ART / A game for all the family: Agnew's is 175 this year. Dalya Alberge spends a day at the world's oldest family-owned art gallery

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The Independent Culture
AUCTIONEERS watch what Julian Agnew is doing with his pen when they see him in their salerooms. If raised slightly, it may signal that this leading dealer is bidding - even if he himself is looking the other way. Otherwise, he may give them a subtle nod. Being discreet is important: if museums or major dealers are obviously interested in something, others may think it must be worth competing for too.

But Agnew was neither raising his pen nor nodding at Sotheby's Old Master paintings auction last Wednesday. Nor was he using the technique of getting someone else to bid on his behalf. Nevertheless, two dealers were keeping a beady eye on him, surreptitiously looking over his shoulder and screwing up their eyes to read the notes he was making in his catalogue. They would have learnt little: he was only scribbling down the prices fetched. And even when his notes include figures up to which he is prepared to bid, they are in code - 'though a simple code,' he says.

Although he was not buying anything that day, he believes it is important to be in the saleroom. Reading dry after-sale price- lists is not the same. He needs to 'feel' the market, he explains, to know who is bidding and buying (and which works are going where). It is also useful to swap information with other dealers before an auction - although some have been known to give out 'disinformation', dismissing a work to discourage the opposition and then buying it themselves.

'It's all a game,' says Agnew. Because so much money is at stake, it is quite a serious game, however. Yet the game played in London is child's play compared to the one they play in New York. Agnew says that dealers there have been known to bug each other's telephones.

For Julian Agnew, this month is one of the busiest in the Old Master calendar. Anyone who is anyone in that world descends on London for the capital's various auctions. Last week, many of them dropped into Agnew's for a major exhibition to mark the gallery's founding. At 175 years, Agnew's is the world's oldest gallery still in family hands: five of the 28 members of staff are family. Julian Agnew is sixth-generation and the gallery's recently-appointed chairman. Many of the greatest masterpieces in today's museums have passed through Agnew's at one time, often donated or bequeathed by their clients. From a long list, there are Fragonards in the Frick Collection, New York, and the Velazquez 'Rokeby Venus' (almost unknown when Agnew's bought it in 1905) in the National Gallery, London.

Much of the business today is still with museums - most recently, the Getty in California (which bought Sebastiano del Piombo's Portrait of Pope Clement VII). Thyssen, Rothschild and Mellon are among Agnew's illustrious private clients, regularly popping into the Bond Street gallery. But they did not make it to the 175th birthday party held last Wednesday. The guests were primarily curators, dealers and politicians - among them, Michael Heseltine.

Hazy, crumbling Venetian views by Guardi and religious paintings by Fra Angelico, all of museum quality, cover the gallery's elegant velvet-lined walls, but, as with all such parties, few people were discussing the works of art, let alone looking at them. Most were talking shop, gossiping and forging new contacts. Two of Agnew's rival dealers muttered some disparaging words about Julian Agnew giving out his visiting-card to four potentially-useful people at another dealer's party. 'Isn't that normal?' I asked, seeing nothing wrong in it. They assured me it was bad taste. A few minutes later, one of them suggested I ought to get in touch with him to do an article on him. 'Here's my card,' he said.

Among those few guests who were actually looking at the art was George Goldner of the Getty Museum. I cornered him in a room filled with Turner watercolours. We talked briefly about Agnew's - 'one of the world's most important dealers, both historically and today,' he said. Also, Giles Waterfield, director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, who commented on how 'over the years, Agnew's has been able to attune itself to - and, to an extent, even shape - the taste of the moment . . .'

Despite the comments of the two dealers, networking - on a grand scale, with parties, the theatre and opera - is an important part of any gallery-owner's life. However, as Agnew put it, it means 'you have to make an effort even when you don't feel like it'. Much of his socialising is outside business hours. For up to four months a year, he is forging new contacts abroad. (This is a side of the business that the first Mr Agnew would not recognise: he built up a business selling what were in his day contemporary works to English clients who made their fortunes in the Industrial Revolution.) Whether at home or abroad, Agnew explains, 'you build up a relationship. Trust is an enormous part of the business. Collectors are coming to us for advice. There are so many intangibles over quality and price, and, in many ways, it's so subjective. People must know you're on their side.'

Often, he advises his clients on purchases at auction. He escorted me to the preview of Christie's Old Master auction, taking me round as he would a valued collector. I imagined myself in Mr Mellon's shoes as he pointed out that a 15th-century gold panel painting by Giovanni di Paolo was not from the artist's best period and that the way it was painted was 'a bit stiff - and it's a massive price at pounds 1.8m'. (He was not the only one who had his doubts about it: it did not sell last Friday.)

We returned to the gallery. Agnew guided me round his exhibition, again treating me as one of his clients. We started at a pair of Fra Angelico panels, probably no later than 1431. He told me that they were sections of an altarpiece broken up in the 1860s, and that when Agnew's cleaned them, they found that gold applied in the 19th century was hiding original detail. We moved on to a Yarmouth beach scene by John Crome: Agnew explained that the strange shapes in the distance were bathing-machines, which used to be rolled out into the sea so that modest bathers would not have to be seen waddling along the beach.

But Agnew does not go in for the hard- sell. He prefers to guide your eye, and let the art speak for itself. At the end of the day, he observes, however much a collector asks about a work's history, condition and scholarly opinion, and however much you advise them, they may just take a dislike to a face in the background of a painting.

Although Agnew cannot recall anyone falling in love with (and buying) a picture without asking its price, he says there was one client who bought just for investment. The buyer arranged for the work, a Degas drawing, to be deposited in a bank, left it there for five years and then returned to Agnew's asking 'What's it worth? And will you sell it?' On the other hand, Agnew says, most people need to know that the money spent is justifiable in terms of the market, should they want to re-sell.

The Old Master sales ended last Friday; another set of buyers will be pouring into London this week - for the British picture auctions. They, too, are likely to pop into Agnew's. Only once these auctions are over will its chairman return to the day-to-day running of the gallery. There are restorers to visit (one of his greatest pleasures is working closely with them), sales catalogues to scan and young artists' portfolios to be seen.

But last week's greatest excitement for him was, it seemed, the arrival of four Old Master drawings. A Tiepolo and a Guardi were among them. Far from being given a good spot in the exhibition, however, they will be hanging only on his office walls: collectors like to be shown something special in private and to feel it has been saved for them alone. The artists, and the drawings' beauty, quality and condition, should ensure that they are not hanging around there for long. At one point in the middle of our conversation, a member of staff knocked. A client wanted to see the Tiepolo . . .

The exhibition includes drawings by Carracci and Lancret and paintings by Gainsborough and Mola; also, modern and contemporary British works. The show continues at Agnew's, 43 Old Bond St, London W1 (071-629 6176) until 24 July

(Photograph omitted)