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Diary of a US dealer: Fred Hill of Berry-Hill. European museums turn to American landscape

And a wider range of stock attracts more collectors

In 1900, Fred Hill’s grandfather Lazarus Hill, affiliated with the seventeenth-century London firm of Berry, which sold antiques, objets d’art and paintings to his stock. By the 1960s, Henry Hill (Fred’s father) directed the gallery towards American paintings and sculpture of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. Nearly four decades later, Mr Hill has moved into Old Masters as well.

Why did you decide to take on Old Masters paintings?

Broadening our horizons gives us access to a new group of collectors, many of whom are Europeans. Old Masters is a growing field for dealers in this country, partly as a result of the worsening tax situation in Europe. I noticed that, while there are a number of private dealers, relatively few New York galleries show Old Masters, especially the larger paintings, and few concentrate on the Italian artists. Our first Old Masters show was three years ago, and just a year later another was two-thirds sold, including a large Georges de la Tour. A number of works in that show went to institutions. Last winter’s show included a Botticelli—besides the one recently acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland, it’s the only fully accepted work by the Renaissance master to have come on the market.

What influenced you as a dealer in American paintings to look at major fairs overseas?

I have noticed in Europe a proliferation of exhibitions devoted to American paintings. For example, two years ago we lent to the show, “America: the new world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” at the Belvedere in Vienna. The Tate is developing a major show of Hudson River school paintings, “The American sublime" slated for spring 2002. My thinking was that a major European museum would soon want to represent classic American art. This was substantiated in speaking to museum people coming through our booth at Maastricht. A further indication of this interest is our sales at the Dutch fair, which included a Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington, a Childe Hassam landscape and a Gauguin painting along with a seventeenth-century Dutch still life.

Is your client base changing?

Because of our new concentration on Old Masters, we are involved with considerably more institutions than before and that is an enormous benefit. We are also in direct contact with more institutions regarding our American paintings.

How many clients for Old Masters do you have who are spending $100,000?

Over the past three years, we worked with some three dozen clients in that area. Overall, there are thousands on our mailing list, yet only 100 are active clients and at any one time, twenty-five are very active, people who are making annual purchases. They are not all serious collectors; some want a painting for over the fireplace, a seven-figure price tag painting. Others are focusing on a specific period and may have a single room in their house dedicated to nineteenth-century landscapes or American luminists. At the same time, I see a greater interest in American nineteenth-century sculpture. Generally, we are seeing more collectors under the age of forty and that is due to the strong economy.

What do these newer collectors like?

Typically, American Impressionists are on their lists, as are Homer and Sargent. Hudson River School landscapes are another common request. Colonial paintings are rarely sought. Occasionally, we see a demand for pre-Raphaelite women artists and sometimes American Impressionists working in France like Theodore Robinson.

You have mounted a number of exhibitions that have relied heavily on museum loans. What do you gain from such endeavours?

They are important as they raise the stature of the gallery in the public’s eye. The recent show devoted to Frederic Church, “In search of the promised land", consisting of fifty major paintings, half of them on loan from institutions, brought in a stunning 3,000 visitors. Plus, the show received substantial press coverage. The show is travelling and is now at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago and will later move on to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon before its final stop at the Portland, Maine Museum of Art. Exhibition efforts like that raise our visibility in a crowded gallery environment.

With novice collectors seeking you out, what kind of tutoring do you offer?

Collectors come to specialist dealers for advice, call it tutoring if you will. Often, I’ll say let’s go to the Met and we’ll wander through the American wing. I will tell them about issues of quality.

What are you taking to the Biennale in Paris?

The best of American art: Sargent, Hudson River School painters like Cole, Gifford and Kennsett.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'And a wider range of stock attracts more collectors'