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.

Anyone with even the slightest connection with the art world knows that it is, shall we say, in a state of flux. With all that, very many of the art market publications have nevertheless sought to put the best face possible on the vicissitudes of the market and its players. For those of us in the trenches, one of the handiest publications continues to be the Antiques Trade Gazette, a weekly tabloid format compendium of real news within the trade in art and antiques, and if read diligently, something wherein trends and undercurrents can be sussed out. I say ‘sussed out’ because the paper never really gives much editorial to out and out failures within the industry- reports of auction items only partly taken up, changes in the volume of international sales, limited sales at fairs and discontinuing of fairs though reported factually yet editorially require readers to draw their own conclusions.

And we can, of course. This week’s paper is given over to an examination and frankly push forward of the annual TEFAF Maastricht fair opening March 10. In my last blog, I had said that Maastricht is arguably the best fair in the world, but I’ll go safely out on a limb and declare that it is the best, without much fear of argument. The world’s best dealers bring the best of their stock, and, traditionally, lots of business is done with serious collectors and museums. It has always seemed to me that, with fairs generally having been replaced with the virtual fair the internet offers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the better fairs, and indeed in the case of Maastricht the best fair would be perennially exempt ‘virtual’ competition. I suppose I had ignored the fates of the Grosvenor House Fair, and more recently, Haughton’s discontinuing their New York International Fair and Art Antiques London, and the change after change in management and focus of Masterpiece London.

But apparently the difficulties that have beset all fairs has now so far invaded even Maastricht that the Antiques Trade Gazette is unable to, not hide precisely, but shall we say decline to occlude them. Davide Gasparotto of the Getty Museum is extensively quoted in the section about Maastricht, saying that even if a museum is not buying, and they aren’t, it is still worthwhile for a curator to attend, to, as he says, ‘take the pulse of the market’.  Why? Why would he need to attend, if he’s not planning on doing so with a donor, with at least the intent to make a purchase? To network, at the expense of the museum he works for, and ultimately, to the detriment of the exhibiting dealers.  Now, Gasparotto says, the preference is to deal privately.

Perhaps it is so, and it begs the question about the necessity of a dealer participating in a fair at all. The Antiques Trade Gazette in the same issue has the question answered by old master paintings dealer characterized as a Maastricht ‘stalwart’ Johnny Van Haeften. He has recently moved his gallery, presumably priced out, from London’s St James, to his home in the London suburbs, and this outing at the 30th Maastricht may be his last. Next year’s participation? To quote Van Haeften ‘We have not quite decided.’

As every school child knows, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Although one loves to exhibit at Maastricht and visit it, it is still and all a selling exhibition. It will not long survive if it becomes, in the main, a venue for assessing the health of the market or a backdrop for an extended wine glass in hand opportunity to network. One has to assume that even the organizers of Maastricht know its future is uncertain. It launched a TEFAF New York last October, with another to follow in May of this year. One can only conclude that with the Maastricht fair now for all intents and purposes competing against itself, its days are numbered.

It’s sad to see the ongoing bloodbath at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In all places and of all institutions, one would assume the redoubtable Met would be immune from the financial crises that seem now to be part and parcel of the running of any arts organization. While the Met has sought to engage a larger audience and broaden its constituency through capital expansion, new programs and electronic media, so far it hasn’t- as it hasn’t for anyone in the arts- made much difference.

It seems that in desperate times, all organizations seek some sort of messianic solution- a new, charismatic director is a popular one, someone who will develop a cult of personality allowing thereby a mesmerizing effect on visitors and donors alike, both actual and potential. One wonders, though, how well the likes of Thomas Hoving or Leonard Bernstein, those of sainted memory of 40 years ago, would fare today.

And, indeed, when one thinks of these charismatic characters at the top, what’s not apparent is the spiky relationship they maintained with the governance of the organizations they served. In developing their own cult of personality, they felt immune from the mundane necessity of things like working within a budget. And, of course, it is the failure of working within the vaunted budget and the eventual failure to meet its financial obligations that results in the ultimate failure of the institution.

It may seem insulting to the intelligence of my gentle readers to make such an obvious point, but it is astonishing to me the extent to which arts organizations fail to grasp this simplest of simple facts. Indeed, when times are tough, organizations often spend more money in an attempt to widen their audience and make a big splash, when they should be focusing on their core institution and, wait for it, spending less. How often I’ve seen the last big expenditure the payment of six figures to an offsite consultant who told the organization what they should have already known, and the payment to the consultant resulted, sad irony, in the last nail in the financial coffin.

It’s funny, not really, but ironically so, that along with today’s press about the vicissitudes of the Met, I also read in the art press about the pending opening of TEFAF Maastricht, arguably the world’s finest fine and decorative arts fair. My last visit to Maastricht brought me face to face with several curators from American museums, with an equal distribution from both coasts of the US. None of them were shopping with donors, but they were shopping, although at present I can’t confirm that any purchases were made onsite or subsequent to the closing of the fair. However, what I can say is that the curators got a free, expense paid trip to the Netherlands, with their doubtlessly cash strapped institutions footing the bill. Charity begins at home, it seems to me, and if one doesn’t have an abundance of the ready, one needs to stay at home.

At long last, Keith and I were able to spend enough time in Honolulu to take advantage of something we’d wanted to do for decades. Not precisely one of these so called bucket list items, but something nevertheless we felt the poorer for not participating. Specifically, it was a series of lectures, running annually for 30 years, sponsored by the Historic Hawaii Foundation, and covering heritage subjects with a particular emphasis on Hawaii. Kudos to the persistence of the Historic Hawaii Foundation for making this all happen, with the long time assistance of the redoubtable Dr William Chapman, the chair of the American Studies program at the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus.

It is something of an irony that, with so many people who support the heritage industry, not only with their money but with their visits to heritage sites and attendance at lectures, of the shall we say graying generation, those who operate and curate the heritage industry are very, very young. Consequently, there is a bit of a disconnect, beyond the one wrought simply by age. Museum and heritage studies programs turn out graduates who are imbued with contemporary ideas about museology that then are spewed back, and heard while scratching their heads, by museum and heritage site visitors.

Mind you, a bit of revisionism is appropriate given that there still exist pervasive notions about culture being the exclusive province of northwestern Europe, and the northeast of the United States. History is, after all, written by the victors whether on the fields of battle or halls of academia. Still and all, sometimes, as Freud had it, a cigar is just a cigar.

Case in point, with one of the lectures focused on the Hawaiian Mission Houses, we were treated to a generic discussion by the outgoing director on changes in historiography over the last century. Mystifying at first, but then his point brought vaguely into focus when he asked those assembled whether, by show of hands, we thought the missionaries to Hawaii were colonists or imperialists.

As the lecture itself was so disjointed and so discomfited my own thoughts, I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask the lecturer if mightn’t the missionaries have been just that- missionaries. In his final remarks, the director asked again by show of hands if he hadn’t convinced us the missionaries were cultural imperialists.  Were they? Were there proto-Maoists operating at the time of the Great Awakening in the early years of the 19th century? Or more likely, was the director in his lecture mouthing an extreme cultural anachronism? I would strongly stump for the latter.

No question about it, heritage sites and arts and cultural institutions generally, and internationally, are on hard times, with declining attendance and an increasing paucity of revenue that stimulates their governing bodies and administration to flail wildly for programs and approaches to make their institutions relevant to a younger audience. In this age of the handheld device and million channel interactive TV, anything outside electronic entertainment has a tough row to hoe.  Still and all, it is imperative to mediate, to use a term current in museology, between the contemporary methodologies that are shall we say fashionable at the moment, and the familiar, traditional, canonical functions that are embraced by the traditional attendees and supporters. While of course one wants to educate and challenge the intellects of everyone, it would be wise to remember that entertainment is what most people are after, including that elusive younger attendee, so it would be equally wise to bear in mind that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.