Max Wengraf: Memories of a London Fine Art Dealer

Alex Wengraf (b. 1938) was born in Vienna and became part of the flood of Jewish émigrés to London in the immediate pre-war period. The art world had a large number of Jewish collectors, dealers and scholars. Wengraf was not expected to join the family business and he studied medicine at university. Only with the death of his father was he thrust into the art trade. Wengraf’s memoirs are a free-form stroll through his impressions and recollections.

Wengraf tells us of the charmed lives of family members back in Austria, which so soon turned into a nightmare. The telling takes off the edges, as family tales tend to do. Lives are encapsulated in charming single sentences. Reading the book is like being seated in a leather wingback chair at a club, listening to an affable chap recount his favourite anecdotes. There are few footnotes and most of the text clearly comes from memory, which Wengraf freely admits.  

There are some fascinating examples of sleights of hand within the art world, such as Christie’s attempting to pass of a dealer’s stock as property of the estate of Konrad Adenauer. He met forger Tom Keating and claims he was not taken in by his Velasquez and inadvertently gave him advice. He had to root out Eric Hebborn’s forged drawings that had been sold to Colnaghi’s. (He suggests Hebborn forged little but instead altered period drawings and forged signatures. He did not believe any forger could so convincingly think himself into so many different artists’ mentalities.) He mentions that prisoners at Featherstone Prison were forging Bernard Leach ceramics, including signatures and stamps. “[…] the auction houses only became suspicious because too many new works were being discovered.”  

We glancingly meet some famous figures and get some unsalacious gossip. There are some fun stories, including this: “Stavros Niarchos was going round the Fine Art Society once with a new mistress. She was glamorous beyond lust but had never set foot in an art gallery before. ‘And what are all those red dots on the labels?’ she asked, ‘Does that mean they are not for sale? ‘No,’ the great shipping magnate was heard to say, ‘that means they now cost a little more than before.’”

At times, Wengraf seems less Berenson and more Del Boy. He hung a Trevisani canvas over a radiator and the next day he found the painting slid off and dried to the carpet below. He had been unaware that it had been relined with wax. A curved panel that Wengraf nailed flat in a frame exploded the frame with bang – leaving the panel curved again and the frame destroyed.

The book is illustrated with items that Wengraf might have sold. Well, one presumes so, because the text rarely gets more specific than a creator’s name. they might just be art he admires. Overall, this is an enjoyable canter through a veteran dealer’s memories, light on details and warmly diverting.

Alex Wengraf, Memories of a London Fine Art Dealer, Unicorn, 2020, hardback, 256pp, col. illus., £30, ISBN 978 191 2690701

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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