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An Old Master in Ruins

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Jonah Salander, the gallerist’s son, lunging at a news photographer.  

At the same time, living artists who eschewed the latest art-world trends found a kindred spirit in Salander, who showed the figurative painters Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Paul Georges, and Lennart Anderson. One day, Robert De Niro Sr., the accomplished New York School painter and father of the actor, knocked on Salander’s door and asked him to exhibit his paintings. Salander represented the artist for the rest of his life and subsequently managed the estate.

As a house for serious nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, the gallery had settled into a proven, commercially successful formula. But over the last decade, as the art market underwent a seismic shift, Salander noticed a particular gulf opening up between the markets for postwar and contemporary art, and most art created before Impressionism. New art suddenly started going for far more than older, established masterpieces. Many of the newly rich collectors preferred to spend their hedge-fund wealth on more recent, name-brand artists. A Jasper Johns was soon worth twice as much as the Metropolitan’s Duccio, the Madonna and Child purchased by the museum for as much as $45 million in 2004. An oversize sculpture of costume jewelry by the art star Jeff Koons was valued higher than a Tintoretto, an El Greco, or a clutch of Courbets.

To Salander, this development was a moral travesty. It was also a business opportunity. As he obsessed over these market dynamics, Salander eventually came to believe that the very survival of great art was at stake. By 2005, he had determined to be the first dealer to do something about it. He would risk his gallery’s established reputation as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century house by investing heavily in old-master and Renaissance art. He would make some money and, if his plan worked, save the contemporary market from itself.

Salander started out slowly, first by expanding his small, backroom dealership of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century painting and sculpture. But he was amazed at the availability of older art, and started to acquire it with vigor. “I ended up finding I could buy these things that I loved so much,” he says. “These great sculptures. Donatellos. And Luca della Robbias. And the idea I could have this stuff!”

It soon became apparent that the gallery would need to expand. In early 2005, Salander noticed a vacant 25,000-square-foot Italian Renaissance palazzo on 71st Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. The rent was over $150,000 a month— almost three times the rent of his 79th Street venue for a space five times the size. Taking on the palazzo would entail an enormous amount of risk—especially since he had yet even to prove the existence of the market he hoped to dominate. But Salander was undaunted. “I said, I gotta either retire now or I gotta do this.”

The new branch of the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries opened in September 2005, with a grandeur meant to attract buyers from the contemporary-art world who might be willing to speculate on old-master and Renaissance art as an investment.

“I thought it was the most extraordinary place,” says Wieseltier. “A gallery that was consecrated to classicism and newness at the same time. It represented an aesthetic sophistication that refused to be dominated by the market, and therefore it was an act of cultural resistance. The purity of its intention was undeniable, and apparently catastrophic.”

The catastrophe came almost immediately. Salander began to have a cash problem. As the gallery acquisitions and payroll expanded to fill the needs of his new five-story fortress, Salander was forced to close down his 79th Street space. This dismayed many of Salander’s contemporary artists and longtime employees, who started to worry about the gallery’s standing.

But Salander stuck with his plan. He continued his regular schedule of nineteenth- and twentieth-century exhibitions, now in the velvet-lined rooms of the palazzo, while amassing an enormous inventory of older work, including many overtly Christian sculptures—Ecce Homos, Mater Dolorosas, Virgins With Child—and dozens of wooden statues of Jesus Christ.

He saw his project as spiritual, even messianic. “We’re a soulless society,” he says, returning to a theme that surfaced many times in our conversation. “When I’m talking about the soul to people, they look at me like I’m nuts. But there has been a longtime manipulation of people who want to make money to dumb down the American society and rob us of the curiosity of our souls.” (Salander’s now writing a book on the subject called Soul Wars.)

Those who orbited Salander agree that his motivation was not primarily financial. “He’s passionate about the great painters,” says Liam Neeson, who purchased two paintings from Salander-O’Reilly and received two of Salander’s own works from the gallerist as a gift. (Salander is a regularly exhibited artist, and has a painting of the Crucifixion in the Smithsonian.) “He doesn’t see art as a used Tampax moving across a bare wall.”


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