Bertrand Gautier: an appetite for risk

On 07 November 2019, by Caroline Legrand

Talabardon & Gautier Gallery, a founding member of Fine Arts Paris, is known for its famous discoveries due to the work of passionate, even jubilant dealers. Here’s a look back at the adventure with Bertrand Gautier.

Bertrand Gautier in the Talabardon & Gautier gallery on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré in Paris, admiring a terracotta by David d’Angers.
Photo Justin Creedy Smith

You don’t have an ordinary background for an art dealer.
Bertrand Talabardon's background is much more conventional than mine. He studied at the école du Louvre and worked as an archivist at Prouté for five years before opening the gallery. But I was never cut out for school! I got my baccalaureate by chance. I lived in Africa, but now I’m a Parisian at heart. I have always wanted to live in this city because I love architecture. I’m truly self-taught in many areas. In fact, I started my career in 1979 as an assistant for a television show. […] I dabbled in everything, even editing.

When did you and Bertrand create the gallery?
In 1992, when I left television. I could either gain more experience in that profession or help my best friend in this new adventurean easy choice in the end. However, the art market was going through very tough times. We had to work hard and be patient. Bertrand and I have known each other for a very long time. We are children of museums. We learned together through our trips and visits to French and foreign museums. My role is to accompany and support someone with an extraordinary eye and sensitivity. Our address was then rue Sainte-Anne in Paris. At our first TEFAF, we were confined to the Old Masters section, but wanted to exhibit a spectacular cage made of 45,000 pieces of metal, created over a ten-year period by a worker from the shipyards of [FDLT1] Le Havre named Dubuc. TEFAF accepted it at our stand. We’ve always shown spectacular, special works like this: it’s become our trademark, our signature.
 

Henri Michel-Lévy (1844-1914), La Vente publique, oil on canvas, 99 x 131.4 cm. Painting presented at Fine Arts Paris 2019.Courtesy Talaba

Henri Michel-Lévy (1844-1914), La Vente publique, oil on canvas, 99 x 131.4 cm. Painting presented at Fine Arts Paris 2019.
Courtesy Talabardon & Gautier gallery

Have you hit upon the right recipe?
Dealers are both scavengers and discoverers who must be very open-minded and boldly ahead of the curve. The increasing scarcity of merchandise also prompts us to open up to new artists, who are eventually found through much research and a great deal of educational work. We are our first customers. We buy the works we sell. They reflect our taste and curiosity. We offer drawings, paintings, and sculptures with various prices to appeal to all customers. You don’t have to systematically look for the rare, one-in-a-million find. It’s important to keep these levels, which allow our business to be renewed and sustainable. For example, we specialised in troubadour painters at a time when they weren’t in fashion. We had one of their masterpieces, La Procession de la Fête-Dieu à Paris en 1830 devant Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois [“The Corpus Christi Procession in Paris in 1830 in front of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois”] by Lancelot-Théodore Turpin de Crissé (1782-1859). We had seen an engraving of the painting at Drouot that we had found extraordinary and one day, in 1996, the original turned up there. That was the first time we paid a million and, even if it was in francs at the time, it was hard for us to come up with such a sum. […] We sold it to a private collector in Saint-Louis, but today we’d have no trouble selling it to a French museum because it’s a major, recognised work.

Is 19th-century painting still your niche?
We started out by exhibiting 19th-century works, for which we have a loyal clientele, but we’ve always offered older ones, especially at the Salon du dessin in Paris. We wanted to show our seriousness and our vision of art right from the start. Basically, we, and our whole team at the gallery, seek to understand the works, explain them to our clients and share our knowledge and love of painting. This is part of the added value we bring as dealers. Since the beginning, we’ve stood out with our very rich, well-documented catalogues at a time when very few galleries made them. These publications contributed to our brand image because they were seen everywhere, even in museums. Today, we are developing fewer catalogues, but I’m currently trying to work on an exhibition of architectural drawings, an unloved theme that’s particularly close to my heart.
 

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell), ca. 1624-1625, oil on panel, 21.6 x 17.8 cm. The Leiden Collectio

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell), ca. 1624-1625, oil on panel, 21.6 x 17.8 cm. The Leiden Collection, New York.
Courtesy Talabardon & Gautier gallery

You have several major discoveries to your credit, including a Rembrandt in 2015.
They were made possible by Bertrand, who keeps an eye on all the auctions. He has an open mind and can spend ten hours a day on the Internet and in auction rooms. I think that Drouot is to dealers what the barre is to dancers: an exercise that cannot be overlooked. Bertrand noticed the painting because France is the country with the largest number of early Rembrandts. His eye was used to it. When he spotted this painting, which was coming up for sale in New Jersey, he thought it might be a work by the young master in his formative years. Estimated at $500, it went on sale at 8 p.m., Paris time. We bid against another dealer and won at $1 million. The next morning I went to see Ger Luijten at the Custodia Foundation (Paris), a friend and client. If we’d made a mistake, it was too late. Fortunately, he immediately identified it as a Rembrandt from the “Five Senses” series. Three were already known and had been reintegrated into the final corpus by the Rembrandt Committee just two months earlier. Two of them were already in Thomas Kaplan’s famous Leiden collection in New York, and the collection’s assistant curator, Ilona van Tuinen, happened to be working at the same time at the Custodia Foundation. Luijten introduced me to her immediately. She said to me, “You bought it!” We sold it in less than a month to Kaplan, who allowed us to exhibit it at TEFAF Maastricht the following year. An institution can’t take too many chances on paintings of this type. That’s why dealers are vital for the market.

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