Laura De Jonckheere, an interview
We sat down with Laura De Jonckheere, second-generation old masters gallerist, to bring antiques to the next generation
The season of old master fairs is here, starting with the new edition of Brafa in Brussels this January and later continuing with TEFAF in Maastricht and the BIAF in Florence. We reached out to Laura De Jonckheere from the namesake gallery in Geneva (in fact a Brussels-born family business), who will be one of the season’s protagonists. We discuss the current state of the old master market, the history of the gallery, her personal approach to collecting and dealing, as well as the importance of communicating about a historical niche in a contemporary way.
Please tell us about the history of the gallery.
It’s very much of a family business, which opened more than 40 years ago. My father Georges started his first gallery in Brussels in 1976 on Boulevard de Waterloo, specializing in old masters Flemish painting from the 15th to the 17th century. This is our specialization still today. His brother François joined later in a moment that coincided with my father opening his Paris gallery on Quai Voltaire, the first step in the expansion and internationalization of the business. This was the golden age of the Paris dealers. I personally joined the gallery 10 years ago. We’re currently based in Geneva, going to a lot more art fairs than before, always putting stress on curated booths. We are very niche, dealing with the work of only a few artists and occasionally showing selected Modern art too.
What’s your personal background?
I have a BA in business management and finished the very practical MA at Sotheby’s in London. It was really exciting to finally be surrounded by art after three years of economics. The experience at the auction house, which I joined after my studies, was great. I met lots of people and learned a lot, from self-management to all the skills that a good specialist needs to have. It was really a laboratory in between the experience of art and all the features of its market. I’d encourage anyone who wants to work in the art market to get some experience at an auction house.
How did your father get into art and the specific sector in which you’re working now?
My father has such an eye for old master paintings, which he developed when he was very young. His parents were not really big collectors but they still surrounded themselves with art. Growing up in Brussels, he had access to the great collections of Flemish old masters, for example the Royal Museums of Art. At the same time, he also developed a strong interest in commerce, in the trade of those paintings. He always liked to be independent and he wanted to start his own business quite early, following his passion for art while achieving financial autonomy.
What is the sale that has made you the happiest since you joined the gallery?
One I really love to remember is from 2020 when we were able to rejoin two paintings that were apart for 125 years. After studies and attribution, we were able to discover that a portrait of Jakob Omphalius by Bartholomeus Bruyn from the 16th century was conceived together with one that the artist painted of Omphalius’s wife. The latter was already in the collection of Mauritshuis in The Hague. We reached out to them and they finally acquired the man’s portrait from us at TEFAF. The old couple is now hanging together again in the museum. Stories like this can only happen in the old masters world.
What’s your private collection like?
It’s hard to have a collection when you are a dealer and it’s risky to get attached to the paintings you want to market. A perk of this job is surely to be surrounded by beautiful paintings I will never be able to afford. Having said that, when I had to decorate our house, I naturally started with design and acquired some furniture pieces from my sister who runs a design gallery–for example, a totem by Ettore Sottsass. My husband and I finally bought some art too, like a beautiful sketch on paper by Magritte but also an old master painting of Christ suffering with a bloody crown of thorns, a very graphic image that I love and goes well in my interior. We also have a portrait of my husband by JR, life size. I like to buy with my heart, to mix; it’s a collection in progress.
Are you interested in contemporary art too? And what is the main difference between the contemporary art world and that of old masters in your opinion?
I am interested in contemporary art and try to keep up to date, visiting exhibitions as much as possible. Contemporary art is made in and for our times, so it can be looked at from a sociological perspective. At the same time, I especially enjoy how many ultra contemporary artists are going back to traditional techniques, some of them also inspired by old masters. As for the contemporary art market, I sometimes find it difficult to follow and justify the high prices of some works, especially compared to an excellent old master painting. I don’t think our gallery will ever be involved in contemporary art: old masters require a lot of specialization and we won’t be able to keep the fast pace of contemporary art at the same time–to properly deal with either of these two sectors is a full time job.
What can you tell us about the old master market today?
I believe the old master market has been seen as a refuge lately. Turnovers are smaller than on the contemporary one but it is a much steadier and more stable market. For those who look at art to secure their capital, I believe old masters are a safer investment than contemporary. At the same time, demand has become much more selective since I started ten years ago. Collectors today only want the best quality. The in between works like those with no clear attribution used to be more liquid and are now quite difficult to place. Solid provenance is also more important today than it’s ever been. If your painting ticks all these boxes, demand is even greater than before. I also see a few clients, especially young ones, coming from contemporary art, being disappointed when the bubble burst or simply because they also want to diversify their collection. New young clients sometimes approach the old master market the same way they do the contemporary one: on the one hand, we had to adapt as a gallery and on the other hand we had to educate them about this new territory they are discovering.
Who is better off today: auction houses, fairs or galleries?
The power balance between these three actors has changed so much. Auction houses were just “business to business” and galleries would sell to final clients. What galleries couldn’t sell they would sell back to auction houses. A circle of trust existed. It is very transparent now and auction houses currently give legitimacy to gallery’s inventories. At the same time, the new situation has made our life more difficult as unseen works are harder to find. Unless it is a really special work, you can’t just buy from an auction house today and display the same on your gallery wall tomorrow. Because of their increased size, auction houses have also put out of business many smaller galleries: competition with them is just too fierce. As for fairs, this is where most of the deals happen for us. You still need a gallery space to make exhibitions, display works and importantly meet clients, but fairs are now commercially necessary, especially to reach new clients. The future of galleries is with art fairs.
With younger people entering the world of old masters has your approach to social media and online presence changed?
When I first joined the gallery the motto was to be discreet: clients had to come to you, not the other way around. Times have changed. Today, if you don’t reach out, people won’t. We also have a responsibility to promote the field of old masters, just like museums are doing.
Can you share what you’re showing at Brafa this year and what will we expect in your TEFAF booth in March?
Our approach to Brafa has been to mix Modern with old masters. For example we’ll have a fantastic Paul Delvaux painting called “L’Orage” and a few Magritte works, also from his early career when he was working in advertising. This year is the 100-year anniversary of Surrealism after all, and the Paul Delvaux Foundation is our guest of honour at Brafa. We’ll have a Cy Twombly-inspired Lucio Fontana too, a piece from when the two artists met in 1959. At the same time we’ll present seven tondos by Breughel, a lively wall with tropes like the seasons and mottos. Regarding TEFAF, this is where our biggest efforts go. We not only focus on Flemish old masters in the booth but we also reserve our most exclusive pieces for the fair. This year, we’ll bring a major Brueghel, “The Carrying of the Cross”, a piece previously unseen, signed, with solid provenance, among other masterpieces we’ll keep discreet for now.
What’s happening now and in the future in the Geneva gallery?
We currently have an exhibition about fashion from back in the day. As much as it’s hard to speak about fashion the same way we do today, we still put together a selection of old master paintings where the details and symbology of fabrics and clothes are important as in contemporary fashion. After the busy moment of the fairs, we’ll open again in May with a joint effort with our Parisian colleague Xavier Eeckhout, who specializes in animal sculptures. The idea is to pair an animal sculpture with a painting with a shared topic or theme. It’s going to be really fun to curate.
February 22, 2024