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Art: Best of the Best Art Galleries: Pace Wildenstein

Joan Altabe

Once a year for the eight years following his father’s 1963 death, art dealer Daniel Wil-denstein sent Georgiana Blois, who was friendly with many British noble families, to ask the Earl of Radnor if he would sell Wildenstein his 17th-century portrait by Diego Velázquez, titled Juan de Pareja. Wildenstein wanted it as a memorial to his father, Georges, who had considered Juan de Pareja the best portrait ever painted. But the earl always refused to sell, even when Wildenstein sent him a blank check.

When the earl finally allowed Christie’s to auction the painting in 1971, Thomas Hoving, then director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, realized that the only other buyer shrewd enough to outbid him was Wildenstein. Hoving also knew that the museum’s trustees would balk at the steep price the Velázquez was sure to command, and that Wildenstein held the Met collection in high regard. Hoving therefore asked Wildenstein to engage in a small subterfuge to help enrich the collection. Wildenstein agreed to pretend to buy the Velázquez for himself and then donate it to the Met to cloak the fact that it was actually paid for by the museum. In his memoir Making the Mummies Dance, Hoving writes that landing the Velázquez put him "on top of the art world," and that Daniel Wildenstein helped put him there.

The Wildenstein family has been at the center of the volatile world of art dealing since 1875, when Nathan Wildenstein founded an eponymous gallery near Paris. By the early 1900s, the gallery was selling works from the Renaissance to the contemporary. Nathan once said, "Never buy a painting that you can’t afford to hold on to and have your grandchildren sell." The family’s colossal private collection—now valued at more than $10 billion—suggests that his descendants took his advice to heart.

Four generations of Wildensteins have been blessed with the talent to spot artistic beauty and negotiate the terms on which it is bought and sold. Two decades before Pablo Picasso painted his famed Guernica, Nathan’s son Georges began representing the artist in silent partnership with Picasso’s main dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Partnerships, preferably discreet ones, have been the family’s modus operandi. Recently, the Italian magazine Diario published claims that, in 1978, the late Daniel Wildenstein entered secret negotiations with Pope Paul VI to sell some Vatican art treasures, including Michelangelo’s Pietà, to aid the poor. The Vatican issued a denial. Another, better-known joint venture was the 1993 pairing of the Wildenstein Gallery with the Pace Gallery, a longtime dealer in leading contemporary work. Combined with Wildenstein’s experience in old and modern masters, Pace Wildenstein has art history covered.

Daniel’s sons Alec and Guy are enhancing the family legacy in their own ways. Guy directs the London gallery and publishes scholarly articles on Postimpressionism, following a pattern set by his grandfather. Alec is an ace at auctions. His father sent him to represent the family in the 1971 bidding war for Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja because of his successes in another long-lived Wildenstein venture: buying racehorses at auction. Like the best Thoroughbreds, the Wildensteins continue to lead the field.

Pace Wildenstein, 212.431.9224, www.contemporaryart.com

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