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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Jeffrey Hoffeld

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-16

Jeffrey Hoffeld enhanced Picasso's market value.

"I advise the estates of famous artists and collectors," said one of America's most prominent curators and scholars of art, and the newly appointed associate dean of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.

"I develop strategies of how to explore the value of their art over time, how to market it, how to take advantage of the market as conditions improve," Mr. Hoffeld said.

So it was that in 1987, he held an exhibition of Picasso's drawings. The art was from his so-called late period, 1960-72 (Picasso died in 1973); many of the drawings hadn't been heralded or displayed in public.

"Audiences went wild," Mr. Hoffeld said. "Those drawings established new price levels. For me, that was an awakening experience."
Mr. Hoffeld has also advised the estates of Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Theodore Roszak, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, Saul Steinberg, and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others.

Now Mr. Hoffeld -- who grew up in the housing projects of Brooklyn's Flatlands neighborhood -- is handling the estate of Louise Nevelson, whose monumental sculptures adorn some 20 public sites across America, and who produced scores of other smaller sculptures as well as lyrical figure drawings.

To be able to influence the handling of a well-known artist's works and estate is among the highest privileges in the art world. In America and other Western countries, the art market has become increasingly lucrative. Between August 2003 and August 2004, for example, 166,000 auction sales for paintings, prints, works on paper, sculptures, miniatures, and photographs by more than 40,000 artists of all nationalities and all time periods, sold at international art auctions for in excess of $500 million, according to the authoritative Hislop's Art Sales Index. Mr. Hoffeld estimates that the figure for 2005 was around $1 billion.

It is, of course, a long way from the projects of Brooklyn to the art galleries in Manhattan. It is even longer for a boy who lost his brother, Steve, while they were still in their teens; whose parents, Arthur, who worked in women's retail shops, and mother, Bernice, a nurse, had not attended college; and whose grandparents were immigrants from Poland and Russia.

One would think such a background would not have pointed Mr. Hoffeld toward a career in art.

"Actually, my artistic sensibility was a response to my environment," he said. "In visual terms, of course, projects are suffocating and ugly -- a drab, deadening existence. But they are emotionally enriching, sociologically enriching, because of the sheer diversity of the people who live there. That environment nourished me.

"From that environment I developed the notion of the 'beautiful,'" Mr. Hoffeld said.

He explored that notion through his reading. He was drawn to unusual edifices and would study their architecture and provenance. For example, he became interested in ornamental decorations after he saw an old synagogue that made him gasp.

To explore the notion of the "beautiful," Mr. Hoffeld went to Brooklyn College, where he majored in philosophy and art history.

"My real life-changing experience occurred when I heard Meyer Schapiro," Mr. Hoffeld said.

Schapiro, a proponent of modern art and an authority on van Gogh and Cezanne, taught at Columbia University, where Mr. Hoffeld went to graduate school. Schapiro is quoted as saying, "The way art historians of a particular age talk about style is also indicative of the culture."

"He had a unique ability to get inside a work of art," Mr. Hoffeld - whose wife Carol is a book editor; they have three children - said.
It was during a visit to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park that Mr. Hoffeld experienced an epiphany. In that branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he found himself fascinated by portions of original medieval chapels, frescoes, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and other items dating back to the 12th century.

That was when he decided to concentrate on medieval art. His decision led to an assistant curator position at the Met. It also led to a teaching position at Brooklyn College.

It was only a matter of time before Mr. Hoffeld was drawn to dealing in art. He joined the Pace Gallery -- now the PaceWildenstein Gallery -- and soon established a reputation in art evaluations. Mr. Hoffeld, who represented Nevelson's estate, arranged for her holdings, including many major works, to be sold to PaceWildenstein last year.

And increasingly, executors of the estates of artists and collectors sought his guidance.

"Their questions went beyond liquidation of art holdings," Mr. Hoffeld said.

The questions concerned what should be sold, why, and the timing of sales. Living artists also consulted him about how to soften the pressure on their heirs to sell art to pay taxes on their estates.

"The people who retain me want to know everything," Mr. Hoffeld said. "Sometimes it's awkward for the heirs to raise certain questions. At other times, you're dealing with people who're devastated by the loss of their loved one, people who cannot bring themselves to ask questions about what might be done with the art."

In answering them, he explores the interest that museums might have in the works.

But single-item sales to museums isn't what Mr. Hoffeld necessarily recommends. Because he has been in the field for more than three decades, Mr. Hoffeld also pursues exhibitions in galleries in places such as Berlin, Munich, Zurich, and San Francisco.

Such displays include art fairs, such as the celebrated one in Basel, Switzerland.

"Such displays and exhibitions have a bigger impact in developing the art market and elevating price levels than single-item sales," Mr. Hoffeld said. "They help create new audiences, and also build more recognition of certain works of art."

The art fairs, however, often stick to what Mr. Hoffeld calls a "specific shopping list of artists."

"I'm troubled by the homogenization that seems to be lurking out there," he said. "That sometimes translates into a lack of diversity of artists whose works are exhibited."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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