Fairs Italy

How to buy an Old Master in Italy without fear or frustration

Art dealer Giovanni Pratesi has got a whole city and the rigid export authorities to back Italy’s top art and antiques fair

Giovanni Pratesi (above centre) has brought the public and private sectors together, luminaries such as Hillary Clinton have graced the Biennale in the past

La bella Italia, land of art; fortress Italia, out of which no art can be exported, except by breaking the law. This wide­spread perception is an exaggeration, because export licences do get granted for many works, but it is true that when you go into an Italian antique dealer, you can never be sure that the piece you have fallen in love with will be allowed out, and even if it is, the bureaucratic hassle and delays involved take much of the pleasure out of shopping.

There is one event, however, where this does not apply: the Florence Biennale, coming up again this October (1 to 9). Everything for sale here has been inspected ahead of time by a commission made up of the Florence export office and officials from the ministry of culture in Rome, and has been given an advance export licence, unless it is one of the four or five items in every fair that have been considered to be of great importance to the heritage of Italy and are therefore only tradeable within Italy.

The story of how this benign application of the rules came about in 2001 reveals how the rigidities of Italy’s bureaucracy can be made to work where there is a political will. Giovanni Pratesi took over as chairman of a declining Biennale in 2001. In a long career as an art dealer, he has managed to overcome the authorities’ distrust of the art trade by playing a straight bat and producing seminal publications on Florentine sculpture and painting of the 17th and 18th centuries. He is also president of the association of Italian antique dealers and only too aware of the reasons for the weakness and insularity of the Italian art market. So he went to the then superintendent of fine arts for Florence, Antonio Paolucci (now director of the Vatican Museums)—an enlightened man with real clout in Rome also because of the period when he was minister of culture—and had little difficulty in explaining to him that everyone would gain from this change in the system.

Next, Pratesi went to General Conforti, then commanding the section of the Carabinieri responsible for defending Italy’s artistic heritage because his men had the habit of turning up in the middle of the fair and photographing every work of art in case it was stolen property—accusatory behaviour that would be unimaginable at Maastricht, and another sign of the authorities’ low opinion of dealers. Pratesi and the general agreed that the inspection would be made before the fair opens, which also reassures potential punters from day one that any purchase already has a clean bill of health.

The third important step was to set up a vetting process with real teeth, by no means easy in a country where mafioso attitudes come naturally not just in the South; rejecting a friend’s work of art can be interpreted as a personal betrayal.

Pratesi overcame this by putting such established scholars on the vetting committee that any one of them would have been ashamed to let a weak attribution through in the sight of their peers. This year’s 18-strong committee, for example, includes Bert Meijer, director of the Istituto Olandese, for Netherlandish painting; Giancarlo Gentilini for 15th- and 16th-century sculpture; Enrico Colle for 17th- and 18th-century furniture; and Dora Liscia Bemporad for silver. For any fields the committee does not cover, a list of experts approved by the Biennale has been drawn up, whose written approval of a work will be accepted.

Any rejected work is taken off the stand and stored by the organisers, while attributions on labels are carefully checked throughout the fair. Dealers who do not play by the rules simply do not get invited back.

And then there is the question of what style of art and antiques fair this is: Maastricht is all efficiency in a decked-out commercial fair hangar; the Biennale des Antiquaires is high-tone French under the cast iron and glass vault of the Grand Palais; London’s new Masterpiece fair is in a tent and aims to be about luxury, with fine dining and vintage motor-cars. The Florence Biennale, Italy’s most important art and antiques fair, is the only one to be in a building as historic as many of the wares it offers, the 17th-century Palazzo Corsini on the banks of the Arno, while the pleasantly unifying mise-en-scène is by the neoclassical stage designer Pier Luigi Pizzi.

Pratesi has cemented a good working relationship with the owners of the palace, the countesses Rezia Miari Fulcis and Livia Branca di Romanico, and more recently also with the marchesa Bona Frescobaldi, who in 2009 attracted a mass of rich and famous to the opening, such as dress designer Hubert de Givenchy, the Syrian collector and socialite George Antaki, baron and baronne Guy Ullens, creators of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Prinz and Prinzessin Nikolaus von Liechtenstein (the Liechtenstein family are major buyers of old art for their museum in Vienna) and the Turkish billionaire Ömer Koç. This year, decorators are also on the guest list, because Pratesi sees that they have a key role in the buying of antiques, while in 2013 he would like also to see museum curators from around the world.

Mounted Carabinieri in full fig guard the opening night; there are fireworks and the mayor, Matteo Renzi, president of the Biennale, gives the VIPs a banquet in the Palazzo Vecchio, where the Medici once feasted their equivalent. Renzi is a keen supporter. “The antiques trade, like the crafts, deserves to be encouraged,” he says. “The Biennale is part of the life of Florence, where culture is synonymous not just with museums, churches, libraries, but also the art trade.”

In fact, the city has joined in with a will. The smaller museums of Florence—the Bardini, the Museo Horne, the Stibbert and the Fondazione Romano—give free entry to anyone with a ticket to the fair. The chamber of commerce, the tourist board, the industrial association and the Cassa di Risparmio bank have all got involved. The superintendency provides young art historians to take tours around the fair. The fashion house Etro offers the prize for the best sculpture, which in 2009 went to a gilded terracotta modello of 1733 for the Monument to Pope Innocent XI by Pierre-Etienne Monnot, with Trinity Fine Art from London, while the Four Seasons Hotel gave the prize for the best painting, Christ Led from the Sinhedron by Luca Giordano, 1659-60, with Pinacoteca, a Naples gallery. Both prizes are for €10,000, which the recipient must spend on the conservation of some public work of art, while the Biennale itself has created a prize for the best documentary film about art.

All in all, as the Italians say, “una mano lava l’altra”—one hand washes the other. But such complex collaborations between the public and the private sector are all too rare in Italy. The Florence Biennale under Pratesi has managed to become an art event that is also an example of the civil society at work.

The art

If you are interested in la bella Italia, this is the fair for you, full of mostly Italian Old Masters, sculpture and decorative arts, some of them repatriated by foreign dealers. Some pieces that attracted special notice in 2009 were: the Madonna and Child with St John by Pontormo (left), with the London dealer Clovis Whitfield at €5m; a Giandomenico Tiepolo, with New York’s Adam Williams; a bust of Christ the Redeemer by Giambologna, with Pratesi; a Cleopatra by Guido Reni, with the Florentine dealer Piacenti; and a Canova sculpture of the composer Cimarosa, with the Milanese dealer Carlo Orsi. The date range is Middle Ages to early 20th century—London-based Robilant & Voena sold a Boldini nude for €350,000—but this is a fair that essentially stops before modernism. The one exception is the stand of Gian Enzo Sperone, who is rare among contemporary art dealers in being also a collector of old art. In 2009, he put on a show of post-war artists, including a 1953 Concetto Spaziale by Fontana, sold for €700,000.

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