The painting and drawing expert Hubert Duchemin likes to approach market ethics in the light of his own experience. We talk to a militant in terms of the eye.
On your website, we read that you offer freedom of eye and action "in contrast with certain specialists' timidity". Who do you mean?
Several people! Auction houses will often not fight to defend a painting and are happy to seek the opinion of the artist's specialist – and if it is negative, they return it to the owner. This means that I get to look at paintings, because I take the opposite approach. I study them in depth and then go back to these specialists. This was the case with a Max Ernst, which Sotheby's included in its catalogue but then withdrew at the request of Ernst expert Werner Spies: this was at the height of the Beltracchi affair.
The distraught owner came to see me. It took me two years to get Werner Spies to recognise the work's authenticity. (…) Today, many buyers want their works to be certified. I try to fight this system and become the certifying factor myself, mainly by drafting the best-documented catalogues possible. I do not claim to be right, but I seek a dialogue, unlike some specialists who resolutely resist the very idea of a new number being added to a catalogue raisonné if they consider documents and archives – the only proof they are willing to accept – not sufficiently convincing. I want to emphasise one thing: it is the work itself that speaks. And there's only one way to "hear" it: through the eye.
How can art dealers cope with the increasing rarity of masterpieces?
They need to be patient and buy less. Masterpieces are fewer and farther between, it's true, but when a painting "ticks all the boxes" – i.e. it's in perfect condition, has an impeccable provenance and an image with a powerful impact – its value goes up and up. The times have never been so propitious for new collectors: entire sections of the market are no longer in vogue and offer huge possibilities – like Romantic painting.
What can be done given the younger generations' lack of interest in Old Masters?
For the last twenty years, we have been witnessing a social and cultural change that views paintings and their gilt frames as out of step with the times. With Old Master drawings, though, it's a field day! A drawing seems less "old hat": you can play around with the mount and the frame, for instance. We can see that the Old Master paintings that sell well today are the Primitives and Caravaggisti, because they mingle more easily with contemporary art. On the other hand, people don't go for anything "bourgeois", like Dutch genre scenes. The French 18th century stands apart, with all its intrinsic wit and elegance. If I had to advise a young dealer like my son Ambroise, who started out selling paintings in 2015, I would tell him to make decisions based on his own taste, because there is a public for his pieces.