Young Master

Robert Noortman was the world’s top Old Master dealer. Can his son William reclaim his title?

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Young Master
William Noortman in the Maastricht gallery

Young Master

Robert Noortman was the world’s top Old Master dealer. Can his son William reclaim his title?

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.

An 18th-century still life by Jan van Huysum, priced at $15 million, both of which Noortman hopes to sell at the Maastricht fair

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.

Elegant in a handmade suit from Naples and Berluti shoes, Noortman looks the part of the polished European dealer. Trained primarily by his father, he caught the bug for the family business during an extended art-buying trip the pair took when he was 18. In New York for the semiannual Old Master paintings auctions, they bought a tiny 17th-century oval portrait on panel from a dealer friend, which they hung in their hotel room to admire. Three nights later, Robert produced the small gem during drinks with another dealer, who promptly bought it. Father and son made enough of a profit, recalls Noortman, to cover their travel expenses for the week, “a wonderful lesson in the art business,” he says, adding of his father, “he’d tell you what he thought was good and why, but always left room for you to teach yourself.”

A Manet seascape, priced at $1.95 million

For this month’s Maastricht, Noortman has lined up a number of paintings that, while respectable, don’t compare to the three Rembrandts that Robert had on offer in 2004. “He’s slowly developing his own style,” says Jan Six, head of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department in Amsterdam and a longtime friend. “His father was a brand, and you can see that he wants to continue [it] in the way that he dresses and talks about art. At the same time, he’s more contemporary, and he understands the new money.”

Touring the preview of Sotheby’s sale of Robert’s personal trove last December in Amsterdam, Noortman points to a collection of 19th-century Inuit snow goggles as one of the “fun” things his father delighted in, and says that for his own collection, he hopes to find “more wonderful objects.” Two weeks later he is halfway across the globe. “In China buying contemporary art,” he writes by e-mail. “Amazing fun.”