My Life in the Arts / an interview with Danny Katz

My Life in the Arts is part of a series of interviews with leading figures in the art world. I hope to get an insight into what makes these people different, how they rose so high, their loves and passions and their mistakes and memories. The second in this series is with the legendary art dealer and collector Daniel Katz.

When I was younger Danny Katz was an occasional presence at home. My father had left Christie’s to open his own art dealership and had set up in a space next to Danny’s on Jermyn Street. They were constantly in and out of each other’s galleries. My father was new to the game and must have learnt a lot from Danny who had already been buying and selling art for twenty-five years by that point. 

Danny was another art dealer, but he didn’t feel like that. He was different to the typical smoothy-smoothy Etonian figure and a complete contrast to the quiet presence of my father. Danny was loud and forceful, he was always asking you questions – what are you interested in, what do you think of this painting, have you ever been here or there – trying to prise you open, bring out your personality and test your curiosity.  

When he came for dinner with us on holiday in the south of France he insisted that we host our annual Sound of Music evening for him. As the Lonely Goatherd got into full swing, Danny stood up on the table and started yodelling at full voice, all the while attempting a shuffle-hop-step tap dance manoeuvre, swaying his fairly considerable frame between wine bottles.  

His wonderful wife Gry sat back in her chair and wrung a wry smile, clearly having suffered such displays many times before, but the rest of us were completely delighted at this unselfconscious, spontaneous performance by a full grown up.  

Even his rivals admit Danny is a phenomenon – an art dealing genius who has morphed into a semi-legendary figure. Now in his fifty-third year of dealing he is a leading figure in a wide range of fields within the art market. He is also one of the great collectors of our time, as anyone who has visited his extraordinary house in Holland Park will attest. 

Danny Katz in the 1970s

Yet until he turned eighteen, Danny told me that he ‘didn’t even know what a work of art was.’

‘I knew nothing and hadn’t given art a thought.’

‘But in 1968 my parent’s petrol business went bust and they opened a small antiques shop on the lanes in Brighton using their last £2,000. I helped out as I was not doing much.’

‘Then one day my dad told me to go and buy bronzes. He said if I bought a bronze I could put a pole up the back of it, chuck a lampshade on and sell it as a lamp. So I bought a bronze and was just about to put the pole in when a London dealer walked into the shop and asked ‘how much for that?’, I said `30 quid’ and he said `ok, I’ll take it’. 

‘I had only paid a fiver and so I thought ‘wow, 25 quid profit, that’s five times more than I paid, that’s pretty good, I’ll do some more of this’ – I only realised later it was a bloody Susini bagpipe player!’.  

Danny realised he might be onto something and sought out help. ‘There was the most wonderful man in Brighton, a Hungarian émigré antiques dealer called Michael Travers. He opened up my eyes to a new world – he taught me to be a gentleman dealer. He introduced me to Renaissance bronzes, Persian carpets, books, Old Master drawings, the music of Bach.’  

He introduced Danny to Anthony Radcliffe, one of the leading scholars of Italian sculpture. A few years ago Danny recalled how he spent every morning in the V&A studying Renaissance bronzes: ‘I was such a pain in the arse, they let me handle them all. And then every night I’d be down at the disco.’

‘So, it was a strange world—disco dancing and Renaissance bronzes’. 

Daniel Katz in his gallery
Daniel Katz (left) and Philippe Garner (right) on Brighton Beach, 1974

Danny had a bit of luck on the way. ‘Right at the beginning I bought a large ships clock and when I was selling it on, I put my hand inside to check the clock’s movement and found a group of Japanese ivory netsuke sitting there. That was a stroke of luck! I sold them for £19,000. I was 19 and suddenly I could buy a house.’

I wonder if Danny feels so different from most dealers because he wasn’t born into an art dealing dynasty or became the protégée of another dealer. His approach is instinctive and individual. He is disarmingly open with his information in a guarded community. He fluctuates between extraordinary generosity (he is major supporter of several charities but also a great help to younger members of the art world) and a terrifying ability to squeeze every penny out of a deal.  

He is a showman. Every visit to Danny’s gallery is exciting not only for the art you will see but for the conversations and the laughter.  For those who don’t know Danny the video below (he appears one minute in) gives a fair first impression of how he comes alive in front of art.

Danny has Tourette’s and this makes it hard for him to concentrate on too many things at once. But out of this he has formed an amazing ability to focus all his energies on a work of art, to examine it in its entirety, and to laser in on its overriding purpose and beauty. 


A tour of the exhibition Bronze at the Royal Academy, London by Andrew Graham-Dixon with Daniel Katz © NewsInWorldNow
(skip forward a minute to see Danny in action)

Fast forward fifty-two years from the family antiques shop in Brighton and Danny is one of the most successful art dealers in the world. Whenever I speak to him, he seems to have a new toy to play with – a sketch by Picasso, a marble head by Canova or a visionary landscape by David Bomberg. Every week seems to produce a new a multi-million pound purchase or sale.  

How did he get to this level – was there a sale that made him? 

‘The Giambologna. I was 33 when I sold it and it changed my life. I found it in Sweden, where she had been since the seventeenth century, dusty and grimy and crying out for a new home.’ 

This marble figure of a woman bathing (see photos below) was originally discussed by Vasari in 1568; its reappearance was a revelation and it is one of Giambologna’s most elegant designs, the elaborate pose encouraging the viewer to examine the statue from all sides.  

Danny sold it to the Getty Museum in California and from then onwards has had the financial firepower to compete for the greatest works of art.  

Giambologna’s Female Figure (possibly Venus, formerly titled Bathsheba), 1571-3 © Getty Museum

Danny lives and breathes the art market. He knows everyone, all the curators and collectors and pummels them all for information. He has a remarkable visual memory, which he likes to show off on his regular visits to Christie’s; ‘I remember this, wasn’t it sold by the Duke of Leeds in 1973?’ or ‘this made £15,000 in your summer sale in 1985’. It is infuriating how often he’s spot on. 

Danny has handled some truly outstanding sculptures in his time from Antico to Riemenschneider, from Algardi to Rodin.  

But I wouldn’t say he is obsessed by blue chip art historical names. He is often careful to declare his attributions as opinions not fact. This is clever in the world of Old Master Sculpture in which it is notoriously difficult to nail down an attribution, but it is also testament to his ability as a salesman and his confidence in his eye for quality that he has turned this into a strength rather than weakness. He likes art to stand on its own merit.  

‘I think of every reason a work of art can’t be what it is. Most dealers do the opposite and persuade themselves it is by so-and-so. With my method, if it still stands up there’s a good chance I’m right.’   

(left) Giovanni Caccini, Christ as Saviour, c.1598, sold to the Rijksmuseum (right) Francois Duquesnoy (attributed to), Christ Bound, 1620s, sold to the National Gallery of Art, Washington
(left) The Master of the Rimini Altarpiece, Saint Philip, c. 1430, sold to the Getty Museum (right) detail of Veit Stoss, Christ crucified, c. 1495, sold to the Getty Museum

Like any dealer he has a few selling tricks up his sleeve. How many times have I heard him tell a client that something is not for sale, or that Gry or his son Robin would never forgive him for selling it…only for him to sell it. But Danny gets away with it because it feels natural not forced, a part of his large personality. He wears his passion like a zebra wears his strips, for everyone to see. 

He’s developed a wonderful eye and has made countless discoveries over the years. 

The biggest compliment I could give Danny is that he is willing to be wrong. The fear of being wrong pervades the art world and people guard their reputations closely. It often leads people to corner a part of a market and set a fortress around it. 

Danny has always pushed himself into new fields and new specialisms. It was not enough to cover European Sculpture, he eventually started dealing in Antiquities, Old Master Paintings, Impressionist paintings and Modern British Art. Danny has been ahead of the market on this, catering for a new type of collector who doesn’t specialise but buys across the board, looking for a certain aesthetic.  

It is difficult to get across how impressive this is. I have recently moved from the Old Master Sculpture to the Old Master Paintings department so I have some insight in the difficulties of moving into a new field of expertise. That Danny has managed to learn the necessary expertise in all these different fields shows his extreme determination, his vast knowledge and profound understanding of art forms that all stems from his unbridled curiosity.  

(left) Egyptian, Reign off Nectanebo I (380-362 BC), statue of the falcon-god Sopdu (right) Auguste Rodin, Christ and Mary Magdalene, 1908, sold to the Getty Museum
(left) Frank Auerbach, Self-Portrait, 1958 © Frank Auerbach (right) Pablo Picasso, Bibi La Purée, 1901, on loan from Danny to the National Gallery, London

‘I taught myself to always ask questions and to never accept no.’ 

This attitude has got Danny some unexpected results. ‘When I was about twenty-two I visited the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, a great museum founded by Carl Jacobsen. At that point I was just getting interested in the British New Sculpture movement and knew that Jacobsen had commissioned a major sculpture from Lord Leighton in the 1880s. I asked to see it but the museum curators said that they had no such sculpture.’ 

‘I eventually persuaded them to allow me into the museum basement with my torch and, amid the gloom, under a staircase and covered with tarpaulin, there it was! It was in its original case, having never been opened. Somehow I got the director to sell it to me and I sold it on to the collector John Lewis. Today it is in Australia in the Gallery of New South Wales (see below).’ 

(left and right) Lord Frederic Leighton, An athlete wrestling with a python, 1888, discovered by Danny in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen ©  Art Gallery NSW, Australia

It’s a crazy story that I had to double-check but it’s true and it is typical of Danny.  

One of his philosophies that he likes to pass on is that you should treat everyone you meet as a fountain of knowledge in some area of life. If you ask the right questions you can learn something from them.  

‘I find most art history books quite boring. If like me you struggle with academic books, find the person who wrote it and take them out to lunch. You’re much more likely to learn something.’  

Most people in the art world stop asking questions at a certain point in their career as they feel like they should be seen to know it all. Danny has never stopped asking questions. I wonder if this is the secret to his success. 


11 thoughts on “My Life in the Arts / an interview with Danny Katz

  1. Thanks Milo, really interesting!

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  2. Dear Milo, You missed your chance to interview Richard Feigen … I am still alive and available. Only joking of course, re me, I love the image of Danny in Bell Bottoms. Seriously good stuff. Stay safe. Larry

    ________________________________

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    1. Thanks Larry. I know it would have been wonderful to speak to Richard Feigen. My only interaction with him was going to one of his grand drinks parties where a very smart women had so much hair spray on that her hair caught on fire from a candle and had to been extinguished by a waiter

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  3. This is an fascinating, exhilarating and informative read. THANK YOU. How very lucky you are to know such people: not said with any vestige of envy or jealousy in that sense but what a privilege. My only real London contact in the art world was Patrick Bourne, my one-time opposite neighbour to what was then Bourne Fine Art in Edinburgh before he went to FAS. AP

    Mrs Ann Packard FRSA HonFRIAS

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  4. Top article, Milo! It shows respect and curiosity… and with the added crazy stories makes it a joy to read.
    I hope to be in the scope of such a guy one day!
    Best wishes & stay safe,
    Michael

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