The Art of the Deal
Stephen D. Mazoh ’62, who grew up in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Baltimore and majored in philosophy at Johns Hopkins, began collecting art just after graduation. A private art dealer who now lives in Rhinebeck, N.Y., Mazoh has sold—or engineered sales of—major works to such museums as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. He was responsible for the transfer of the last Van Gogh “Wheat Field with Cypresses” to the Met. He also buys and sells premium works with collectors (“The strongest names in the world of collecting,” is all he’ll say about their identities). He talked with writer Martha Thomas recently about his start in the business and the world of art collecting.
How did it all come about?
[While at Hopkins,] I would wander around the BMA and the Walters with friends and open their eyes to these pictures. I got a visceral thrill from it myself and was able to open friends up to that sensation.
Then nothing happened until I dropped out of grad school in philosophy at Brown. I got a job with a print dealer in Baltimore, Ferdinand Roten. In the ’60s he was a hot ticket. He sold original prints by masters, up to Picasso and Chagall. I landed the job by accident but it triggered my career. I started buying original graphics on my own and that swelled into paintings.
When did it turn into a career?
A college classmate was manager of Highfield House—the [then] new Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed apartment building on Charles Street. They would present exhibitions in the gallery on the first floor to get rental traffic. I approached them and said I would guarantee exhibitions round the clock if I could have use of the space. So at 24 years old, I had a free gallery.
Did you just outgrow Baltimore?
I was lucky because the director of the BMA was so pleased to have a dealer in town that he introduced me to collectors and other figures in the art community, so I really took off. By 1970, I had saturated the collecting capacity of the people I knew in Baltimore. I realized that to continue I had to move to New York.
Is the art market as hot as it was a decade ago?
Nobody is complaining about doldrums in the art world. But I’m not capable of making the judgment of whether the market is hot. So many people these days buy what’s fashionable, and their tastes seem to be fostered by what their friends have. I personally never went that route. I never paid attention to what the mob was chasing. If it spoke to me aesthetically, if the price was in line, and if the authenticity was assured, I plunged.
If you only buy things you love, how do you ever put anything up for sale?
These days I buy things specifically to resell mainly because I don’t have a house big enough to hang things in. In the early years, I didn’t have the luxury of keeping a picture come hell or high water.
—Angela Paik Schaeffer