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  • Lee Sorensen

Person who sells, resells, or distributes works of art to third-party clients. Dealers are sometimes referred to as gallery directors or gallerists. Although some artists may personally sell their own art works and auction houses may place works of art up for public bidding, the profession of art dealing remains an entity distinct from these trades. Art dealing as a profession is intimately tied to the activities of private collectors, art historians, and the wider economy.

1. Ancient and early modern dealers.

Art dealers emerged as a class of professionals whose work represented a blend of disparate traditions in the ancient world. No clear point marks the beginning of commerce in art as a departure from regular trade. Cicero mentions a sculpture dealer, Licinius Damasippus, with whom he considered doing business (ad Fam. vii.23). Arkesilas, an art restorer and friend of Julius Caesar, also dealt professionally in objects, together with others located in the Saepta and the Via Sacra in Rome.

During the Renaissance, the ways in which merchants dealt in art objects changed as scholars and writers came to endow ancient and contemporary art with aesthetic values separate from their original purpose. Baldassare del Milanese is known to have sold a statue by Michelangelo, and the collector Jacopo Strada, a friend of Titian, dealt in art objects. Evidence of art marketing emerges as early as the 1460s, when the painters’ guild in Bruges laid down rules for merchants selling art. By the 1540s, Pands (covered markets) specializing in works of art emerged in front of the Antwerp Beurs (Exchange). The Low Countries remained a center of art dealing through the 18th century.

Until the 17th century, artists mostly worked directly for patrons on a commission base and art dealers dealt in the resale of works. The elevation of the artist to an independent creator who caters to an open market resulted in workshop selling. For example, in the 1630s Hendrick van Uylenburgh (1587–1661), whose studio at one time employed Rembrandt, sold the paintings of his workshop directly to agents: Peter Lely in London and Everhard Jabach in Paris. Correspondence by Jean-Michel Picart (1600–1682) shows him selling art to Parisian nobility in the 1660s and conveying preferences in demand to Antwerp agents. Whole families, such as the Forchondts, developed networks of dealerships in Vienna, Antwerp, Paris, and Lisbon.

English art dealers followed a model of “procurers”: agents were sent to find works of a specific genre for wealthy collectors. Sir Dudley Carleton, British Ambassador to Venice, Rev. William Petty, Balthazar Gerbier, and Daniel Nys all brought continental masterworks to England.

2. 18th century.

Treatises such as Jonathan Richardson’s Argument in Behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur (1719) heightened interest in masterworks. In Paris, the print dealer and connoisseur Pierre-Jean Mariette also dealt in drawings, using his connoisseurship to attribute many unsigned works on paper. Dealer expertise resulted in some of the earliest catalogues raisonnés and biographical dictionaries, such as Mariette’s Abécédario and the dealer Michael Bryan’s Dictionary of Artists, which is still consulted today. John Smith (ii) and sons, beginning in 1829, compiled a nine-volume catalog of paintings by Dutch, Flemish, and French painters.

In the Italian states, Cardinal Albani of the Vatican connected impoverished Italian art owners with British collectors aided by British government officials. These types of arrangements drove Canaletto to move to England in 1746 in order to avoid middlemen dealers. Gavin Hamilton, a British history painter, spent much of his time scouring the peninsula to send art to England, most famously Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks (1491–1508; London, N.G.). Giovanni Maria Sasso, in Venice, also exported art.

Elsewhere in Europe, German collectors retained the services of the Spanish vice-consul Giacomo della Lena (1731–1807) or Gerhard Morell (1710–1771) in Hamburg. Actual 18th-century French picture dealing is famously documented by Watteau’s L’Enseigne de Gersaint, painted as a shop sign for the boutique of Edmé-François Gersaint and depicting the bustling activity of clients and staff. The husband of the court painter Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, acted as dealer to the French aristocracy before and after the Revolution and to the Napoleonic cultural elite in the early 19th century. He is credited with generating collecting interest in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art and famously sold Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533; London, N.G.) to England in 1792. Auction houses (often referred to as auction rooms) had been pioneered in Holland and Flanders in the 17th century and became more prevalent, particularly in England and France, after 1750 even as most collectors still principally found pictures through dealers.

3. 19th century.

Nineteenth-century art dealers perfected what would become the hallmarks of modern art dealership: large inventories, careful presentation, deeper documentation, and, unfortunately, the temptations of collusion. William Buchanan, most famous for selling Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (London, N.G.) to John Merritt of Rokeby Hall, documented his successful professional practices, including the consolidation of his stock at a sole location and dramatic, single-work presentations to his clients. Buchanan would also take advantage of the political turmoil in France during the Revolution to import Old Master paintings to England at low cost, activities that were published in his 1824 Memoirs of Painting. Another such successful entrepreneur was Ernest Gambart, who realized that marketing to a newly enriched industrial class required a fresh approach. He focused on artists rejected by the Royal Academy, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, emphasizing the unique and new qualities they brought to painting, such as their craftsmanship. He used auction houses to his advantage, sometimes buying his artists’ works back to buoy the recorded market value of their work. Borrowing practices prevalent already in the 18th century, Gambart also mounted admission-based shows of his artists’ paintings and then sold reproductive prints of the work, benefiting from the dual revenue streams. He actively scouted for artistic talent, such as the Dutch painter Alma-Tadema, whose classicizing pictures he promoted with great success. Louis Victor Flatow, a British dealer, had similar success benefiting from the exhibition of saleable works. Once, over the course of just seven weeks, 21,000 people paid to view William Powell Frith’s Railway Station (1862). Compared to the pre-industrial age, art, by the second half of the 19th century, was increasingly viewed as an investment. This development was concomitant with the entry of a wider social strata of buyers entering the market.

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) dealer who rose to prominence in the late 19th century was Joseph Duveen. Dealing in Old Masters, Duveen’s roster of clients comprised the most important American collectors of the time, including Henry Clay Frick, Samuel H. Kress, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Andrew W. Mellon. His donations to Britain secured him a knighthood, but, after his death, it became known that he had paid the art historian Bernard Berenson to falsely authenticate and publish his paintings, masking his bribery by recording payments to Berenson in a separate account book. The German expatriate Otto Gutekunst (1865–1947), who joined the established dealer Colnaghi’s in London as a junior partner in 1896, also collaborated with Berenson on the sale of Old Masters, most notably to the American art lover Isabella Stewart Gardner.

4. Impressionism and the early 20th century.

Competition and more refined marketing techniques in art dealing helped promote the rise of niche markets, and this process of specialization was particularly apparent in France in the mid-19th century. The advent of avant-garde art resulted in a dynamic, specialized brand of dealer, even though initially many practitioners maintained traditional stock to diversify their risks. Paul Durand-Ruel promoted, defended, and even financially supported Impressionist artists, to many of whom he extended exclusive contracts. He rode the wave of the rising American art market and, in 1886, he mounted an Impressionist show in New York comprising over 300 works. Encouraged by these results he open a permanent New York gallery in 1889, followed by other international branches. Durand-Ruel’s galleries created a brand appeal. Collectors felt assured about the quality and provenance of paintings because they came with the pedigree of Durand-Ruel’s expertise. In 1887 Theo van Gogh (1857–1891), Vincent van Gogh’s brother, also prominently turned away from established artists to showcase Monet and other Impressionists at the Boussod-Valadon gallery.

Among the best known Impressionist art dealers was the firm of the Wildenstein family. Second generation dealer Georges expanded the company’s scope to Impressionism in the early 20th century and, in collaboration with the dealer Paul Rosenberg, he briefly owned sales rights to all of Picasso’s production. The Wildensteins wrote respected catalogues raisonnés on Impressionist artists and trained future dealers, such as René Gimpel (1881–1944). Most notable were the firm’s large and largely secret storeroom of masterworks. Their study archives became the Wildenstein Institut.

Around the turn of the 20th century, many dealers expanded to represent Post-Impressionism and other progressive modernist movements. The critic and collector Félix Fénéon, after championing Georges Seurat in the Revue blanche and mounting a show for the late artist in 1900, joined the established Impressionist dealers Joseph “Josse” Bernheim-Jeune and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune (see Bernheim-Jeune) to represent the Post-Impressionists Henri-Edmond Cross in 1906, Paul Signac in 1907, and Kees Van Dongen in 1909 through the Bernheim-Jeune gallery. Paul Guillaume was an early dealer of African art in Paris, where the forms of African masks and sculptures were inspirational for artists associated with Cubism and other avant-garde movements. Through sales of African artifacts to the artist Amedeo Modigliani, Guillaume would develop a relationship with the sculptor and painter, ultimately becoming his dealer in 1914. Berthe Weill was the only female dealer to promote avant-garde artists at the beginning of the 20th century. Working in Paris, she was the first to sell one of Picasso’s works after meeting him through the Catalan dealer, Pedro Manãch in 1900. She also gave Modigliani the only solo show in his lifetime. The formative Scottish dealer Alexander Reid became acquainted with Post-Impressionism early in its history, when his colleague at the Boussod gallery, Theo van Gogh, introduced his brother, Vincent, in 1886. Reid became a personal enthusiast and proponent of Post-Impressionism as his Glasgow gallery, opened in 1889, sold Impressionist works to Scottish collectors. In 1926 his company merged in London as Reid and Lefevre and turned into an artistic mainstay of the capital. Modern works were also available in London through the Irish dealer Hugh Lane, who began to sell Monet in 1905; his efforts came to an end in 1915, when he died on the Lusitania.

In Paris, Ambroise Vollard began his influential career as a dealer by buying a stock of Impressionist art as well as works by van Gogh and Gauguin for his gallery on the Rue Lafitte, which opened in 1893. After organizing Cézanne’s first solo exhibition in 1895, he virtually cornered the market for the artist’s work. It was Vollard who gave Picasso his first solo show in 1901, then Matisse in 1904. Vollard brokered many deals at the 1913 New York Armory show. Picasso’s most famous print series, the 100-plate Vollard Suite, published in 1937, inspired the dealer to increase his profits by branching out into the sale of less widely popular media, including multiples. Despite the success he experienced selling other works by Picasso, and the faith in the artist which led the dealer to give him his first show in 1901, Vollard disapproved of Cubism. Thus Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who first met Picasso in 1907, when the latter was formulating his Cubist style and philosophy, became the first to sign him on to an exclusive contract with his dealership in 1910. Later, Kahnweiler added Braque, Vlaminck, and Léger to the roster of his artists. His memoirs reveal much about the structure of his dealings with these avant-garde artists. When Kahnweiler’s inventory was seized in World War I, Paul Rosenberg and his brother, Léonce Rosenberg, assumed Picasso’s representation in 1919, sharing the modernist markets with the Wildensteins in the 1920s. The historian John Richardson asserts that Rosenberg was responsible for Picasso’s abandoning of Cubism.

While the French public often became familiar with avant-garde art through museums and other public exhibitions, German audiences were primarily introduced to new styles of art through dealers. Following the lead of Paris, Berlin was set to rise to become one of the most influential art cities when Paul Cassirer opened his modernist gallery in 1898. Through connections with Durand-Ruel, Cassirer introduced Impressionism to Berlin and gave Matisse his first solo show outside France in 1909. Over the course of the same year, Justin Thannhauser (1892–1976) opened his Moderne Galerie, which would hold exhibitions of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works and eventually hosted the first show for the Expressionist Blaue Reiter group, which counted among its most prominent members Vasily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Gabriele Münter. German Expressionism’s leading apologist, Herwarth Walden, began dealing in the art of the Blaue Reiter through his art journal, Der Sturm (begun 1903). In 1912 Walden founded a namesake gallery, for which the journal served as a mouthpiece. The Düsseldorf dealer Johanna “Mutter” Ey (1864–1947) founded a gallery that would represent Max Ernst, Otto Dix, and other avant-garde German artists. Similarly, Alfred Flechtheim represented interwar artists like Otto Dix through a series of influential galleries in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Cologne.

In the USA, Germain Seligman (1893–1978), who took control of the firm from his father, Jacques, marketed modern art, mounting Matisse’s first American show in 1927 and selling Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, in 1937. Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer, ran a modernist gallery in New York, called Gallery 291 (after its address on Fifth Avenue), which sold photographs, modern French art, and some African objects. His successor in early modern art dealing was the New Yorker Julien Levy (1906–1981).

5. Postwar and contemporary developments.

New York rose to greater prominence in the art world after World War II. This development coincided with the rise of Abstract Expressionism on the American East Coast. Sam Kootz (1898–1982) opened his gallery in 1945 and represented Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes. The industrialist Sidney Janis founded a gallery in New York, eventually representing Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Kline, and Motherwell, nearly all of whom had moved on from the artist-cum-dealer Betty Parsons (see also Betty Parsons Gallery). Parsons had established the careers of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, and, after losing them to Janis, she remarked that most artists did not believe women artists were tough enough for sales. A self-avowed art promoter who began as a collector, Janis convinced MOMA to purchase Andy Warhol’s work after the institution’s curators had famously declined to include his Pop art in their collections. In the 1960s and 1970s Leo Castelli essentially cornered the market for most of the important Pop art artists. Although never exclusively driven by profit motivations, the collector-dealer Peggy Guggenheim did much to further “her artists” through selling their work at her Art of This Century gallery.

A number of scandals involving the ethics of art dealing emerged during in the postwar period and through the early 21st century. Legal battles mounted against dealers who sold art looted by the Nazis in World War II often have a long history. Although the Wildenstein gallery was exonerated by a French court in 1949 from wartime dealings, firms that accepted art from notorious dealer-collaborators, such as Karl Haberstock (1878–1956), Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895–1956), or Hans Wendland (1880–1965), have been the object of high-profile investigations. Hildebrand Gurlitt was a museum curator in Germany who was removed from his post in 1930 because of his Jewish ancestry and later assigned to act as an art dealer for the Reich Propaganda Ministry. He confiscated works of “degenerate art” from German museums and used his influence and purchasing power during the wartime economy to build up a collection of over 1500 objects, many obtained from Jewish families under Nazi persecution. Gurlitt’s collection was held in secret by his son, Cornelius, who profited from discrete sales of the works until his collection was seized by authorities in 2012. The recovered collection has since been the subject of media controversy and (now mostly resolved) legal battles for repatriation.

In 1971 Marlborough Gallery, New York, and its director, Bernard Reis (1895–1978), were the subjects of a highly publicized lawsuit by the estate of the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Eight years of litigation resulted in a finding that the director and the gallery had cheated the estate. The heirs were compensated for paintings at prices that did not reflect how their value had vastly increased in the years since the artist’s suicide. In 2011 Ann Freedman, the director of Knoedler Gallery (see Knoedler, M., & Co.), was forced to close the 165-year-old firm when evidence emerged that the gallery had sold forgeries of artists such as Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.

6. The modern gallery director.

Twenty-first-century social and market forces have changed the role of the art dealer. Although being a galley director, scholar, or an artist’s advocate was once a self-sufficient occupation, many successful dealers today are media figures specializing in ultra-modern and global art, who market through online tools and work in non-traditional spaces. Art buyers of the 21st century are digital natives; conversant with social media, many of these collectors seek out online sales. Competition with online art vendors such as Artsy and 1stdibs has driven dealers to place a growing portion of their inventory online and to market to an anonymous public. The closing of small and mid-sized galleries across the globe has accelerated under the burden of high-priced real estate in traditional, urban gallery enclaves. The movement of sales online and to international art fairs and a significant decline in gallery traffic has both been the result and cause of the growth of art fairs (see Biennials and art fairs). These temporary commercial events (including Frieze in London, TEFAF Maastricht, Art Cologne, and more) developed from long-standing city biennial traditions. As public events, they allow a wider group of people access to multiple dealers and provide a shopping atmosphere where choice and instant gratification meet the modern culture of immediacy. Twenty-first-century dealers compete with the art museum- and auction-going buyers with highly decorated venues, performance art, and lavish parties to attract buyers to their gallery exhibitions. Such profiling has led to criticism of “personality-cult dealing,” as in the case of Larry Gagosian or Charles Saatchi (Saatchi Galleries), whose media reputations have been attacked as a form of market manipulation.

However, while small galleries and individual dealers have floundered, Gagosian, Saatchi, and other large, international galleries continue to flourish in the globalizing contemporary market. In 2017, while dealers with business of less than $1 million saw an average decline of 6 percent, those with business of $1–$10 million saw sales rise by 7 percent; dealers with business above $50 million saw an increase in sales of 19 percent (Pogrebin 2017). These “mega-galleries” with multiple locations and international satellites court and deal in contemporary artists with strong critical and media reputations and have the capacity to travel to art fairs, which can cost the dealer hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in. Staging multiple high-concept exhibitions each year, these galleries are increasingly operated like small commercial museums. They employ archivists, license and grant permissions on behalf of their artists, and have even entered into the publishing space, such as David Zwirner, who founded David Zwirner Books in 2014 to produce catalogs, monographs, and other titles related to its exhibition program.

Despite challenges, dealers continue to provide an attractive buying experience to collectors. Unlike auction houses, dealers are able to offer payment plans for high-end purchases. And although many transactions are now conducted online, the gallery continues to be important venue; in addition to serving as a public exhibition space it is a more stress-free environment than an auction house, where buyers can make decisions on expensive investments at a slower pace. As a meeting point for collectors, artists, and critics, galleries, and the dealers who operate them, provide the social hubs of the art world.


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