Playing the game

Aimé Maeght, master manipulator of the art market, could have taught Charles Saatchi a thing or two

If you thought that Charles Saatchi was the master inventor of artistic reputations, think again. Aimé Maeght (1906-81), the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, could show Saatchi a thing or two. While Saatchi tends to promote "discoveries" and then drop them, Aimé Maeght's empire was built upon enduring partnerships with artists including Joan Miró, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard - but naturally enough, both dealers, past and present, have a keen interest in profits.

The Maeght fortune was created during the Second World War, not, it would seem, the best of times to set out as an art dealer. For Maeght and his pretty young wife Marguerite, however, the timing was perfect. In the early 1940s Cannes and Nice were in the unoccupied part of Vichy France, where one could happily live it up, in contrast to the occupied north. Unfortunately, there was not enough art to go round. Pictures were hard to find, and tricky to sell, partly because most of the dealers in pre-war Paris had been Jewish.

It was fortuitous for Maeght that, for those artists and collectors stranded on the Côte d'Azur, radios were soon in even shorter supply than pictures. He and Marguerite had been selling radios and furniture in the Cannes shop that also housed their small lithography business. They had been dealing in a little art on the side since 1936, and once the war started, art seemed the better bet. Among the artists living nearby happened to be Bonnard and Matisse, whose studios in Paris were closed and whose income, without dealers, had dried up. But both were, at least, alive. And so, when Marguerite asked Bonnard to lend her some pictures in order to advertise the artistic side of the business, he was happy to oblige.

When the Bonnard paintings went on view, Marguerite, alone in the shop, was immediately offered a huge sum by a professional dealer. She sold them, and then apologised to Bonnard for having done so "without thinking". He was not upset. He realised they were on to a good thing, and so offered Marguerite more works for sale. And then more. And when yet more were needed, Maeght found himself able to travel freely through occupied France to Paris in order to collect canvases from Bonnard's locked-up studio. He would then, so the story goes, cover the pictures in a coating of gouache (water-soluble pigment, the varnish and oil paints beneath acting as an impermeable layer), put his own signature on them, and then, just as easily, pass back through occupied France, smuggling the paintings out to sell them in the south.

The Germans eventually threatened to bomb Cannes and Nice, so the Maeghts and Matisse - whose work they were also selling - escaped into the hills around Vence, where the Maeghts had a family property near Saint-Paul (and where they were later to establish their Fondation). After the Liberation in 1944, Bonnard and Matisse encouraged Maeght to buy one of those dealerships in Paris washed up by the war. They found one in rue de Téhéran, and Matisse volunteered to open it with an exhibition of his drawings in November 1945.

What artistic value should we attach to Maeght's contribution today? Looking around the Fondation Maeght near Saint-Paul de Vence, in the hinterland of the French Riviera, one finds room after room full of abstract scrapings, prints, drawings and splashes by Hans Hartung. The works mean less and less as you see more and more: what Coleridge identified in Words worth as "an eddying rather than a progression of thought". It is much the same outside the gallery, amid the sculptures and umbrella pines that dot the terraced gardens. Here we take a ramble through the mind of Joan Miró. Evidently, there was a whole lot of eddying going on in that particular cerebellum. Many of the largest sculptures on view are by him, despite his unwavering inability to create three-dimensional works of real beauty.

Miró was indulged in these ponderous whimsies by Maeght. When his work is seen in quantity, he gives the impression, like Hartung, of an artist working in the comforting knowledge that anything he produces will find a certain market. As one of "Aimé Maeght's artists", as the Royal Academy exhibition puts it, he was feeding an ever-hungry retail outlet at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, an operation run in tandem with the separate shop window that is the Fondation at Saint-Paul. Nice work if you can get it, and if you were in with Maeght, you could get it without trying very hard.

Hartung's ruminations are on show at the Fondation Maeght partly because many of its "classic" modern works are en route to the Royal Academy for the important new exhibition, which is full of impressive paintings and sculptures. The Braques alone are worth the price of admission, and there are also outstanding works by Matisse and Bonnard. But the display at the RA will be more important still if it makes us ask questions about some of the iconic masters of modern art who have been so effectively promoted by the Maeght dealing machine. Joan Miró and Alexander Calder are top of the bill for the exhibition. Their stature is taken for granted.

In fact, Miró was one of nature's doodlers, better suited to wasting his time in graphic media than in the monumental bronze and ceramic that he so enjoyed. Maeght directed him towards etching and lithography. In an outhouse of the Fondation is one of the largest presses of its kind ever built, installed expressly to enable Miró to create print after print. Unlimited quantities of his trademark squiggles, in pretty colours on thick, handmade paper, were sold in expensive limited Maeght editions. Three identical presses were made for Miró, so that he need never stop making money - sorry, art - wherever he happened to be: whether in Saint-Paul de Vence, in Barcelona, or in Palma de Mallorca. It was a tough life: for the technicians, that is, more than a hundred of them, who tended the Miró-Maeght production line.

Preposterously, one of Miró's favourite gripes was with the bourgeois nature of art and the cultural indulgence of the rich. And Maeght's greatest passion was the creation of exclusive art books, formed by collaborations between famous artists and writers. Together with that master of stylish whimsy, Jacques Prévert, Miró duly created one of these extremely expensive baubles. With both of them doodling hard, however, the book took 22 years to complete, only for Prévert to die eight days before publication. Aimé Maeght had to sign the limited edition on his behalf.

The opening of the Fondation Maeght in 1964 was vital to the continuing success of Maeght's inspired dealing. It was partly born of the grief that Aimé felt at the loss of his 12-year-old son, Bernard. But, as a collection open to the public, the impressive-sounding Fondation had the effect of cementing the reputation of artists whom the gallery promoted. Not surprisingly, artists themselves soon cottoned on, and by 1974 Miró had a foundation all his own, in Barcelona, that looked very much like the Fondation Maeght.

Aimé Maeght, not for the first time, had started a craze. Hans Hartung and his wife, Anna-Eva Bergman, established a foundation in Antibes, where they had moved in 1973, and to which they left a daunting 16,000 works. Poor old Alberto Giacometti, who died in 1966, had been brought to prominence by Maeght with an exhibition in 1951, but had to wait until 2003 for a Paris foundation in his name. It now shores up his reputation and is stuffed with works bequeathed by his widow. Alexander Calder has not only a foundation, in New York, but an Atelier Calder on the Loire. Not surprisingly, Calder was a great chum of Miró: his flat metal shapes and Miró's even flatter squiggles are strikingly similar. They spent months together, year after year, as guests of the Maeghts, doodling away: Miró in whatever medium came to hand, Calder with those infuriating mobiles.

Shakespeare's Jaques speaks of "the bubble reputation" and several 20th-century art repu tations look increasingly like hugely overblown bubbles. These proliferating artists' foundations play a crucial role in keeping them inflated - and fine-art profits up. It was Aimé Maeght who invented the whole game.

"Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Braque: Aimé Maeght and His Artists" is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, from 4 October until 2 January 2009. For more information visit: www.royalacademy.org.uk