A Conversation With Calvine Harvey, Vice President, Old Master Paintings Specialist - Sotheby's

Calvine mentions two extraordinary Single Owner sales that Sotheby’s has brought and will bring to auction: “True Connoisseurship: The Collection of Ezra and Cecile Zilkha”, which was offered in November 2020 and “Fearless: The Collection of Hester Diamond” which will be auctioned in January 2021. As an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University, I frequently passed through the galleries that bore the names of Ezra and Cecile Zilhka and feel grateful for the contribution made to my alma mater in their name.

I am also very proud that I knew Hester Diamond and to say that she was a giant is no exaggeration. She believed in the power of study and was generous with the beauty of the objects in her collection. Whenever I visited her on trips to New York, she was generous with her time and her collection, allowing me to view sometimes for hours.  I still think of her and I know that I am not the only person who misses her greatly.

Industry expertise

Calvine Harvey, Sothebys NYC

Anyone who meets Calvine Harvey will immediately notice that she has a staggering attention to detail; those who know her well would say that this passion is born out of an enthusiasm for telling a picture’s story. I have known her for over ten years and watched her study the smallest features of an image, or chased the most insignificant facts about a painting’s history, because she believes that every factor will expand a painting’s horizon into the world of the viewer. She works very hard to translate the fascination of a scene or an artist into a language that any spectator can absorb. Whenever I am viewing a sale at Sotheby’s, whether in New York or London, I ask Calvine – who is justifiably busy – to explain at least one painting to me. She always makes it a magical experience.

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Calvine Harvey Sothebys NYC

As a young woman in her thirties, you are not the typical Old Master Paintings specialist. Where did your interest in Old Masters begin and when did you begin to work at the Old Master Paintings department at Sotheby’s New York?

I have been working in Old Masters at Sotheby’s for just over ten years now – hard to believe how quickly time flies! The first time I really knew I was interested in Old Masters was when I was in college in Virginia. I was studying printmaking, and one of the reasons I loved it was that the techniques we were using – etching, lithography, woodcut – were still all done the same way they were centuries ago. Our presses were from the 19th century! Anyway, we went to the print study museum one day and were able to get up close to prints by some of the great Old Masters – Rembrandt, Durer, Goya – it really woke me up to how incredibly talented these artists were. I quickly realized that I enjoyed studying Old Master prints more than I enjoyed making my own prints, so when I graduated I went to work for an Old Master prints and drawings dealer in New York. Then I was hooked, and shifted to paintings when I got the job at Sotheby’s a few years later.

Asking The Right Questions

What is the first question you always ask when viewing a work that a client is considering putting up for auction through Sotheby’s?

The first thing I do is really look closely at the painting. I pick it up, look at the back, run my fingers across the surface, check the edges and really try to get a feel for it as an object. This was a lesson I learned early on from George Wachter, who has worked in Old Masters at Sotheby’s for over 40 years. You have to look at the painting as a whole in order to understand it – age, condition, quality, provenance, attribution – the first step in discovering all of these important points with a work of art this old is to look carefully. We are also taught to look at everything through rose-colored glasses, as great discoveries can be deceptive at first and we need to be diligent. Is the condition really this terrible, or is it just that it is very dirty and the paint layer is beautifully preserved underneath? Is the quality bad, or is it just that there was an old restoration which throws you off? This was sold as “Follower of Goya” back in the 80s, but is there a chance this is better than that, and could be by the artist himself? This is how we need to think when helping collectors sell their paintings. One of the great benefits of working at an auction house is the volume of paintings we get to see and handle. Every year I look at thousands of paintings ranging from multi-million dollar, museum-quality masterpieces to minor copies in terrible condition. Most are anonymous paintings, and these are truly the best way to train your eye – looking, looking, looking so that you can recognize quality.

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a young man holding a roundel for Sothebys Auction Rachel Ruysch, Still life with flowers in a vase on a ledge with a dragonfly, caterpillar, and butterfly

Designed by Woulfe is always trying to introduce their clients to new periods of art and expose them to pieces that they would not normally consider. What is your advice to clients who are unfamiliar with Old Masters, but are considering a purchase?

I would advise them to spend time looking. Go to museums, browse art history books, check out your local galleries and (of course) visit the auction house previews. Many people don’t know that auction previews are free and open to the public, and it’s a great way to get up close to works of art at all levels, and start to get a sense of the market. These days it is a bit harder, but at Sotheby’s we know how important it is to see works of art in person so we’re still having free exhibitions, in most locations it’s just by appointment.

I would also advise any new client to seek out expert advice – whether from an interior designer like Brian, an auction house specialist like myself, or a restorer, there are lots of people who are more than happy to share their wealth of knowledge and have conversations with you. These conversations are how everyone learns more about the market, and I have to say it is one of my favorite parts of my job. I love talking about Old Masters!

What guidance would you give to a new client who is considering buying at auction for the first time?

Auctions can be intimidating, we all know that. But it is a great place to start a collection – as I’ve mentioned you can browse the previews or online catalogues for free, and there are a whole host of specialists ready to talk to you about the pictures. They are also a great place to find value, especially in some of our online sales where with a little extra browsing you can find wonderful pictures without huge price tags.

One thing I think is important to consider in a field like Old Masters is attribution. Most of the artist names you’ll see in our auctions are not household names, and frankly before I started in this business I wouldn’t have recognized many of them. There are also a lot of paintings that aren’t attributed fully to a known artist – whether they are from the “Circle of Titian” or simply “Venetian School” – auction houses have a range of classifications to let you know how close to the master the painting really is. It’s important to figure out what the attribution means exactly, or if it’s by a smaller artist, do a little research and figure out who he or she was. That sort of discovery can be exciting – and I do believe that in today’s market, buying A+ pictures from B or C artists is where you’ll find the best bang for your buck.

Another great place to start collecting is drawings and prints. Works on paper are less expensive, so if you are after the bigger names, this is where you can find them for more reasonable prices. Drawings have a wonderful immediacy to them that provides a great connection to the artist, and printmaking is an area where many artists experimented in ways they couldn’t afford to do in paint. Before I started at Sotheby’s I worked at an Old Master Prints and Drawings gallery in New York, and it was the best training I could have asked for.

Single Owner Sales

Auctions of Interiors has developed over the last decade to become more focused on specific, Single Owner Sales. In fact, Sotheby’s New York is auctioning two extremely important collections with “True Connoisseurship: The Collection of Ezra and Cecile Zilkha” and “Fearless: The Collection of Hester Diamond”. What can you tell us about this evolution in how Interiors are sold?

Sotheby’s has always been dedicated to the “Single Owner Sale” as a way of telling the story of a collection and really bringing objects to life by emphasizing their provenance. The exhibitions and catalogue are often lavish, featuring splashy photos of the interiors of these magnificent homes so that one can see the objects in a real-life setting. Often pieces end up selling for more than they would in a various-owners sale, as there is a magic to this presentation that really engages collectors.

The Zilkha collection, which Sotheby’s had the honour of offering in late November of this year, was one of the great collections of French 18th and 19th century furniture, objects, and fine art in New York. The Zilkhas had extremely refined taste and some magnificent objects, including an iconic André-Charles Boulle writing desk and a large-scale pastel portrait by Jean-Marc Nattier, which were very well received. But there were also hundreds of other items – porcelain, chairs, drawings, rugs, etc. – that also did really well and attracted buyers from many different categories.

Interior of the Zilkha apartment for Sothebys Auction NYC

Other than adding more high-tech features to our sales like virtual reality tours, more in-depth videos, etc., I actually think Sotheby’s approach to the single owner sale has remained quite true to the mission over the years: telling the story of the owner in order to create a distinct aura around the objects and inspire collectors across categories to get involved. What has changed over the years, however, is how people collect. More and more clients, particularly in younger generations, are mixing and matching across genres, styles, and categories to create very unique visions. No longer do clients come in with checklists of all the Dutch artists they want to buy, nor do they match their 18th century paintings with 18th century furniture; they want to bring a unique eye to the collecting process. And I find that extremely exciting.

On that note, Hester Diamond, whose collection we will be offering in January was absolutely at the forefront of that type of collecting. She was fearless in the contrasts she made in her apartment, mixing Renaissance sculpture with colourful 20th century design; early Flemish paintings hung next to contemporary video installations. It was truly visionary—and as such her collection is completely unique and completely her. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the sale does, as I think it will encourage collectors to stretch their imaginations in surprising ways.

Interior of Hester Diamond's apartment for Sothebys Sale
Building An Art Collection

Does this approach to Single Owner Sales help generate more buyers who are trying to build their own collections?

Presenting art and objects of different categories together absolutely helps to inspire and engage collectors, and I hope it also encourages them to step out of their normal collecting habits. It usually isn’t about emulating the “look” of the sale itself, it’s about discovery. Going to an exhibition of Old Masters, well, you’ll just see Old Masters. But stepping into the Diamond exhibition, you’re going to see great Old Masters, but there might be a contemporary sculpture, a mineral, or a rug that catches your eye.

A magnificent triptych by Pieter Cocke van Aelst, one of the highlights from Hester Diamond's collection

As a luxury interior design studio, Designed By Woulfe is constantly having to make sure that artwork fits within their interiors and vice versa. How do you recommend that your clients approach this essential marriage of artwork within a home?

I love seeing how clients live with the art that they buy at Sotheby’s. And honestly, I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. If a client comes in wanting a painting of Venice that fits above a certain table, then I’m happy to help them find it and make sure that they are finding something of quality that fits the dimensions they are looking for.  But many clients don’t have specific spots in mind when they come to look at paintings – you’d be amazed at how many times we hear “I love it but I have no wall space!” then lo and behold, they call the next day wanting to place a bid because they managed to find a spot. Or they realized they just can’t live without it.

We are definitely seeing more people buying based on the image – people are seeking strong images that they react to, moods that set a certain tone, details that they find charming, paintings that have a sense of modernity even if they are hundreds of years old. It’s always a balance – there’s provenance and attribution, but there’s also quality and look – buying art is emotional!  And you do have to think about all these things.

Also: don’t be afraid to change the frame, it makes a big difference. At Sotheby’s the frame almost always comes with the painting, but often buyers end up getting their own. The big antique gold frames look great on some pictures, but many pictures from the 17th century can suddenly feel very fresh when put into a simple black frame (which is actually the traditional way to frame Dutch pictures).

Sotheby's Master Week Sale

Sotheby’s New York has its Master Week Sale coming up in January 2021. What artwork are you most excited about (aside from Sandro Botticelli, ‘Young Man Holding a Roundel’, which is truly extraordinary)?

The Botticelli is extraordinary – what an honour! But there is another work I have my eye on – it is an absolutely exquisite floral still life by Rachel Ruysch, a very successful and remarkable woman artist from 17th century Holland. Not only is it rare to find paintings by female artists, but this example is perhaps the best Ruysch I’ve seen come to the market in my career. It is unlined, which means that it does not have another contemporary support canvas, and in stunning condition, plus has important provenance having been in the Czernin collection in the 19th century. It truly does not disappoint. I have been so encouraged to see the market for female artists growing in recent years, and am really looking forward to seeing the response to this gorgeous painting.

Contrasts seen in the collection of Hester Diamond: a sculpture by 16th century German artist Jorg Lederer next to a contemporary piece by Dustin Yellin. An oil sketch by Federico Barocci from the Diamond collection.

Who is your ideal client?

There is one couple I work with who told me early on that everything they buy they want to truly love, because they plan on living with the object for another forty years. That sort of dedication to collecting art to live with – art that inspires you every day – is ideal to me. My role is to talk to them about value, condition, provenance, attribution, etc., but ultimately they get to decide what it is they want to spend time with at home.

I also love it when clients surprise me with their choices – it is always fascinating to see what catches their eye in our sales, and when they pick something out of the box for their collection I can tell they are really looking and learning.

Guest Interviewer

Tova Ossad

Designed By Woulfe has invited Tova Ossad of Ossad Art Management to interview a range of art world personalities. Her fifteen years’ experience working in that sphere has exposed her to many artists, auction specialists, art advisors, conservators, and gallerists, thereby giving the Design Journal fresh insight in the fundamentals of art. This series will explore buying, selling, appreciating, and everything in between.

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Tova Ossad of Ossad Art Management

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