Barnebys recently sat down with Pontus Wallberg, a figure who chooses 17th-century interiors over contemporary art, and the person behind one of Sweden's largest Instagram accounts (@classicartworks). Learn more about his favourite acquisitions and collecting tips here.
In recent decades, almost all art-world focus has been on contemporary and modern art. Only a few have gone in the opposite direction and taken an interest in older painting and its layers of mystery. One of them is Pontus Wallberg, one of the newest figures to the Swedish art market. This weekend he launches his online art store, which bears the same name as his successful Instagram account, @classicartworks.
Pontus Wallberg welcomes Barnebys in his and his partner Annika's apartment in Gamla Stan, Stockholm's Old Town. Here, he shares some of the highlights of his art collection, the inspiration behind his interior design and what's next for his new store.
Barnebys: Tell us about your apartment.
Pontus: We completely renovated the entire apartment. When we bought it, it was a functional apartment in a 1600s house. The small bedrooms were located along the street, but since we previously lived around the corner, we knew what it sounded like when tourists drag their rolling bags across the cobbled streets. So we chose to reposition the entire apartment and move the bedrooms and guest rooms towards the courtyard. Instead, we added a kitchen and living room towards the sociable murmur of the streets. It was an extensive job, especially as we did everything ourselves.
You're responsible for two Fabrique bakery stores in Stockholm, Annika. What about older painting, are you equally interested in this?
Annika: I have no choice! No, jokes aside, I'm drawn to it, and when I see how Pontus works to get all the information, the paintings suddenly change to become something other than they were when they first came in.
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For years, you have anonymously built up one of Sweden's largest Instagram accounts without purchased followers and commercial collaborations. To what do you attribute your success?
I do not really know, but I have shared what I like, I have been consistent and I had an account on Instagram early on.
How did your interest in older painting begin?
I started by buying contemporary art fifteen years ago, but over time I started buying more and more 19th-century painting, and then 18th-century art, and now I am most interested in the 17th century. There isn't the same mystery to 20th-century art at all.
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What is the driving force in your collecting?
The driving force and happiness lies in discovery. Just look at this painting that I found at auction in Sweden. What quality! It is probably a painting by Adriaen Brouwer that will be sent to Belgium to be examined. It is signed at the top along the upper edge of the panel with an A and a B, and what looks like the number 30 (meaning 1630). Even though it said on the back that it was signed in the top corner, I had to search for hours before I found it.
Do you know that it is authentic?
Not necessarily, but if you start to put the puzzle together, it certainly seems that way. There is a famous painting of him that hangs at the Alte Pinakothek in Berlin, which is largely identical but less detailed. In that painting, the violin lacks strings and the dagger on the side is most reminiscent of a black line, which indicates that this is probably the final version. I have dated the wood in the boiler to 1598, which may be true considering that the wood needed to dry for many years before it could be used for painting. The painting will be sent to Belgium so that the leading expertise hopefully can verify it as an original work by him.
Can you still find bargains, especially in Sweden?
Absolutely! I have found and bought several of the works I have on the website in Sweden, so it is certainly a good market, especially for those of us who are interested.
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What is your biggest dream?
I'm driven by looking for stuff, by the treasure hunt. The whole idea of my business is to find the right one, do thorough provenance research, immerse myself in the artworks and their creators, and, in some cases, tidy up the paintings. When this is done, I want to help people build collections or supplement them, for example, museum and their art collections.
Is there a specific target group you want to reach?
I want to find those connoisseurs who really like what they buy. Not those who buy for bragging purposes or as an investment. I want those who buy art from me to start in the same way as I do when I see the paintings.
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Have you always been this dedicated to collecting?
I have a hard time doing anything half-heartedly. When I was younger, I used to collect reptiles. I had thousands and my parents went crazy. I went all in, 100%, and learnt all about reptiles; on the weekends, I would sit at home and pack spiders to send all over the world for breeding purposes to save certain species and did quite big business on it, while my peers were out partying. After that I switched to art.
You're a fan of the the 'in-person' meeting. How important is it to you?
When I started selling cars in Östersund, I asked my colleagues why they sat in the office so much instead of “selling the cars in the car.” They had never worked that way, but I let the customers test the product themselves and sat next to them, having memorised the price list of all additional choices. I ended up becoming Sweden's most successful seller of cars.
You moved to Stockholm and started working at Åmells Konsthandel [a leading Scandinavian art dealer]. Was it a difficult decision?
Not at all. I had decided to invest in art and both Annika and I dreamt of living in the Old Town. So once I got a job at Åmells, it was an easy decision to make.
Older paintings sold in the art market have often undergone extensive restorations to regain as much of the original condition as possible. Will everything you sell be in such condition?
It's up to the specific painting. In this case with Philippe Mercier's romantic interior [Wallberg points to the painting], I wouldn't clean it anymore, I like the tone and light in the painting as it is now. In one book, there is a picture of a similar painting that has undergone a rather hard restoration. The book describes a couple of paintings that have hung in an old English collection since the 18th century. One is pictured in the book, while I'm pretty sure the other is the one hanging in front of us. They went astray when they were sold at two different auction houses on different occasions; this one was sold in 2006.
It is an unusually intimate portrait. Do you know who it represents?
According to research, it is of the artist's housekeeper Hanna, who is resting over the table. She is also portrayed in the second painting I compare and refer to on my website. One has to consider that Philippe Mercier went from being a court painter at the English Court to, due to jealousy and drama, having to leave the court and instead paint more everyday scenes for a completely different audience.
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You have a painting by one of Rembrandt's foremost students, Nicolaes Maes, who is in the spotlight in particular right now. Tell us about the painting.
An exhibition is currently underway at the National Gallery in London and before that at Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I was too late to contact them, because they had already started production of the exhibition catalogue. They knew about the painting and expressed that they would very much have liked to have had it as they thought it was an unusually powerful portrait. But we did go to the opening, it was a fantastic experience.
Why is it so special?
The quality of the painting is fantastic. Just look at the hand, and the beautiful Japanese coat from the 17th century. Nicolaes Maes has been in the shadows for a long time, but in the late 17th century, no one could compete with him. He was number one when it came to portrait painting. There are even paintings by Vermeer that Nicolaes Maes signed to sell at a better price.
Where did you find it?
I found it on Barnebys. That was before the exhibition opened at Mauritshuis. Since then, much has been written about both the exhibition and the artist, who has once again been able to step into the spotlight and receive the attention he deserves.
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Did the auction house know what it was when you bought it?
Yes, it has been sold at Christie's a couple of times, most recently 15 years ago. I have done very careful research on the painting, which I've presented at classicartworks.com.
How important is it that the information is included with a purchase?
Many in the industry choose not to show prices, but do you believe in transparency?
I'm very upset that there is often a lack of price transparency in the industry. Just take shipping, for example: it is often a very unpleasant surprise once you have bought the items. Everyone benefits from knowing the costs from the beginning. If you shop at Classicartworks, shipping is included, and I take care of all paperwork with customs, etc.
Most people in our industry have started with a physical business and over time developed an online business. Will you do the opposite, or will you stay online?
I want a modern art store with an online presence and to exhibit at physical fairs, especially the larger international ones to meet people. But I do not rule out a physical store. The most fun is to meet and create a relationship with the buyer and help hang the art on the wall.
Classicartworks already works internationally and intends to have the whole world as its field of work, which is why Pontus has chosen to list its objects for sale at Barnebys, which is the world's largest search site for art, design, antiques and collectables.