Carlo Orsi, art dealer: “The 450 million ‘leonardo’ is a ‘spoiled’ work

It’s 10 in the morning and Carlo Orsi (Milan, 1954) is framed in a part of the 50,000 books that he owns and consults daily for his excursions into the world of ancient art. More than 40 years of activity have made him one of the most prestigious dealers in the world.

He is gentle and elegant, but he also handles irony well, skills that have been useful in the select environments in which he moves, and in his sales deals with institutions such as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris or the Barberini Gallery in Rome. He inherited his passion for art and intuition for business from his father, an antiques dealer who made his fortune in Milan after World War II and who was convinced that he was the least suitable of his three children to continue with the family business.

I was wrong. Orsi not only took over his father’s gallery on Via Bagutta in Milan, but in 2016 he bought Trinity Fine Art, located in the London neighborhood of Mayfair, from a former director of the Sotheby’s auction house. Works by Bernini, Pontormo, Canova, Gentileschi, Vasari have passed through his hands, as well as the famous ‘Portrait of Michele Marullo Tarcaniota’, the only Botticelli residing in Spain and the only one in private hands outside of Italy, which the Catalan family Guardans Cambó gave it to him to sell it.

Who buys old art today?

In addition to institutions, educated and passionate people who are looking for unique works of art. There are also young collectors, which is a novelty. Of course, today buyers are increasingly demanding. They don’t buy pictures to hang on the wall and forget about them.

He’s not just talking about Arab sheikhs.

There are sheikhs, but also many European, American and Asian collectors, who are the last ones who have appeared in this world. I have sold a sculpture by Antonio Canova [neoclásico] in HK. You can’t find a ‘Titian’ around the corner and you can’t offer it to 10 clients, which drives away those who want works to show off their social status or flaunt their wealth.

“In ancient art it is valid that the rarer the piece, the more it costs”

How is the price of these works decided?

In the case of ancient art, it is valid that the rarer the work, the more it costs.

And how do they find them?

I have a lot of experience, I know a lot of people, I am very discreet and I am known to work with a team of historians. Confidence is capital. Some give me their works to manage, not just to buy or sell.

It has sold quite a bit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The last one I sold in 2020. It was a Caravaggio painting from the Utrecht school by Hendrick ter Brugghen that I gave to Keith Christiansen.

What work did you never have and would you like to have?

It would be trivial to say that he would want a ‘caravaggio’, since everyone is looking for his works and no one can find them. Besides, that’s like playing Russian roulette. No. I get excited when I discover something new.

I don’t know if I was convinced by your answer.

Of course I’d like to find one of those missing ‘caravaggios’! But I’m not obsessed. There are many works of art that I desire, not just one. I know it’s an ambiguous answer, but it can’t be any other way.

Let’s try another question. What are you not interested in?

I don’t like ‘spoiled’ paintings. At the risk of sinning from lack of humility, an example: Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ that sold for 450 million dollars. He is a very important author but half of his work has been reconstructed. There are some quality and conservation criteria that are important to me.

“The Guardans Cambó family wanted me to sell their ‘boticcelli’ and I found a buyer, but the Spanish government prevented it”

What happened to the famous Botticelli that the Guardans Cambó family wanted to sell through you?

It has been loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts of Valencia, and has just been exhibited at the Jacquemart-André in Paris. It is an iconic work of a very high artistic relevance.

Is it no longer possible to sell to private?

The Guardans Cambó family has donated many works to Spanish museums. Portrait of Michele Marullo Tarcaniota is a work that Francesc d’Assís Cambó i Cambó bought in England at the beginning of 1900. Being 14 heirs, they gave it to me to sell. I took it to the Frieze art fair in London and even found a buyer. But the Spanish Government prevented it. The solution would happen because I bought it.

I understand.

Something similar happened with the bust of Urban VIII by Bernini, inherited by the Barberini family and which the Italian State said could not leave Italy. Had it not been so, I would have sold it immediately. But the case is not closed.

“It is sacrosanct to protect certain works of national importance, but the rights of private individuals should not be harmed”

Would you say that there are laws that are too restrictive?

Spain is similar to Italy. It is really difficult to export works of art. Italy is very restrictive. It is not like France or the United Kingdom, which have laws that are fairer.

Fair, you say?

It is sacrosanct that certain works of national importance are protected, but the rights of private individuals should not be damaged, taking into account that these works can be traced and that the states can buy them if they consider them to be relevant pieces. But in Spain and Italy they are not obliged to do so.

Are there many works in the warehouses?

very many. And no one can see them.

Before we talked about Caravaggio. Is there a mob connection?

It is said that the canvas ‘The Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence’ would have been stolen and hidden by the mafia. But I doubt that it is proven.

What is known is that criminals invest in art.

It is possible that it is part of the criminal design. With works of art you can move money, but it also happens with other activities.

It is like investing in a property.


Is there a way to stop it?

There are anti-money laundering laws that are international. We are heavily watched and tracked.

Related news

Has covid-19 changed the way of working?

Now everything, or almost, is done digitally. The auction industry took a bit of adjusting at first. We get blocked because ours is a world of contacts and relationships, but now we have reactivated ourselves. That said, it’s still difficult not being able to show the works in person due to travel restrictions. In recent years, we sold less.

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