Old Masters dealer Fabrizio Moretti: ‘I was supposed to have been born a hundred years ago’
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The Old Masters art dealer and collector Fabrizio Moretti knows that he is bucking a trend. On July 1, the Italian will reopen his gallery in London’s St James’s with one of the biggest spaces dedicated to the currently unfashionable art made between the 14th and 18th centuries. The renovation of the building — previously occupied by the Dutch Golden Age specialist Johnny van Haeften — has taken almost six years, including Covid-19-related delays.
Two historic, listed buildings have been near-demolished and joined; ceilings have been removed; a lift installed and lined with silk — all part of the complex build that has created 8,600 sq ft of gallery and office space. Meanwhile, the art market around Moretti Fine Art has been dominated by a seemingly unquenchable thirst for modern and contemporary art.
“I was supposed to have been born a hundred years ago,” Moretti says in the thickly-carpeted viewing room in his new gallery. Indeed, the impeccably dressed 45-year-old seems out of time in a fast-moving, maverick market, with his precise diction and intellectual patter. Even the style of his cane, which he carries for a mobility issue, is chic and antique.
But his old-school charm belies an enthusiasm to modernise his field as a dealer and a collector. Selling Old Masters “used to be easier”, Moretti says, but he believes that “taste will come back”. Better promotion of available works is important, he says, hence the new space, and Moretti has plans to capture the attention of a 21st-century crowd by having a gallery in the metaverse in the near future.
The next generation is becoming more influential in this market, he notes, citing the recent hire of Andrew Fletcher, 42, poached from Sotheby’s to head Christie’s Old Masters department globally. Moretti has pulled off his own coup: Letizia Treves, a curator at London’s National Gallery since 2013, and also in her 40s, will join as a partner to the gallery when it opens.
Moretti himself started extremely young, opening his own Galleria Moretti in Florence when he was only 22. Even then he was ahead of his years. “I never felt young at the time. I was ready. It helped, of course, to be in Italy. And there was [more] maturity then that is different today, perhaps the world is not tough enough any more,” he says, with a flash of steel that occasionally breaks through the charm.
Moretti had a helpful upbringing — his father was a dealer in older art, though by the time Fabrizio was a teenager, this business was fairly intermittent, he says. He had originally wanted to be a show jumper, but by the age of 20 had decided on his art-dealer career and pursued his new passion with characteristic vigour.
It was not smooth sailing. “I took many years to sell a painting,” he says, and admits to “plenty of mistakes”, mostly around valuation. But he recalls his first deal clearly — in 1999, he sold a nativity scene by the Renaissance painter Vincenzo da Imola to a couple he knew for 170mn lire, the equivalent of about €85,000. Sales since have been significant, and presumably pricier, including a work by Artemisia Gentileschi to London’s National Gallery and a Canaletto to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Moretti’s commitment to London also goes against the post-Brexit grain as galleries seem to open almost anywhere else in the world. He feels an affinity for the UK as his mother is English — she met his father while working at the Alitalia desk at Heathrow. Moretti is not impressed by Brexit, which he describes as “an own goal”, but, he says, “England will make it. I don’t see a city that can replace London as the marketplace for Europe. Right now, the customs situation is bad — what used to take three hours now takes three weeks — but hopefully there will be changes that make it easier.”
Moretti’s own collection includes works by Italian masters such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pontormo, and the Renaissance studio works that were his first attraction. He has, gradually, also become a collector of contemporary art. “In my mid-twenties, I was totally against contemporary art, I thought it was rubbish. But to understand contemporary art, it helps to understand Old Masters,” he says. He doesn’t see that level of understanding among today’s contemporary art dealers. “Apart from a few, there is little respect for what they are offering, they might as well be selling potatoes.”
The living artists he owns and admires, including Jenny Saville and Glenn Brown, are all conscious of the history that preceded them. One of the biggest compliments, and a prize possession, he says, came from the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, who in 2017 made one of his trademark wax candle sculptures of the gallerist.
Since 2015, Moretti’s gallery has shared a booth with the modern and contemporary art dealers Hauser & Wirth at Frieze Masters, pairing gold ground with 20th-century masters. Moretti was also a stalwart of the Tefaf Maastricht fair for several years and on its board of trustees until 2017. Now, though, “I don’t do fairs. Maybe that was a wrong business decision but it was a good decision for my personal life,” he says. There is a notable exception — since 2014, he has been chair of the Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato di Firenze, a fair for Italian art and antiques that has run since 1959. “It is in the Palazzo Corsini, has a Gucci restaurant collaboration, and when you leave, you have Florence. It’s a dream.”
Moretti has other business interests, including property and film production, as well as investing in a Swiss biotech start-up. A highly personal project is the Fondazione Fabrizio Moretti, a charity he founded in his birth town of Prato in 2009 and which is soon to open a facility for hippotherapy — horseriding as therapy — for disadvantaged and disabled children.
But art is still his greatest joy. “Everything I am passionate about is like a painting, it comes down to rarity and beauty. I am what I am today because of the art,” he says. He is sincere but, ever the dealer, he adds: “Even if you overpay for a great work, you will always find a buyer. Quality always wins.”