Q&A with American Art Expert Peter Falk
Peter has been a leader in art reference publishing during the past 40 years. He is best known as the author of the biographical dictionary, Who Was Who in American Art. He is currently the Chief Curator and Editor of Discoveries in American Art, which is the only art publication largely focusing on bringing greater recognition to the lives and works of artists that were marginalized or slipped through the cracks of art history.
How did you get started in the art world?
It’s in the genes. My mother was an artist and went to RISD. At Brown, I was split between art studio and art history. I did my graduate work at RISD. Then I had no money. Zero. I liked poking around the antique shops in Providence and would pick up Old Master prints, becoming self-taught. I kept turning $20 purchases into $500 by selling them to galleries in New York and Boston, realizing I was becoming a “picker” a.k.a a “runner.” But I also knew that it was too tough to continue that route as a sustainable business. Fortunately, one day I found some drawings in a shop that looked an awful lot like those of Winslow Homer. I did research and tracked down the artist’s estate collection. Turned out the artist was a good friend of Homer but he wound up becoming completely forgotten. He was historically significant, having produced a huge series of on-the-spot drawings documenting the Civil War battles, post-war reconstruction, and the nation’s Westward expansion. This huge collection had been stored away in trunks in a log cabin on the edge of the Vermont State Forest. I was stunned. The family was willing to sell, and in full bravado I convinced my mother to take out a home equity loan. Within a few months I had sold half of it to a major museum and the other half to a dealer. I made enough money to pay off all my college tuition, buy a car, and buy a new fishing boat for my mother. Right after I sold it, I sent a letter to Harvard thanking them for accepting me into their graduate program (for yet another degree) but that I had decided to decline. Ever since, I knew that my niche would be that of an art detective and historian. But in the process of unearthing more collections I realized that the art reference books were woefully weak, incomplete, and filled with errors. Even though I knew nothing about publishing, I thought I could do better. I knew that everyone interested in art was looking for a quality purchase but needed reliable information for looking up an artist’s bona fides. So, I launched my own publishing company and produced a series of “finding aids” for anyone wanting to dig deeper in art research — biographical dictionaries, museum exhibition records, even conservation and forensics. The other side of the coin is always “What’s it worth?” That challenge resulted in producing the world’s largest database of art auction price results. That publishing venture was later acquired by Artprice.com. In short, while everyone was looking for gold I was selling picks and shovels.
What are your influences and inspirations?
To start, if it’s not one thing it’s your mother and, of course, my father. Both high school and college were powerful periods of development because I had incredible teachers and professors — even though along the way I had no idea the specific profession I wanted to pursue.
What advice would you tell your younger self?
Reach out and form a network of trusted affinity partners so that you can accomplish more sooner.
Do you have any advice for new dealers/artists?
Pursue your passion. Educate yourself by diving into museums and galleries. There’s so much about connoisseurship you just won’t learn in college. Take deep dives into artists’ lives over the centuries and you’ll be delighted to discover contemporary artists’ connections with other artists, past and present. That will help you become skilled at identifying inherent quality. It’s not an amorphous term. It means you will be able to identify why any artist’s work is either slavishly derivate or authentically innovative compared to their predecessors or their peers. Ultimately, when we gain the ability to identify real quality, we will also have identified lasting value. You’ll immediately recognize is someone is selling hype and fluff.
What advice would you recommend to your clients?
The essence of my business is making markets for lesser known or even totally forgotten artists whose works were as good or better than their now more famous peers. On the supply side, our clients are either the owners of estate collections or artists themselves. No ageism here. It’s about recognizing quality and significance. The process of art collection management requires the full range of conservation, proper storage, documentation, curatorship, and a scholarly foundation in order to go ahead confidently with exhibitions at both museums and galleries. On the sell side, our clients are galleries — partners to whom we consign rediscovery exhibitions because we know they will be the most effective in marketing and sales.
What projects are you currently working on?
In March we’re releasing a 76-page catalogue on 90-year-old Harry Bertschmann, who pushed the boundaries of both figurative and abstract expressionism. That will be followed by a 352-page hardcover book thoroughly exploring his life and art. Also in the works is a book on the extraordinary discovery of Joachim Probst, a Greenwich Village bohemian painter who profoundly influenced Franz Kline. Also in 2021 we’ll be revealing Francis Hines, master of the energy of tension who created wrappings that are unique in American art — from the famous Washington Square Arch in 1980 to his extensive body of paintings.
What are some of your career highlights?
Awarded “Best Art Reference Book in North America” by the Art Libraries Society for my multi-volume, Who Was Who in American Art. Later teaming up with an amazing company, Artprice.com in France, for who I am still U.S. Senior Advisor. But throughout it all the common thread has always been the detective work — identifying and illuminating the lives and works of artists who may have become marginalized or forgotten but who really matter.
What has sustained your interest and enthusiasm over the years and during difficult times?
I have just as much energy as I did when I began in 1975. This is a profession from which one does not retire — because you keep on learning. I have a voracious appetite for making discoveries that matter. In order to feed that appetite, I really just keep jumping in as I go along, intuitively following paths that always feed my passion for art that I feel really deserves our attention.
Artists you would like to recommend to anyone reading?
Wow…loaded question! Of course, I’m going to suggest digging into any of the intriguing back stories found at Discoveries in American Art. Three breaking stories that are important include those I mentioned earlier: Probst, Hines, and Bertschmann. By any measure, don’t miss the backstories about Bartnikowski, Nelson, Stowe, and Blodgett because they are simply a crazy-wild ride with equally compelling art!
To learn more about Peter and his work, please visit DiscoveriesInAmericanArt.com