The news in the trade today is all about 1st dibs’ raising its commission by 50% on sales under $10,000- which threshold, I’d warrant, probably constitutes the bulk of its sales activity. We’ve found out about this commission increase as it was trumpeted by another platform who, it was proud to say, had maintained its commission at a much, much lower rate. Frankly, given the amount of outside capital invested in 1st dibs, one has to assume that at some point a payday is expected, and with this new large increase in commission, one would further assume that that payday for its investors has so far been elusive.

Interestingly, the New York Times had reported in early May about the failure, so far, of e-commerce to garner much more than a smattering of art market sales. Even so, Christie’s claims the only segment of its business that’s grown has been its online activity. Perhaps it has, or perhaps it is only a claim functioning as a justification for the shedding of 250 staff positions and the closure of its South Kensington sale room.

What’s also cited is the opinion of Robert Read, head of art and private clients at fine art insurer Hiscox that the trade online still has to deal with, as he put it, ‘trust issues’. No question. As an erstwhile client of ours has it, if you don’t know your jewels, know your jeweler. For us, online or bricks and mortar, this business is and always has been one of relationships built on trust in addition to quality of stock. What might be a surprise to some, these relationships transcend all sales vehicles, including those online. For ourselves, it has in the past and is still currently a rarity to make a spot sale- a series of sales as a follow-on from the first is the nearly invariable result. And a series of sales, in anyone’s language, would certainly constitute a relationship.

But, then, this business is one of high touch, a facet of which is reassurance, either actual or virtual, but if an online sales platform seeks to become an intermediary, then the high touch nature of this business is at best occluded with the result being lost sales- for the dealer and the platform. One of the other claims about 1st dibs, for instance, is that it has increasingly sought to come between the dealer and the ultimate buyer. Indeed, one would be at pains to actually find dealer name and contact information when searching for an item, and the reason for this is of course clear- if it is a 1st dibs handled sale, the commission due the sales platform is higher.


With all that, we nevertheless maintain a store front on the sales platform RubyLUX  and no question, Chappell & McCullar strongly maintains its individual identity, as do all the other participating dealers. One other aspect that is likewise a strong feature is the link between RubyLUX and Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d’Art (CINOA). As the preeminent accrediting body in the art and antiques trade, the CINOA stamp is a further assurance of quality from a member dealer. Accreditation means very much to a collector, and it is overwhelmingly from the ranks of collectors that relationships with dealers are formed- and ‘trust issues’ are bridged.

Raine Spencer

We’ll soon be treated to a sale of the effects of the late Raine Spencer, onetime Countess Spencer, and step grandmother of the future King of England. I have to say, it took me about ten minutes to determine a proper form of address, as she had been married three times- widowed once  and divorced two times- from men of title. In her later life, despite having been widowed for 25 years from the 8th Earl Spencer and subsequently remarried and divorced, she did, against custom, and against decorum, revert to her earlier title.

‘Where did you get, where did you get that hat?’- with her mother Barbara Cartland

Her shall we say unorthodox adult life was preceded by one steeped in tradition, coming out and being deb of the year in 1948, but she was, after all the daughter of the queen of questionable taste, the romance novelist Barbara Cartland. In her later life, it was hard to tell Dame Barbara from Dame Edna Everage, and one wonders whether Dame Edna was fashioned after the former. Actually, one could tell them apart- Dame Edna was always a bit more restrained.

Interestingly, despite several marriages and high profile tiffs with her stepchildren- the Spencer children most notably dubbed her ‘Acid Raine’- she was nevertheless counted as friendly and gracious to those who met her and this friendly demeanour carried her through a long Tory political avocation.

Earl and Countess Spencer- love amongst the gilding

Looking at the later Raine Spencer, one has to note the huge hair, a political headdress, it seems, that marked British women of influence including Mrs Thatcher and Pamela Harriman. What it was these women were trying to communicate wearing a coif that could only be wrought with five cubic metres of VO5 one can only imagine.

But, then, certainly in the case of Raine Spencer, her objective was one always of garnering attention. Witness her efforts in the redecoration of Althorp following her marriage to Johnnie Spencer. She certainly didn’t spare the gold leaf to achieve effects that doubtless had John Fowler spinning in his grave.

Glorious, nevertheless- in 1957, when Countess of Dartmouth

Still and all, one can’t help feeling wistful that with the passing of Raine Spencer there evaporates an era, with a woman who like so many of her  now nearly vanished tribe felt she could do no wrong, that, in fact, the rules of polite society, though rigorously acknowledged, nevertheless felt unobliged to follow.

The presentation courts didn’t long survive Raine Spencer’s coming out, with the last held in the London season of 1958. While there are no shortage of contemporary party girls, I must say, the misbehavior of someone having been presented and given the royal nod seems all the more delightful to a salacious, albeit nostalgic, old party like me. Good on her.

This may seem like I’m dancing on someone’s grave, apropos my last blog entry. I’m really not, and indeed feel a bit wistful when I read the small print missive in the last of the last Christie’s South Kensington catalog, for an interiors sale scheduled for July 19, ‘Thank you to all our loyal clients for your bids over the last 42 years.’ This, below the final two lots- a set of 12 Georgian design armchairs and a long Regency design table, both of which were in use until the place is shuttered in the CSK board room. Will a Christie’s South Ken provenance count for much in the years to come? I wonder.

For the moment, though, the sales rooms in London and the Home Counties seem to expect a hole absent CSK that they seek to fill. About a year ago, Bonham’s shed their entire English furniture department, only to have those Bonhams refugees band together to form their own sales in Moorpark, under the trade style Pedestal. They probably are chagrined to find that their former employer has then re-added fine English furniture to their schedule, with Bonham’s inaugural European Collections sale earlier this month featuring a goodly bit of goodly English furniture.

In fact, most of the sales rooms, even as far afield as Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury are hosting fine furniture sales in the next few weeks to coincide with the remaining London fairs- Olympia and Masterpiece-  that traditionally cap the season. Nearer to town, Dreweatts will have a fine furniture sale, but I’m not certain if this will be helmed by new owner Mark Law. In an occurrence that surprised those of us in the trade, it was announced a short while ago that a group of investors headed by Mark had acquired the auction business and what’s left of Mallett from the former owners the Fine Art Auction Group. Not surprised that the owners- following on disastrous operating results and presumably very short of the ready- needed to sell, but that Mark, although with a former connection to Dreweatts would then so near to the fiasco that was his disastrous ownership of Partridge Fine Art be able to then syndicate another prominent acquisition. Who knows? Desperate times, desperate measures, I guess.

Back to the beginning, nothing will take the place of CSK and the enjoyment Keith McCullar and I had of viewing and sitting through sales. Mind you, though in the second rank compared to King Street, quite a bit of the material offered was anything but second rate. I remember vividly bidding up to £35,000 a large rococo portrait that I felt sure was by Nattier, and, when I chickened out, it was knocked down to a phone bidder. As the portrait was for a client, I then rang him, said it was sold, and was then given instruction by him to acquire it if I could for substantially more than I bid. Mid sale, I then pulled my friend and CSK stalwart Midgie Coyle aside, told her what I was after, and she then phoned the buyer. As it happened, it was the redoubtable dealer Bernheimer in Munich, who then graciously agreed to sell the painting to me- plus a modest markup- so, thanks to the help of Christie’s, we ended with smiles all around.

In nostalgic mood, I could go on and on, recalling, for instance, the redoubtable podium skills of retired CSK directors-cum-auctioneers Philip Duckworth and Hugh Edmeades, moving the pace of sales along saving the bums of those perched on perennially uncomfortable chairs in the front or hanger sales rooms, but never failing to wring the last penny out of potential buyers. Through long experience, they did though, know who the buyers were, and who it was that had wandered in from the Old Brompton Road to get out of the rain.

Yes, I know my last entry was a bit snarky about the fate of Christie’s South Ken, but now the event is upon us, I freely admit, I’ll miss them.

Christie’s South Ken- of (mixed) blessed memory

Not surprising, there’s been a fair old bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth about the demise of Christie’s South Kensington. A lot has been written in the art and antiques trade press about the displacement of all the staff there, too, but what’s missed, though, is Christie’s wide ranging effort to trim things back, with, as I’ve noticed, a few people I’ve got to know in New York now it appears looking for work. Wide ranging, indeed, with even the quarterly Christie’s house organ now printed on newsprint, and reduced in size to something akin to the monthly news papers still produced in a few high schools.

All this is I suppose sad, but what most people have forgotten is that Christie’s, and Sotheby’s for that matter, got large and staff heavy really in the last twenty or so years. For most of their history- and I’d say for about 200 years of it- these venerable houses performed their traditional role of selling the movables of a number of deceased estates, and those fallen on hard times. Indeed, the real glory years in the auction business were ironically in the teeth of generally hard times, after the imposition of ruinous death duties following and in an attempt to pay for the Great War- with noble houses shorn of so many of their heirs aristocratic families had not much choice, or in their grief much desire, come to it, to resist the advance of a Labour government looking for whatever revenue sources it could find. The auction house’s gaveling out lock, stock, barrel, and suites of Chippendale furniture were at the time and for decades after the usual course of their business.

With a stratospheric move upmarket particularly in the 1980’s and 1990’s following on from enormously successful sales of Impressionist pictures to a burgeoning Japanese market, we all of us quickly grew to expect that Christie’s and Sotheby’s would forever have theirs stars in the ascendant with commissions earned on 7, 8, or even 9 figure art market consignments.

What became apparent to all of us, though, in the wake of the price fixing scandal that landed Christie’s and Sotheby’s in the soup- and a couple of their senior execs in jail- was how competitive and thinly profitable the business actually is. Indeed, it was this move to market and revenue expansion that prompted the change at Christie’s South Ken from its traditional role as a venue for stock primarily available to the trade, to a retail venue that competed very directly with the trade. The specialist sales with specific collecting categories- furniture, paintings, Orientalia- were eclipsed by so-called interiors sales, a grab bag of all manner of material that sought to appeal to younger X generation types moving into homes who could then obtain furnishings, art work and bibelot all in one location.

Certainly the London and continental trade felt the effect of the change at Christie’s South Ken very keenly- a huge and seemingly unlimited budget for marketing functionally scooped the turnover marrow out of a large section of the trade, and this, coupled with exorbitantly rising rents in the best art and antiques venues, has reduced what was a healthy business into a crippled shadow of its former self.

Consequently, while I’ve enjoyed browsing Christie’s South Ken for donkey’s years, its imminent closure has caused me to shed tears more of the crocodile variety. It will be interesting to watch to see if the trade particularly in London, so badly injured in the last two decades, might sans Christie’s be impacted positively. In my further opinion, it would be surprising if even this shot in the revenue arm will do what survives of the trade so badly maimed as its been any appreciable good.

Christie’s has announced the closure by the end of the year of its second rank London saleroom on the Old Brompton Road, Christie’s South Kensington, or as the trade always has it ‘CSK’. Long the haunt of dealers, like me, it was for the less costly items that were not quite the ca £5,000 price minimum for the firm’s King Street premises. Mind you, it was hardly a clearing house, with very many fine things, including sales from stately and aristocratic homes offered regularly. In recent years, it was at least notionally regarded by Christie’s as a retail even more than a trade resource, a venue for proto-collectors, with evening views offering wine and nibblies for an afterwork crowd. And they did crowd in.

Not enough of them, it seems, with Christie’s reporting their growth in new clients mostly from their online only sales, which they plan to expand. Will this make a bottom line difference? Probably not as much as the 250 staff positions the company also now plans to make redundant. It’s interesting to note, although there will be more emphasis in online sales, presumably the company plans to hedge its bets, keeping one foot on the bricks and mortar shore, with a planned opening of a saleroom in Los Angeles and expansion in China. Noting that Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti is fairly new on the job, he might not realize that the company did until a few years ago have a saleroom in Los Angeles- and closed it. And that the Chinese buyers were well and increasingly represented at sales at CSK.

It seems that generally the wisdom in institutional culture, if you can’t blame your predecessor for the present ills of a business, then attention from current problems can then be diverted by reorganization. Christie’s, we’ll say no more, at least not in this paragraph, but the granddaddy of all shelter publications Architectural Digest will now become AD. For those of us in the trade, it always has been ‘AD’ but it appears it wishes to let the reading public in on the inside. Sure. The fact is, the most recent books have been about as thin as a high school newspaper. There used to be issues that were awaited with bated breath- the AD 100 and Designer’s Own Homes issues were about as thick as a phone book. But, then, phone books where they even exist are pretty thin now, too. Unfortunately, AD, as with every other shelter publication, is finding itself running wildly to catch what it perceives as its target market, a younger urban type whose idea of good design is a roomful of furniture purchased in one fell swoop from a big box store and then delivered in a flat pack. It might be worth pointing out that these selfsame flat pack stores produce catalogs that contain content that looks suspiciously like the content in the major shelters, and the catalogs are free for the taking.