Interview by Dave Kim | Portrait by Ungano & Agriodimas
After nearly five decades in the art business, gallerist and collector Barry Friedman, 71, retired in March. Surface recently sat down with him in his New York apartment to discuss his storied career and “The Eclectic Eye,” a three-day sale at Christie’s last month, which saw more than 400 lots from his private collection put up for auction. Friedman’s home is a treasure trove of painting, photography, and decorative arts—and quite a motley one at that. Works by Robert Delaunay, Man Ray, and Fernand Khnopff, among many others, hang on the walls, and an array of rare furniture—from an Art Nouveau sideboard by Maurice and Léon Jallot to a chair made of gas pipes by Piet Hein Eek—outfits his living room. After giving his visitors a tour, complete with detailed commentary on his most prized possessions, he sat, smoothed down his thick beard, and told stories about his life’s work.
You just retired after 48 years of dealing art and decorative arts. What were your early days like?
I started the actual full-time business in 1967 with a $300 business loan that two people had to guarantee. My father and someone else. [Laughs] It wasn’t enough with just my father, so you know I don’t come from wealth. I was a runner. I had a little Peugeot 403 and I’d go to New England to antique shops and shows, fill the car up, come back, and sell to dealers. And I needed to sell before my checks cleared. In those days, they didn’t have instant electronic checking, so it took at least a week. I had a week to sell at a profit or at what I paid. I was a good finder, even though I dealt with people who’d been in the business 30 years who would tell me, “Look, son, I’ve forgot- ten more than you’ll ever know.” I didn’t say anything back; I just bought from them what they didn’t know. In those days you could find things very easily. All you needed was money. Which of course I didn’t have.
So how did you expand the business and find things you couldn’t get antiquing in New England?
I took my first trip to Europe in 1970. Oh my God, what a discovery. I went with $500 of my money and $500 of money I borrowed, and I filled up a shipping container. I was then married to Audrey Friedman, and together we owned Primavera Gallery. We had no interest in buying furniture until we saw this beautiful Art Deco commode in France. We asked the price. Very few French people spoke English in those days. Audrey was fluent in French, but never great with numbers. She told me she thought it was 15,000 francs, which at the time was $2,750. I said, “No, I think it’s 1,500 francs,” which was $275. So we asked them to write the price down. It was 150 francs! Twenty-seven dollars and 50 cents! How could we say no? So that started it and we bought a container, a 20 footer. We bought a bunch of furniture for it, and $1,000 paid for everything. I think there was only one piece that was over $100.
What are some of the standout buildings you’ve visited in Europe?
I’m fortunate that I’ve been to the Palais Stoclet [a private home in the Vienna Secession style designed by Josef Hoffmann in Brussels, Belgium]. Interiors with Klimt paintings, objects by Hoffmann, often in pairs. There are sculptures by Franz Metzner on top of the building that are incredible. The first time I went there, unannounced, asking if I could see it, somebody came out with a shotgun and I ran. This was back in the very early ’70s when I had hair down past my shoulders and a huge beard—not this color. But what a spectacular place. I traveled and learned a lot.
You started with Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and then went on to also deal in Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Aside from that Deco commode you got for a bargain in France, what else drew you to furniture?
I was always interested in chairs. Chairs typify the design of a period best. Chairs and tea services. I’ve always liked the two.
Weren’t you nicknamed “The Chair Man” at one point?
Yes. I think it was in Vogue magazine, of all places.
Do people still call you that?
Sometimes. People who’ve been around a while. In ’84, I did a show called “Mackintosh to Mollino: 50 Years of Chair Design.” Above, let’s say, a Josef Hoffmann chair, I had a beau- tiful Klimt drawing. Over a pair of Ruhlmann chairs, I had a Tamara De Lempicka paint- ing. Over a Jean-Michel Frank, I had a Jean Dupas painting.
So you considered each work as part of an ensemble.
I always liked doing that. Even when I got into contemporary decorative arts. I saw the work of [glass artist] Michael Glancy in Switzerland at a dealer colleague’s home, and I looked at this piece and said, “My God, what is that? It’s beautiful.” We did a show of 20 pieces, which is a lot for Michael, and I displayed them on furniture. We sold all 20. A lot of the other contemporary glass dealers, whom I didn’t know, called Michael and said, “That guy Friedman is ruining your pieces. He’s putting them on furniture.” At that point, all they knew was a white stand. Even the collec- tors, I hate to say it, had tons of white stands in their houses. So I changed things. Michael understood it completely. I have some con- temporary glass at home—it’s on my mantel- piece, on my coffee table, in a vitrine, on a side table. I live with it. It’s normal. Living with white stands, I think, is not normal.
Maybe people think they need defined boundaries between genres, between art and home items.
If a piece is great, it’s art. There’s this whole controversy—art versus craft. But if it’s good, it’s good. That’s all I have to say about that.
How did you get into contemporary design?
It was mostly through my former employee Marc Benda. He started as an assistant and worked himself up to assistant director, co- director, and then director. He got me inter- ested in Ron Arad’s work. Also Marc Newson, Ettore Sottsass, and other greats. We started buying. We did a Ron Arad show called “Paved With Good Intentions” in Miami for the design fair in 2005. I bought the entire collection—all 69 tables—after looking at artist renderings on the computer. Maybe I had a lot of wine that day for lunch, I don’t know. Anyway, it was a big success.
What motivated you throughout your career? How did you keep finding new artists, new mediums?
Nobody ran around like I did. Especially Europe. I love discovering new things. It’s one of my biggest thrills. Going into the basement of the Lefèvre-Utile biscuit company in Paris and finding, wrapped up in the original tubes and some yellowish-brown cellophane, a col- lection of Alphonse Mucha posters—I don’t know how many hundreds. I found a lot of things like that. I loved buying great paint- ings by artists people didn’t know. And in my early days, you could sell them. Today you do art fairs, which are necessary now, and people come over to look at the name on the label. A lot of people are like that. They don’t know the name, they walk by. They don’t even look at the picture. And that’s frustrating. That’s another reason I’m sort of happy to be retiring.
Do you ever get nostalgic about pieces you’ve sold and buy them back?
There was one piece I must’ve had four or five times, a wheel-carved Daum vase. I bought it first in New York, sold it to a collector in Boston. Bought it back from the collector in Boston, sold it to a dealer in Paris, who sold it to somebody in Japan. Bought it in Japan, sold it to somebody back in Paris. I bought it years later when the dollar was strong in France. I don’t know where it is now. I’m sorry I didn’t keep more. I couldn’t afford it. But considering what I started with and what I have now, I’m a happy camper.
Were you a collector at an early age?
Oh yeah. From bottle caps to American Indian Head pennies to stamps to marbles. I started with four-leaf clovers when I was 6, 7 years old. I always collected something. Iridescent glass bottles that were buried, I’d find them. And then came that first piece of Loetz glass for $8, probably around 1965, up in Massachusetts. I still love Loetz.
Was that the first piece of art you ever bought? How old were you?
Twenty-two. I wound up selling it when this $20 Loetz piece came by. I didn’t have $20. I was still in school. So I sold the piece for $12—my first sale. And then I started buying and selling on the weekends. When I got out of school, I was making as much on the week- ends as I was at my job. I studied business, which also helped me sell for more than I paid. I learned that at an early age.
What did you dream of becoming before you decided to go into art dealing?
When you were a kid? You wanted to be an accountant?
[Laughs] Well, I didn’t learn until high school that I had an aptitude for numbers. I was a juvenile delinquent. I had some trouble. So I took an aptitude test and someone told my parents I should take accounting, which I did in high school. And I never thought about going to college—it wasn’t my thing. But I applied in May of my senior year and I got into a school. It changed me.
It also changed me to move in my junior year of high school to a neighborhood where people said, “Hello, how are you?” Where I came from, a guy could take an umbrella to school when it rained and get the shit kicked out of him. You punched somebody in the arm as a way of saying hello.
I’m still imagining little 6- or 7-year-old Barry running around collecting four-leaf clovers.
I had an uncle who’d offer me a dime for each one, which is like a thousand dollars today. I sold him three or four.
How can I find some?
You go through the park. Every once in a while you find a freak.
I guess that’s not so different from art collecting.
It’s not easy.
You had a series of Christie’s auctions in March. What were some of your favorites in those sales?
The Italian glass sale on the last day was really something special. A collection, mostly around 1930, specializing in Martinuzzi masterpieces. It was probably the first time such a large collection of circa-1930 glass came up.
The sale was completely a mixed bag. From Burne-Jones in the 1880s to a Wendell Castle chair or contemporary painting and everything in between. Art Nouveau, Art Deco. A great Perriand bookcase from my country house.
What are you going to do now?
I’ll be writing a book and probably taking a couple of years for it. I’ve saved my old transparencies of the objects I’ve sold for the past 40 to 45 years. Things that have passed through my hands, all the different periods and mediums in decorative arts and furniture. I’ll take an office or loft somewhere, hire two or three employees, and we’ll do research on each piece. And I’m gonna be traveling a lot more. I’ll probably also search for some artisans for a new venture that my family and another family are doing, a reincarnation of Zona.
Franci Sagar opened Zona in New York in 1979. It was a lifestyle store, a real pio- neer of retailing in Soho. It closed in the ’90s, but in 2007 she was able to buy back the name. We’re going to bring it back. She has a 25-year-old daughter, Sophie, and my daughter, Natalie, is 22. They’ll mostly be running it. I won’t physically be at the space. It’ll specialize in furniture and handmade carpets made exclusively for the store. There’ll be jewelry, objects for the home.
What are some other items you collect besides art? I heard you have a pretty big tie collection.
I stopped counting after 10,000 ties. At my old apartment on 82nd, near the Met, I had a couple thousand displayed in the vestibule. It took visitors a long time to make it to the living room. The collection ranges from the late 19th century through the photographic ties of the ’50s. More than half are hand- painted. My dream is to exhibit these one day; they’re works of art.
Is there a common thread in all these objects? What’s the key element you look for?
Quality. Terrific quality and innovation. If I go out today for a walk and see something I like, whatever it is, whether it’s by an artisan nobody knows or a contemporary photographer, I’m happy to buy it.