London Eye: April 2009
Some economists are warning that the global recession could endure until 2011, but listening to the upbeat message from the UK’s fine art auctioneers you’d be forgiven for doubting that there was even a recession on, let alone one that might continue for the next two years. Asked how the recession is affecting them, an understandable note of caution creeps into most responses, but it’s hard not to conclude from the small straw poll we conducted this week that while business is hardly booming, it’s still surprisingly bright.
In fact, if the recession is having any effect at all on auction business in the UK, it may be a positive one. The property market, which can often be relied on to bring goods to market, may be in a slump, but other factors are kicking in. Rodney Tennant of Tennants auctioneers in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, refers to provincial auction houses as “recycling centers.”
“The credit crunch is driving people towards preowned furniture. People are realising that a suite of furniture that might cost £1000 in the shops can often be had for as little as £100 at auction,” said Tennant. The growing confidence of private people to have a go at buying at auction rather than buying new is having a significant impact on Tennants’ general sales. “Our car park, which holds 600 cars, is always full for our weekly general sales, which commonly turn over in excess of £100,000 per sale.” Meanwhile, at the more serious end of the scale, Tennants’ quarterly fine art and antiques offerings are also remarkably buoyant given what’s happening in the economy. The firm’s spring sale this year turned over just over £2 million against £1.4 million last year before the credit crunch kicked in.
Tennant is not alone in emphasising the “recycling” benefits of buying at auction. Philip Allwood, a director of Moore, Allen & Innocent fine art auctioneers in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, said, “It’s not for nothing that the government calls us one of the greenest industries in the country.” Moore Allen has also noticed an upswing in private buying at their general sales, with their 300-space parking lot also invariably full on sale days. “The general landscape is very good,” said Allwood. “We’ve now had two record years on the trot and although we’re following those in a recession, which is a tall order, we’ve currently got no shortage of buyers and plenty of consignments. Things seem reasonably buoyant.”
Moore Allen’s strategy where their specialist sales are concerned is to edit the offering more carefully so that the emphasis is on quality works that can be more tastefully displayed. “Where six or seven years ago we may have had 800 to 900 lots in our picture sales, for example, we may now offer just 200 lots and yet the sale totals are proportionately higher. If we can find the right stuff, we can sell it.”
Such cautious confidence, despite what ought to be a falling market given the economic circumstances, is by no means rare. Chris Ewbank recently merged firm in his Woking, Surrey with a local rival to form Ewbank Clarke Gammon Wellers. A former chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and now chair of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors arts and antiques professional group, Ewbank is not given to effusive optimism, but even he said, “I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard from just about everybody in our sector that the recession is having little or no effect.”
Ewbank refers to the new quarterly survey about to be published by the RICS, which confirms that the outlook is “generally more positive than expected,” although he believes that the smaller auction houses who are more reliant on low-value house-clearance material will be suffering most. Like Tennant, Ewbank points to silver and jewelry as among the strongest sections of the market at present. Will Hobbs of Salisbury auctioneers Woolley & Wallis agrees. “Domestic silver is doing really well right now, particularly those niche areas such as vintage spoons, vinaigrettes and so on.” He puts this down to the firm’s decision to abandon general sales in favor of more specialist offerings. “Each department can focus in on what our clients really want and this approach has proved ideal for us.”
Another particularly strong area of the market at present is Asian material and specifically Chinese, largely thanks to the large number of newly wealthy mainland collectors seeking to buy back their country’s cultural heritage. John Axford, who looks after this area for Woolley & Wallis, has succeeded in assembling some impressive offerings in recent years. His next sale later this month looks likely to maintain the high standard as it includes an extraordinary private collection of early jade.
The collection emerged from a London bank vault into which it had been deposited during the war by its owner, Sackville George Pelham, fifth Earl of Yarborough. Many pieces were still wrapped in newspaper of the period. The collection includes an exceptional Chinese Imperial Qing Dynasty spinach-green jade water buffalo raised on a fine gilt bronze stand, from the Qianlong period, (1736-1795) (Fig. 12). This is expected to make up to £500,000.
To what extent is technology helping to boost buyer activity during these uncertain times? Ewbank in Surrey has always been an early adopter of technology. His sale last year of material salvaged from the studio of Francis Bacon saw the Internet playing a critical part in the bidding. “We like to be quick on the uptake where the Internet is concerned,” said Ewbank. “It makes our lives so much easier. We’re now at a stage where everything we do in the office is automatically integrated into the Web site at the touch of a button.”
Philip Allwood in Gloucestershire agrees that technology has intervened in positive ways in day-to-day auction management, pointing to the high-quality catalogs that Moore Allen & Innocent now produce in-house. “There are always things to learn on the technology side,” he said, while confessing reluctance to install Internet bidding for his sales. “I’m not converted yet; I’m still not convinced.”
Clive Stewart-Lockhart, a director of Newbury auction house Dreweatts’ Fine Art Auction Group, believes Internet bidding is here to stay but argues that the industry hasn’t yet cracked it. “It still represents an additional cost of two to three per cent of the hammer price that not all buyers are happy to absorb. It needs to be more cost-effective.” However, to illustrate the impact of technology he cites the case of a fine Fabergé desk clock sold at his rooms in November last year, which brought ten Russian buyers on the phones and the Internet. “They were clamouring for it,” he said. The result was a hammer price of £160,000. “If you get the right goods to auction, the buyers will surface,” he insists. “The world wants the best lots.” At Dreweatts’ last picture sale, the top lot went to a private collector bidding over the Internet, revealing that the take-up of Web-based bidding is increasing among both trade and private buyers.
Dreweatts’ Fine Art Auction Group now operates out of eight locations from Nottingham to Newbury, Bristol to Tunbridge Wells, enabling them to sweep up the sort of consignments that London firms Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams are no longer interested in. Mr Stewart-Lockhart looks back to when he worked for Sotheby’s many years ago when the firm held a furniture sale every week and an oak sale every month. Sotheby’s no longer holds furniture sales in Bond Street and neither does Christie’s in St. James’s. This allows Dreweatts, Tennants, Gorringes, Moore Allen and the rest to hoover up valuable business in the South of England and the Home Counties.
There is now a consensus that the area of the art market hit hardest by the recession is contemporary art. Thankfully for most provincial auctioneers, this is hardly a staple of their monthly sales. “We never wanted to be a Damien Hirst/Banksy saleroom,” said Tennant, adding that almost nothing is too humble to be offered at their rooms. “We’re a good, solid country auctioneer. If we’re offered the best, we’ll take the rest.”
As more and more private buyers look to auctions to see them through these credit-crunched times, it seems that one of the main beneficiaries of the recession is also one of the most unlikely – that much decried commodity known as brown furniture.
Tom Flynn is a London-based writer and journalist. His monograph on British sculptor Sean Henry has just been published by Scala.