For nearly 20 years, art dealer Robert Noortman held the most coveted position at the European Fine Art Fair, the world’s premier annual sale of Old Master paintings: the front corner booth. As you entered the massive convention center in Maastricht, the Netherlands, you’d come upon Rob, as colleagues called him, in a plume of cigar smoke, talking animatedly about the Rembrandt or Rubens he was offering that year. When it came to Old Masters, Noortman’s influence was unparalleled.
After Noortman’s sudden death from a heart attack in January 2007, his son William, then just 25, took his father’s post at Maastricht, as insiders refer to the fair. This March he will again be manning the booth, having determinedly taken up the mantle. For now, Noortman concedes the title of most powerful Old Master dealer to rival Johnny van Haeften, in London, and last year he saw the fair—which his father helped found—reassign the prime booth to another rival, London’s Richard Green. But don’t expect Noortman to skulk off into the fair’s Siberia.
“To fill someone’s shoes is difficult,” he says. “Johnny is the top guy in Old Masters now that my father’s gone. He’s got years on me. Do I want to compete with these people? No. But do we want to do our best? Yes.”
Although he has his father’s height (he’s six feet three) and dramatically arched eyebrows, Noortman, as he’s the first to admit, cuts a less imposing figure. He smokes Marlboro Lights, not cigars, and speaks softly, in British-accented English, not his father’s booming Dutch. And despite having been groomed to assume the family business—he is the second-born of his father’s seven children—he isn’t yet at home in his new role. “I always knew that I’d be taking over,” he says, while greeting visitors at the Pan art fair in Amsterdam. “I’ve just taken over five to 10 years earlier than expected, which is a pity. It’s okay. I love what I do.”
Of course, he hopes to put his own stamp on Noortman Master Paintings, which is based in Maastricht and sells Impressionist masterpieces in addition to Old Masters. One idea is to expand the trade to include modern pictures such as those by Léger and Modigliani. Another is to extend the gallery’s reach by holding exhibitions abroad.
These days Noortman Master Paintings is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sotheby’s, following its sale by Robert to the auction house in 2006 for shares worth roughly $56.5 million. Noortman is managing director, and, he insists, the gallery is still independently run.