an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Stephen Hahn, Creighton Gilbert: Remembering the Late Dealer, Scholar

[NOTE: I have a call in to ADAA for a photo of Stephen Hahn. If anyone can e-mail me an image, I’ll post it here.]

I always have a soft spot for renowned experts who graciously shared their time and insights with me early in my career as an arts journalist. One such was the late Stephen Hahn, the distinguished Hungarian-born New York dealer of Impressionist and modern European masterworks, who died Apr. 2 at the age of 90.

Surprisingly, the only obits of this once preeminent dealer that have appeared in the NY Times thus far are two paid classified obits—one, a brief homage from the Art Dealers Association of America, where he was a past president; the other, a more detailed recounting of his life and achievements.

The classified obits both mention his love of music. Every time I spoke to Hahn by phone or visited his gallery, classical music was playing in the background. He was one of my prime sources for information about how dealers operate when I was researching my book, The Complete Guide to Collecting Art (Knopf, 1982).

Here are some of Hahn’s insights about the art market and connoisseurship, as quoted in my book:

—“A collector who has any sense and buys in a public sale should consult a specialist,” asserted dealer Stephen Hahn, who said that he performs such consultation free for clients and for a ‘nominal fee’ for those who have not bought from him.

—Stephen Hahn, well know for his ability to detect fakes in his field, attributes his success to having “a fine memory for details….An expert should know the artist’s style, his taste, the way he composed, the way he used colors. The most important thing is to know his facture—the ‘handwriting’ of the artist [i.e., the way he applies the paint, his brushstrokes]. Some artists’ facture can differ from one day to another.”

—A “skinned” Impressionist painting (one in which the glazes have been cleaned away) is worth 30 to 40 percent less than a comparable pristine one, according to dealer Stephen Hahn.  “If a picture is overcleaned, it looks thinly painted and you can see the preparation of the canvas [the ‘ground,’ usually white] coming through the sky. In an overcleaned Renoir, the transparent colors of the skin are gone.”

—Some people who are just starting to collect act as if they know much more about painting than I do. I have no patience for that.

Creighton Gilbert

The only contacts that I had with preeminent scholar of Italian Renaissance art Creighton Gilbert, who died on Apr. 6 at the age of 86, were related to my 1996 stories in the Wall Street Journal (scroll down) and Art in America magazine (not online) regarding the purported “Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue” (now on display at the Metropolitan Museum).

I had noted that the various scholars cited by the “rediscoverer” of the “Michelangelo,” Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, didn’t include Gilbert, the go-to authority on the artist. When I contacted him in Connecticut, he was eager to debunk the attribution, even though he hadn’t yet traveled to New York to eyeball it. Later, after he saw it at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue, he maintained his thumbs-down verdict and spoke to me at length about why the sculpture is not by Michelangelo (a conversation recorded in my notes, now buried deep in the CultureGrrl archives).

Here’s how Yale described him, when he became professor emeritus in 2000:

One of the world’s foremost scholars of Italian Renaissance art, Creighton Gilbert has been a faculty member at Yale since 1981. The author of hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books on major artistic figures such as Caravaggio, Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo, Gilbert received the Mather Award for Art Criticism from the College of Art Association in 1964. That same year, he was inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1980, Gilbert was appointed editor of Art Bulletin, the pre-eminent American journal in art history. He went on to serve as editor-in-chief until 1985, longer than any other editor since World War II. Gilbert has also served as visiting professor at the University of Jerusalem and the University of Leiden, the Netherlands; the Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor at Williams College and a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at the University of Rome.

an ArtsJournal blog