Interview with Christie’s Old Master Paintings and Sculpture specialist Milo Dickinson

Milo Dickinson is a specialist in both Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, with a particular interest in the Italian Renaissance. Joining Christie’s in 2011, He became a specialist in the European Sculpture department, and was involved in the sales of works by Adriane de Vries, André Beauneveu and Ferdinando Tacca which are now three of the top four auction prices ever set in this field. Dickinson was instrumental in creating the first independent European Sculpture sales and made several discoveries including works by Antonio Susini, Pietro da Barga and Giuliano Finelli.

During lockdown, Dickinson opened a blog called Art Uncovered, where he regularly publishes stories, insights and interviews related to the art world.

  1. You are 30 years old and already have an admirable career. How was your journey up until becoming a specialist in Old Master Paintings at Christie’s in London?

I grew up surrounded by art and antiques. My father is an art dealer and from a young age, he took us to local antique shops searching for hidden treasures. I was fortunate, I learnt by osmosis as every inch of our home was covered in paintings, drawings, objects, Renaissance medals and art books.

I gradually took an interest in art but it wasn’t until I was out of school that it became a full-blown love affair. I studied History of Art at university, with a focus on English Country House collections but on the whole, I found the course frustratingly theoretical and decided that the best way to learn was to go and look at art directly.

It is accepted knowledge within the art world that Christie’s and Sotheby’s are the best places to learn about the market. I first interned at Sotheby’s and then at Christie’s until I was hired as a junior cataloguer in European Sculpture at Christie’s. I had never taken a particular interest in sculpture until I interned in the department but I was instantly hooked and I went to the V&A Museum almost every weekend for the first two years to give myself a grounding in sculpture from Donatello through to Canova.

I worked in the department for eight years, becoming Head of Department in London, until I recently moved to the Old Master Paintings department as a Specialist. I had always retained a passion for paintings and I moved to give myself the chance to learn from the great experts we have at Christie’s whilst I was still young enough to devote all my energies to it.

2. What are the main challenges of working with Old Masters? Do you think that modern audiences and buyers struggle to connect with these paintings and prefer to buy contemporary art?

There are undoubtedly enormous challenges in trying to interest modern audiences in the Old Masters. There has been a revolution in thinking in the Western world in the last century which has affected every strain of our lives. This has had a particular impact on education, where we no longer learn about history, mythology or religion in the same depth or even deem it necessary to do so. This creates an instant barrier to the Old Masters, as the subject matter becomes arcane and often imperceptible to most eyes. At the same time, the underlying spiritual or moral messages of many of these paintings discomfort our generation who has been brought up on moral relativism.

Pictures inevitably fade with age. Old Masters do and Jackson Pollock, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter will in time. The lush greens and blues used by Titian, Rubens and their like have become brown and to modern eyes used to the bright, flat colours of Picasso and Matisse this can make Old Masters look stale in comparison.

And then you have the inherent difficulties of the Old Master market itself. The contemporary art market is so simple; you can buy artists like you buy stock, assured the artworks are by who they say they are (as the artists are alive). The Old Master market requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which takes time and effort.

The resulting effect has been that in the last forty years the two markets have swapped positions, contemporary and modern becoming the dominant force and the Old Master market, once so strong, now being written off as dead. And as people are attracted to success and money, the glamour and the parties are now concentrated in the contemporary art world. Most art collectors are sheep, they want their friends to be impressed when they come and visit so if you collect Tintoretto you might get blank stares whilst if you collect Damien Hirst your friends will know you are rich and fashionable (although I suspect Hirst will be passé pretty soon).

Yet, despite all this, I am hopeful. The Old Master market has great value but more importantly, the paintings and sculptures have an unyielding appeal. Modern art will pass out of fashion quickly. These infatuations come and go – in the late nineteenth century the cost of contemporary art reached similar heights, and artists like Jozef Israels charged prices that now seem absurd considering his relative obscurity.

I do not believe that Old Masters will suddenly become de rigueur for the new rich. But I think their cultural power is entrenched, people will always flood to see the works of the greatest masters like Rembrandt and Leonardo, and as the prices wax and wane for contemporary art, collectors will look anew at art that has survived the test of time. It is up to us to tell the stories of the Old Masters afresh and to capture new audiences.

Jacopo Robusti, better known as Jacopo Tintoretto, The Miracle of the Slave (also known as The Miracle of Saint Mark), 1547–1548, Oil on canvas. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

3. How would you describe your first private sale? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Private sales are a wholly different beast from selling art at auction. The psychology shifts entirely and it requires a much more personal touch with the seller and potential buyer. There is no ticking time bomb unlike at auctions so you have to caress and impress the potential buyer. I failed many times before I did my first private sale. It requires a different skillset but a successful sale is particularly rewarding as you have personally found a good home for the object.

4. Why do you think that postmodern education is “inadequate” to study art history? How would you change it?

It is wholly and utterly inadequate. I struggle to call it ‘education’ as if education is the acquisition of knowledge; postmodernism actively discourages this. What is the point of critical thinking if you know nothing of the topic to begin with? For instance, it is all very well to think critically about Leonardo da Vinci, about his position of privilege in society or to ‘reinterpret’ his works in light of his sexuality, but all of this is nonsense if you cannot identify who Leonardo da Vinci was, classify his dates of birth and death, come to an understanding of his artistic education and practices, carve out a widely accepted oeuvre of his paintings, and compare these to works of his contemporaries. Without this knowledge, you might be interpreting new meanings inherited in a painting by Leonardo da Vinci which was actually painted by Joe Bloggs three hundred years later. You need knowledge before you can extract meaning and I am worried that postmodernism encourages us to skip this vital step.

I would suggest to anyone with an interest in the arts to seek knowledge for themselves and to do it first hand, to bypass the current gatekeepers of knowledge. Go to museums and look at great art close up, read books by the finest minds and, of course, come to Christie’s so you can handle it to get an understanding of how it was made.

5. You took part in the organisation of the first independent European Sculpture sales at Christie’s in 2014. What was the highlight of the sale and what challenges did you encounter while doing research?

When I joined the department, Christie’s sold European Sculpture in Furniture sales which I found baffling. Sculpture is a fine art, not a decorative art, and hiding a Renaissance bronze amongst French eighteenth-century furniture turned it into a piece of ornament. I was desperate to change this and when we did it, this had a significant impact on the market and how collectors saw the sculpture we sold.

The real highlight of that first sale was a bronze aquamanile in the form of a dragon, an incredibly rare and unusual object. Aquamaniles were made across medieval Europe as vessels to hold water to wash your hands with at the end of a meal, at a time when you would eat with your hands. Most were made of clay but the wealthiest families had bronze aquamaniles, some of which have survived. Our aquamanile had been acquired by its owner as a modern Islamic example so the research was particularly important to prove it was made in Northern Germany in the twelfth century – it sold for almost one million pounds to the Hildesheim Cathedral Museum, possibly the town where it was made centuries ago.

6. During lockdown, you have started a blog called Art Uncovered. Could you tell us a bit more about the origin and aims of this project?

In lockdown, the exchange of ideas moved online. It was no longer possible to share thoughts person to person in the same way. I have been on Instagram for several years and seen how much time people spend on it, even those of my parents’ generation. This is where trends begin and culture is shared. But it is not the place for deep thought or sustained concentration. I am an avid reader of blogs on art, politics and history and in lockdown, I suddenly had the time to set up my own and think in more depth on certain topics that interested me.

The aim of Art Uncovered is to explain art to people with simple and, hopefully, engaging writing, beautiful images and thorough interviews with art collectors, dealers and experts. I believe the best way to learn is by talking to people who know a lot about a subject. Reading about art through the media is utterly dispiriting because it is often filtered through a lazy and conformist lens. Having a blog gives me an outlet and a reason to talk to those of real independent thought. I loved talking to Sir Timothy Clifford about his views on the direction museums are taking and I have recently been speaking to the legendary art dealer Daniel Katz about his life in art, which will be written up soon.

7. My Life in the Arts featured in your blog Art Uncovered is a series of interviews with leading figures in the art world. Tell us about the most interesting interview you did so far and some unexpected discoveries you made.

I had always admired the portrait painter Howard Morgan, an artist who has never been promoted by the Arts Council or the Saatchi Gallery because he used traditional means and methods but who was nonetheless an exceptional talent who created flashes of brilliance on canvas. I knew him a little as my aunt is friends with him and was in contact with him through Instagram. I subsequently spent many fascinating hours over lockdown talking to him, discussing his life and views on art. Howard came from nothing and rose far. He painted both the Queen and the Queen’s Mother, Tom Stoppard, Paul Dirac and Philip Larkin and Dukes and Duchesses aplenty. He belonged to the virtuoso tradition of portrait painters like Lawrence and Sargent. In private, he disdained many celebrated modern painters, including Lucien Freud, for their sloppy technique. He was a brilliant artist and a great conversationalist. Very sadly, as I was writing up our interview, he had a sudden heart attack and passed away. With the permission of his family, I wrote up the interview and was then asked by The Telegraph to turn this into an obituary for Howard.

The main page of Milo Dickinson’s blog Art Uncovered

8. As Head of Sale, what do you think are the main challenges of remote bidding? Is it more difficult to convince a potential buyer to acquire an artwork online or are there any advantages that the physical viewing does not allow?

I believe remote bidding will become a permanent feature of the art market. Before 2020, many in the industry were doubtful that collectors would buy art above a certain level without seeing it in person. In the Old Master market, I heard such doubts from all quarters and most thought that the difficulties of assessing condition and attribution from photographs would put off collectors buying Old Masters remotely.

This year has been an experiment and collectors have proven to have the confidence to buy without seeing pictures in the flesh. Younger collectors are more likely to do so than older ones, and there are instances of major collectors not bidding because they couldn’t see the pictures in person. Despite this, with high definition photographs, videos and independent condition reports, collectors are getting used to making an assessment remotely and with travel restrictions set to continue in 2021, I think this will become a set feature of the art market.

Auction has an inherent advantage over private sales in this new development as buyers are put under time pressure to bid and therefore are more inclined to take this risk. I have found that in private sales collectors are more reluctant to make that jump.

The art market needs to make its online offering a whole lot better. For Old Masters, I think this includes making it easier to assess the condition and the fine details from home. Maybe in future, we should give buyers access to professional UV photographs online. In all fields, one crucial development will be to offer instant shipping quotes and timelines.

9. What are the main factors that influence an artwork’s evaluation?

First and foremost is always quality. Great masterpieces by totally unknown or unidentified artists can sell in the millions. But the attribution also affects the price and identifying the hand of the artist adds to its value and the strength of this attribution is important.

Condition is another factor and paintings that have been over-restored, cut down, scrubbed or have badly discoloured are less coveted.

Provenance, the known history of the artwork, is significant and if the artwork has passed from celebrated collector to celebrated collector over its history, the market will have more confidence in its quality and importance.

Finally, fashion and taste have their say; for instance, in today’s market the finely rendered works of the Flemish school of the early sixteenth century are hugely popular whilst works of the French school of the eighteenth century, by artists such as Boucher and Fragonard, are not to today’s taste and are comparatively inexpensive. This is bound to change over the next decade. Valuations are not a science but a considered judgement.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Musical Contest, ca. 1749-1752, Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection, London

10. The art world is always divided between the idea of “art for art’s sake” and the market orientation. Considering that the artwork’s economic and intrinsic value do not coincide and thinking about your academic background in art history, how do you conceive uniting these two sides when working for one of the leading auction houses in the world?

I have always found the purist’s snobbery towards the market odd because artists have always painted for the market. My sister is a painter and I see in her the age-old struggle between painting what she wants to and painting what she thinks will be easier to sell. This is a dilemma every artist has and there is not a single artist in history who has ignored the market and not let it affect their work.

Having said that, the art historical importance of a work is not always reflected in its current market value. This is where knowledgeable collectors and museums can take advantage and acquire great works that are out of fashion.

The fun of working for Christie’s is combining art historical research and keeping up to date with the market, understanding the taste and interests of today’s collectors.

11. “Auction is an ideal means of selling art, a commodity whose value has little intrinsic or objective value but is vastly inflatable by fantasy, aspiration and human rivalry. […] The art market regularly produces prices realized in the heat of the chase at auction that would not have been achievable by private treaty” (Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World, p. 269-270). These are the words of Philip Hook, director and Impressionist and Modern art senior paintings specialist at Sotheby’s. Do you agree with Hook when he says that fantasy, aspiration and human rivalry are key to defining the economic value of an artwork? If so, why?

Philip Hook’s book is one of the best analyses of art market forces that I have read and I certainly agree with that sentiment. It takes a collector to understand and that is why most of the leading figures in the art market are collectors themselves.

I collect Renaissance bronze plaquettes and medallions and I think collecting is an emotional journey. When I spot a plaquette at auction that I like, I try to take all the emotion out of it and base my bid on an assessment of its inherent quality, but come the day of the auction, emotion has normally taken over and I have already decided where this plaquette will fit in my collection. The pain of having this dream taken away from me by another bidder makes me go for ‘one more bid’ time and time again.

This is why valuing an artwork for auction is a balancing act between putting a value high enough to encourage the seller to choose you and low enough to entice collectors to get interested. When you get that balance right, the overt competition of auction and the pressure it puts on collectors to bid now or let the object go, the commodity with no intrinsic value is publicly fought over until one collector can no longer compete on price.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1668, Oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
This is one of Dickinson’s favourite paintings, defined as “profoundly moving”.

12. As Clare McAndrew (Founder of Arts Economics) said, referring to Coronavirus, that “this is the second major recession that businesses have had to face in just over a decade”, the global pandemic in some way forced the art market to reinvent itself. ArtTactic writes that “the art market is at a tipping point of entering a new era, potentially redefining what it means to be an art business in the 21st Century.” Do you agree? And if so, how would you describe this ‘new era’ and what are the new factors we should start taking into account?

Big changes are coming, but I think that the lockdowns have only accelerated existing trends. I still believe the art market has not quite fully adjusted to the invention of the internet. The transparency of prices available online destroyed the business model of many dealers and the way they have adjusted affected the auction business and how we value artworks. It made auction prices more erratic as dealers no longer act as a stabilising presence.

Physical spaces are becoming less important for everyone. The internet is the space you need to dominate rather than Bond Street or the Upper East Side. Galleries and auction houses need to try and replicate online as best they can the magic of viewing art, whilst at the same time replicating Amazon in its ease of use, one-click purchasing and flexible returns policy.

Instagram is a better place to meet new collectors than a party in St Tropez. I keep seeing new Instagram-only dealers popping up and they are replacing antique shops.

Ultimately, we need to find a hybrid model between digital and real-life offerings. Nothing beats seeing art in the flesh but people will only come to see you if you grab their attention online.

13. How would you explain to potential young collectors the benefits of investing in Old Masters?

Buying Old Masters is choosing the very best of the best. Of the thousands of artists working today only a tiny number of them will be remembered in two hundred years’ time, and I bet that most of the artworks created in 2020 will have made it onto the skip before 2200. In the Old Master market, the works available have been through a centuries-long selection process where collectors have actively chosen to preserve particularly important works. You can buy works by the most talented artists that ever lived and be assured that their reputation will still be intact in the future.

Prices of Old Masters are more stable and less risky than contemporary art which is much more prone to fluctuations in taste. For every story of someone buying a Lucian Freud before he became famous, there are ten thousand who bought a promising artist who never became a blue-chip name. It is also not insignificant to note that the Old Masters that come down to us today have proven their physical durability. I mention this because I see lots of contemporary art that is created using unstable materials or made in a hurry without thought to its preservation and these will not be around to pass on to your children or grandchildren.

Ultimately, buying art is like buying a home, you care about whether it will go up or down in value, but it is much more than an investment as it is something that you are emotionally connected to. Art collecting brings you so much more than financial security.

The best part of working in the auction house is that you never know what the day will bring. I certainly do not know what 2021 will have in store but there are bound to be some exciting surprises along the way.

Milo Dickinson at work. Ph: © Christie’s 2021

Published by Belen De Bacco

Co-founder, editor and manager of Art Gate blog. 3rd-year History of Art and English Literature student at the University of Glasgow. Currently volunteering at the Hunterian Art Gallery and creating online content for the initiative #MuseumFromHome.