Walter Padovani, the fine art dealer who started by straightening rusty nails

Stefano Pirovano  -  February 9, 2017

After school Walter Padovani used to join his father’s workshop, and help him with his job. At that time Padovani senior was a distinguished restorer of antique furniture in Valeggio sul Mincio, near Verona. ‘It was a real learning experience’ remembers his son years after that fundamental training. ‘My father used to give me simple tasks, such as that of dividing over the nails by epoch and then straighten them, so that they could be re-used. I was sitting at my desk for hours, with a small hammer in my hand, learning much more than I was realising at that time’. Even today, thirty years after he left his father’s home to become an influent fine art dealer, he thinks very highly of the art restorers. ‘They generally don’t have the kind of wide knowledge which is typical of the art historians, but they have a sensitivity for materials that any historian can count on’.

When Padovani turned 18 he joined a fine art dealer based in Parma. His name was Guglielmo Arduini, he was specialized in furniture from the XVIII century and even if he didn’t have a proper gallery he had very important clients. ‘They used to visit him at his beautiful villa during the weekends, while during the week Mr. Arduini and I were travelling all over Italy looking for pieces to buy’. Padovani has been assisting Arduini for almost seven years. Every Monday morning he would drive from Verona to Parma to spend with his employer the rest of the week. ‘It was the 80s – says Mr Padovani –, and the market for antique furniture was high. You would pay millions of lire (the pre-euro Italian currency) for a nice piece, and the finest trumeau were a dream for many art collectors, who would often regard them as quite profitable and relatively safe investments’.

Unfortunately that golden age didn’t last. By the end of the 90s the market for antique furniture went calm and it still has to recover. ‘Fortunately I’ve realized on time I was no longer that involved in furniture, while I was getting more and more interested in dealing with artists’. Instinctively Mr. Padovani quitted his job at Arduini’s gallery and started travelling around Europe to find good pieces for feeding his own gallery, which at first he located in Valeggio sul Mincio, next to his father’s workshop. But it didn’t take too long to make the second big jump of his career. ‘I was 33 at that time, and I felt ready to finally cut the umbilical cord between me and my family. Florence and Milan were the options. I chose this latter’. In 2000 he hastily rented a prestigious commercial space located in via Santo Spirito, just a few steps from the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi. ‘The gallery was extraordinary expensive for my pockets, and I had neither a backer supporting me, nor a wealthy family. At first I had great difficulty making ends meet’.

But he made it, even for most of his top clients it took five years to set foot in the gallery. ‘I am not talented at selling – he says –, and I am not the brilliant storyteller that I should be. But I am good at researching and it always happens that the pieces themselves help me to find their proper collector’. Similar to Bruce Chatwin’s Utz main character, Padovani has developed a unique sensitivity for rare medium such as ceroplastic, corals, precious stones, that is to say objects of art meant to be generally acquired by the most expert collectors and respected art institutions. ‘These are not the flamboyant kind of pieces a pop star would buy, and sadly they are not as expensive as a Richter could be. But collectors who buy them know the pieces better than you do and it may be extremely rewarding to deal with them’. They are the most passionate people, generally extremely self confident and not influenced by trends. ‘They are the sort of clients that can make you grow’. Such as Luigi Quaranta, who is based in Turin, and is an eclectic collector who is able to spot quality in every type of object, from jewels, to furniture and modern art.

During his already long career – Padovani was born 1967 – he sold pieces of art to many important art collectors and institutions, including Palazzo Pitti in Florence, the Huntington in Los Angeles, Museo del Risorgimento in Milan and Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich. While being aware of the current fine arts’ market’ state, he also notices how digital information is helping the system. ‘Today both collectors and art dealers have extraordinary powerful tools in their hands, and the market is getting more and more transparent. That makes me quite positive about the future. Moreover, I would say that today the top end of the market is doing even better than during the 80s. It’s very difficult to get there and even the best works of art are still not as liquid as shares. But it seems that now for high quality there is more money available than ever’. It follows that it is not enough to be able to get the best pieces in an extremely competitive primary market. You also have to be in the best position to sell them. And, of course, too much of bureaucracy doesn’t help.