On Connoisseurship

Richard de Koster, 1994

de Koster was a private dealer specializing in 19th and 20th century European and American paintings. He was formerly director of cultural services for the Nippon Museum in New York.  He has served ss executive director of the Constitution Island Association at West Point since 1999.  He has been a trustee of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network since 2004.

Over the centuries, the individual who judged the relative merit of works by artists has been known as “philokalos,” “aestimator,” “cognoscere“, “conoscitore,” or “connoisseur.” Two thousand years ago, the King of Bithynia offered to redeem the entire national debt of Cnidia in return for the statue, “Venus of Cnidus,” by Praxiteles. The excellence of this connoisseur’s judgment is still obvious.

The basic assumption that some works are objectively superior to all the rest of a culture would be rejected by a majority of people who see little difference between the Exemplar and the example. Putting skepticism aside, however, generation after generation of connoisseurs come to the same conclusions over much of the world’s cultural patrimony. Learning this silent language of the eye allows the individual to penetrate to the creative processes behind the objects themselves.

Within popular culture, the dealer-connoisseur stands as a preeminent mediator between the object and the average individual. The art historian and museum professional speak through journal and exhibition to, generally, one specific audience at a time. The art teacher provides our young with the basic lessons and theories of art. Many people will never personally know an artist. And if they do, few artists choose to explain themselves.

As in any other profession, the generally informed outnumber the truly knowledgeable. Over the last twenty years marketing has come to the arts, as well as every other aspect of our culture. Public relations, expanding markets, the art boutique, sleek presentation and the personable salesperson have eclipsed the understated gallery of the specialist. Meanwhile, serious dealers continue to sift and evaluate, learn and disseminate the lessons of art to all those who share their interests. Scholarship is as much a part of what they offer the collecting public as are the objects they sell.

©1998 R. de Koster