, he always called Sotheby’s-or, as sources told the Observer , he awarded the auction house for the tenacity of their unremitting solicitation.

But in February, when the Steinbergs sold their 34-room triplex apartment for about $37 million, Mr. Feigen overcame his “shyness” and his desire to not “pounce” on his friend’s collection as Reliance’s stock plummeted, dramatically losing more than 50 percent of its value in the past year. He reasoned, “If you don’t have a huge apartment, where are you going to put 60 paintings?” Especially when those paintings include huge stretches of canvas like Vasari’s Fishing , Jacob Jordaens’ A Twelfth Night Feast (“The King Drinks” ) and Titian’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, valued respectively by the dealer at $3 million, $7 million and $12 million.

Seated in the living room of his Fifth Avenue duplex almost two weeks after snaring the rights to unload the $52 million collection, Mr. Feigen had little sensitivity left for the situation. His primary emotion was relief that his old friends had not once again been “swayed by Sotheby’s into putting their works at auction.” He said the Justice Department’s investigation into commission rates at Christie’s and Sotheby’s had allowed him to get a foot in the door.

The only downside of the Steinberg coup is that Mr. Feigen couldn’t stop the presses on his soon to be published memoir, Tales from the Art Crypt: The Painters, the Museums, the Curators, the Collectors, the Auctions, the Art (due from Knopf on June 23), to add another chapter. It might be called “Saving the Steinberg Collection,” since many of the chapters are about Mr. Feinberg’s defending elitism over mediocrity in the art world.

In recounting an entertaining, if slightly random, selection of anecdotes from his storied career, Mr. Feigen has not penned an autobiography-he actually fired two ghostwriters who tried to do exactly that. Instead, he offers a series of career highlights and life lessons. The best courses in connoisseurship were the lunches hosted by art teacher Paul Sachs at Harvard; contemporary art galleries should follow contemporary artists in foraging new ground as Mr. Feigen did with Leo Castelli when he opened one of the first galleries in SoHo; there is value in preserving the integrity of important collections by offering time and expertise to organizations such as the Barnes Collection; cultivating sources for artwork by soliciting artists’ widows with designer silk scarves works wonders.

Mr. Feigen also writes that he probably shouldn’t have become an art dealer-which he arrived at by way of Harvard Business School and a brief stint with an insurance firm-because he could have contributed more as a private collector. And gotten a lot more respect.

Still Getting Royalties From Wall Street

Mr. Feigen was born in Chicago, attended Yale University then Harvard. His first job was for Lehman Brothers on Wall Street before he moved to California to take a job with a family insurance company. He left California after six months and bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, which he sold when he decided to open his first art gallery in Chicago in 1957. Six years later, he opened a gallery on the Upper East Side and, a couple of years later, another in SoHo. Now the main gallery is run out of a townhouse at 34 East 69th Street and there’s a contemporary annex at 535 West 20th Street in Chelsea. His is one of the only galleries selling works spanning over 400 years. His clients have included Ronald Lauder, Henry Kravis, Wendell Cherry and Alfred Taubman. He is divorced and has two adult children.

In his 43 years as a collector in dealer’s clothes, Mr. Feigen, a lean, white-haired, 69-year-old with a handsomely chiseled face, has merged Chicago street smarts with an ultra-refined level of connoisseurship that extends from his hand-tailored suits to the 19th-century English landscape by John Constable that hangs on his living room wall (the latest addition to his vast and eclectic personal collection). He plays the role of the gentleman collector. Some say he is constantly dropping the names of royalty and traveling to museums across Europe to gloat over the pieces he’s sold them. And he enjoys being served a cup of coffee as he sits beneath his 17th-century Baroque Masterpiece by Orazio Gentileschi, and makes sweeping pronouncements like, “What I really care about is effecting taste.”

But he has a reputation for his forward ways and he is credited with bringing the pressured work ethos of Wall Street to the Old Master trade. According to the book, he once persuaded Barbara Walters to use her televised interview with the Empress of Iran to help him sell her a rare manuscript; he moved Tom Wolfe to memorialize him in Radical Chic ; and he professes to have saved SoHo almost single-handedly from the proposed Cross Manhattan Expressway, and the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts from being run by a provincial Clinton functionary.

Mr. Feigen fervently rejects the implied characterization of being merely a dealer who furnishes New Money with pictures that lend an “ancestry for their lifestyle.” Nonetheless, his flamboyant persona and powerful clientele fit so perfectly into the 80’s clichés of excess that Oliver Stone cast the dealer to play himself in Wall Street . “They gave me one of those trailer cars, and I still get a little tiny check every once in a while for $36 from the Screen Actors Guild,” Mr. Feigen laughed.

He reveals in the book that he almost played a role in another drama of the 80’s when Michael Milken approached him with a proposition to finance his business to the tune of $200 million using junk bonds. He was tempted. Mr. Milken had after all created the vast fortunes of several of his clients.

When asked if he regrets turning down the offer, Mr. Feigen said, “It’s a question that has been unanswered for the last 14 years. My friend Carl Icahn says if I had done it I wouldn’t be calling Air France about getting screwed out of a mileage ticket. I’d be having my airplane take me across the ocean.”

In the end, Mr. Feigen declined because he was afraid of having to spend all the money at once and therefore having to pay “too much [for] paintings that were just not good enough.” But he calls Mr. Milken a genius. After meeting him briefly at The Beverly Hills Hotel, said Mr. Feigen, the investor “with no prior knowledge of the art business, comprehended and solved all the problems I had been puzzling over for 25 years.” On the other hand, Mr. Feigen writes that Mr. Milken is one of the only people he has ever met with absolutely no capacity to become a collector.

The Met ‘Turns Tricks for Pocket Change’

One chapter in particular “might cost me a few clients,” said Mr. Feigen, referring to “The War of the Museums,” a section that presents a scathing view of how corporate culture has changed America’s cultural institutions for the worse.

Mr. Feigen singles out the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “For all these years all they have done is proliferate building and whenever they run into red ink they do another Renoir show,” he writes. He likens the august institution to “a nice girl from a good family who just once in a while goes out and turns tricks for pocket change.”

There’s a split, he argues, between those who believe in caring for objects and developing exciting exhibitions around them on one side (Him) and those who see museums as Cineplex-like entertainment palaces that only give the public what it already knows about on the other (The Met). Particularly, Mr. Feigen writes that a Met show scheduled for 2001 under the title Gentileschi: Father and Daughter , will damage the reputation of a serious artist (the father, Orazio Gentileschi) in order to draw people in through the salacious reputation of a minor artist (Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter, whose rape and dramatic trial has generated far more attention than either of their art).

Between his gallery and his private collection, Mr. Feigen owns three of the 60 known works by Orazio Gentileschi, whom he considers to be a far more important painter than his daughter Artemisia. To him, a much needed major Gentileschi exhibit should focus on Orazio and his influence, not on his relationship with Artemisia. “With the press and the feminists at work, you’re going to read about Artemisia and her father who also painted,” he writes.

Henry Holzer, spokesperson for the Metropolitan, described Mr. Feigen’s accusations as ironic. Mr. Feigen is “one of the people who helped invent the cult of the daughter,” said Mr. Holzer. In 1998, a show entitled Passion and Painting with works of father and daughter was shown at the Richard Feigen gallery in connection with the release of the Miramax film Artemisia , based on the daughter’s life.

But what seems to most rile Mr. Feigen about museum politics is that despite his private collection and vast knowledge, his professional position as an art dealer doesn’t earn him enough respect or influence. “As a dealer, I am assumed to have these wares to sell, even if I have bought them for my personal collection,” he said. “If more people had seen the work that I had put together, more people would have seen my point and not assumed that I had an ax to grind because I sell paintings. My collection might have been borrowed by a museum and my point therefore gotten across. I might have been on an acquisition committee in a museum and had a chance to change their collecting pattern. There are a lot of things I might have done.”

In 1988, Mr. Feigen chose to decline a seat on the board of the Barnes Collection because of a potential (but highly improbable, since the works are not for sale) conflict of interest. He said that if his collection was private, he could hold such positions and maybe museums would listen more attentively to his suggestions.

“My whole life has been about putting together my collection, what matters is not what I sold; it’s what I kept,” he said.

The Best Chapter Is in the Back Seat of a Taxi

Mr. Feigen has one significant nemesis in the art world whom he had planned to skewer in his forthcoming book: the late Norton Simon, a restless California industrialist who dedicated the last 25 years of his life to building a $100 million collection of Old Master paintings.

The tense relationship between dealer and collector ended when Mr. Feigen learned that Mr. Simon had bragged that he paid only $42,500 for a Matthias Stomer oil that Mr. Feigen had not yet had the chance to carefully examine but ultimately determined to be worth $150,000. When Mr. Simon implied that he had swindled Mr. Feigen out of more than $100,000, he became the only collector ever to be banned from the Richard Feigen gallery.

Mr. Feigen was preparing a rancorous chapter on the “nasty man who formed a very great collection by picking brains all over the world,” until he left all the original documents and letters that would have supported this chapter in a taxi. “People have had Stradivarius violins and vast sums of money returned to them. I called and faxed every cab garage in the city,” said Mr. Feigen. “There are over 200 of them. I even sent employees out to La Guardia airport to pass out flyers offering a cash award for the documents’ return.”

The pages were never found and Mr. Feigen decided not to start again from scratch. And according to Mr. Feigen, while other people are familiar with Simon’s sordid story, he doesn’t know of anyone else inclined to write it down.

“I can tell you one thing, though,” he said, “It would have been a good chapter, because I can’t think of a single person who can say they liked him.”