Degas Grande Arabesque, Troisieme Temps

Martin Summers: Reverting to Plan B

He attended art school with Kitaj and is ‘old chums’ with Hockney. Now, after 50 years, art dealer Martin Summers says he’s slowing down, but has become an artist himself. Lynn Parr meets art dealer Martin Summers

When a young Martin Summers failed to become an Army officer he fell, almost by default, into the art world. It turned out to be a fortuitous change. Fifty years on, he has worked with some of the biggest names in art, and handled some of the most famous and valuable artworks in the world.

“The week before my Army medical in 1957, I was rock climbing and I fell and broke my ankle. And when I went for the medical they said ‘Oops, we don’t take people like you. We only want people who are absolutely fit’. So I went home to my parents and said we have to revert to Plan B. ‘Ah’, they said, ‘there isn’t a Plan B’. So my mother said, ‘We will have to invent something’.”

Plan B turned out to be six months at the Ruskin School of Art, where Summers made friends with artists such as RB Kitaj and learned draughtsmanship, which has stood him in good stead for drawing on holiday and creating highly illustrated travel diaries. But he soon realised he was not cut out to be an artist.

“Ron Kitaj at the next-door easel was so good that I got depressed and thought what on earth am I trying to do, struggling along?”

A year or so later, however, his mother took him to a groundbreaking art sale that changed his life.

“Jacob Goldschmidt had seven Impressionist paintings to sell and went to Christie’s, but found that the chairman was pissed after lunch and didn’t make any sense. So he got upset and went to Sotheby’s and met Peter Wilson, who immediately saw the value of these paintings. It was the first sale that Peter Wilson had done.

“Traditionally, sales were at 11 o’clock in the morning and you had a black-and-white soft-backed catalogue with precious little information in it. Peter said, ‘We’ll have a sale at 9.30 at night. It will be black tie only. We’ll have paparazzi, and a colour catalogue with a hard-backed cover.’ Everyone said he was crazy. My   mother read about this and thought this would be a good experience for me.”

When a Manet self-portrait was knocked down to another ‘Somers’ (a pseudonym and no relation), Martin realised he wished it was him, and determined that one day it would be. However, his initial announcement about being an art dealer did not go down well with his father.

“‘Art dealer?’ he said. ‘I thought you had to be either homosexual or Jewish, and as far as I know, you’re neither’. So he went to his club, Boodles, and talked to his friends at the bar: ‘My boy wants to be an art dealer’. ‘Good God!’ they said.

“Then we went through the phone directory looking for the best Impressionist dealers. One was called Arthur Tooth & Sons, and the other was the Alex Reid & Lefevre Gallery, next door to each other in Bruton Street. So my father said, ‘Off you go tomorrow and get a job’.”

Summers started as a trainee salesman with Tooth’s and was so good he was offered a partnership with the Lefevre Gallery at the relatively young age of 28. He eventually became managing director, a post he held for 35 years. He has spent the past few years as a private dealer associated with the Galerie Jan Krugier.

Lowry to Degas

“They were great days, the early Sixties,” he reminisces. “I’ve watched a lot of people like Howard Hodgkin come from obscurity to being Sir Howard Hodgkin. I remember hanging Allan Jones’ first show with all the buses leaning over and the canvases at an angle. It had never been seen before – groundbreaking stuff.

“When I moved to LeFevre I met Lowry – my job was to look after him. He was a lovely old man; very dry sense of humour. I remember once we had about 40 or 50 drawings of his, and I couldn’t think what exhibition we’d put up so I thought it would be nice to hang 40 drawings.

“Now, hanging drawings is notoriously fiddly – it took the porters about three days to get it absolutely squared off. Just as we’d virtually finished, the doorbell rang and in walked Mr Lowry, unannounced. ‘How nice to see you,’ I said. ‘How do you think the exhibition looks?’ He looked around and said, ‘I’ve seen them all before, you know’.”

Another “wonderful moment” Summers recalls was when a set of Degas bronzes turned up in Paris.

“Well, they were obviously fakes because you can’t suddenly come up with a new set of Degases. But my partner went to see them and came back shaken. The great Degas expert was John Rewald. He said ‘What! Can’t be true! Bring me one and I’ll have a look at it’.

“He looked at them and said they were definitely genuine and somehow they seemed to be rather better than all the rest. So we bought them for a million dollars, which in 1972 was a huge amount of money. They included the 14-year-old girl: the one that came up a few months ago fetched 19 million dollars.

“They’re now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena as the greatest Degas works ever. So that was all rather exciting and fun.”

They eventually discovered that the bronzes had been cast in 1921 by the founder from the original wax and plaster models – a set he called the Modele. Then, in order to avoid damage to the original models with all the castings required by the estate of Degas, he used the Modele set as matrices, then hid it. The set remained in the cellar of his widow until 1971.

A Courbet in the attic

A similar find was a large painting by Gustave Courbet. It had been housed in a friend’s attic when Courbet cleared his studio to make room for his huge 1855 painting L’Atelier du Peintre.

“At the time he was working on a big picture of the Gypsies being driven out and didn’t know what to do with it. Having dinner with him that night was a man called Mr Ordinaire who said ‘I’ll house it for you’. He put it in his attic behind a chest of drawers.

“Life went on, then Courbet became a Communist and was arrested when pulling down the big column in the Place Vendome outside the Ritz Hotel, and was sent to prison where he painted some wonderful pictures. Eventually he died.

“Shortly before that, Mr Ordinaire had died. The family still lived in the house. Seven generations go by and we slide forward to 1998, when somebody from the family found it. It’s one of the greatest masterpieces that ‘ve ever dealt with.”

Along with Old Masters, Summers is also fond of some contemporary artists – notably Stuart Semple, whose breakthrough show he hosted at The Trueman Brewery in London, drawing 12,000 people.

“I went to see his show in a warehouse in the East End, way beyond Hoxton. The pictures were £4,000-5,000 and I thought this was the best thing I’d seen in a long time. I said, ‘I’d like to put on a show for you but if you want to be taken seriously they have to be much more than that – between £15,000 and £20,000′. He said, ‘No one will ever dream of spending that much.’ I said, ‘You wait and watch’. I sold the entire show to young guys who didn’t mind taking a punt and liked the art. It was a feeding frenzy.”

Savage downturn

Does Summers believe the art market is still as buoyant in these days of credit crunch?

“The contemporary art market exploded because of people with lots of money to spend who didn’t want to show any ignorance – because if you’re going to buy a Schiele drawing or a Klimt you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. There was a lot of buying for probably the wrong reasons.

“When you remove that element of the buying population, who just aren’t there at the moment with surplus income to spend, you’re going to find a savage downturn in the art that’s being bought.

“The auction houses are doing quite well but it’s the more traditional things, where the real quality of an Old Master drawing or painting has not been affected, because the very rich always manage to be very rich and those sort of paintings have long gone from the possibility of normal people buying them.

“When I was at Tooth’s my mentor was Peter Cochrane, who had a terrific eye. He gave Ellsworth Kelly a show but didn’t sell anything – except one to Peter Cochrane himself, who was too embarrassed to tell him we didn’t sell anything so bought it for £30,000. When Peter died at age 96 he asked me to sell his collection and I got $1.5 million for this painting.”

Bacon for lunch

So what advice would he give to potential collectors?

“I’d tell potential collectors to go to the Tate and familiarise themselves with what’s happened before. Then I’d take them to wander round some of the galleries – not to immediately take their horse to water and make it drink, but to whet the appetite.

“I think it’s a good idea to specialise. There has to be some sort of coherence in a collection because then you have parameters. If you don’t have parameters it’s a bit hit and miss – like my collection of 20th century still-lives. When I had about 35 from Stanley Spencer, Augustus John and Ben Nicholson, they all had a cohesion.”

Now Summers has a wealth of wonderful memories, as well as a friends list that Facebook members would kill for:

“Edward Burra I got to know pretty well; Francis Bacon used to come and have lunch. Lucien Freud I still have lunch with quite often, and Allen Jones. Tristram Hillier was a good friend of mine. If I saw David Hockney we’d greet each other as old chums. Artists are great fun.”

Dealer to Artist

Now he no longer has a gallery and is working as a consultant.

“I’m sort of coming to the end of a thoroughly enjoyable career, because I’m 70 now and I want to be less responsible. I like to advise and I know the art word in and out. I love the whole thing.”

After so long immersed in art, Summers has also decided to try his hand at the practical end, creating “watergraphs”. These are his digital photographs that he has manipulated on the computer and prints on watercolour paper.

With no sign of the drive and enthusiasm that fuelled his dealing career diminishing, perhaps it’s now time for Martin Summers the artist. Watch this space.

Above image: Degas Degas Grande Arabesque, Troisieme Temps

Martin Summers

Find out more at www.martinsummers.com.