Thomas Pope, by William Larkin- a star of the London season

It was always a joke in the post mortem meetings that accompany most art and antiques fairs, the dealers that complained the loudest about fair amenities, attendees, or promotion, were the dealers whose sales were the lowest. Mind you, it was and remains a rarity for dealers candidly to admit their at-fair sales. Some of our acquaintance always reported brilliant results at every fair, only to find, a few months on, that they’d ceased trading.

In fairness, though, a prudent and reflective dealer can’t really know or assess success at the conclusion of a fair. The standard one should stick to is, assess the fair’s success six month’s on- if you’ve achieved some sales post-fair to at-fair visitors, then reasonably those sales should be attributed to the fair itself.

Still, a fair old bit of whinging post fair is inevitable, and with so very many dealers now trading only by appointment, selling during the run of the fair is essential. For furniture dealers particularly, the shipping, handling, and sheer space required to show always runs into money. For us to do a middling fair results in a mid 5 figure price tag, and the cost only goes up from there.

It is sad to report that even in our benighted backwater, we were nevertheless able to hear the weeping and gnashing of dealer’s teeth that marked the unfortunate conclusion of the London season. With only two fairs now surviving- Olympia and Masterpiece- there was no particular increase in revenue or attendance given the smaller number of venues. Indeed, Olympia itself is pared down from past years, with 160 dealers- less than half the number the fair boasted in its glory days. One dealer complained that Olympia’s problems stem from its being too far from central London. Really? With a tube stop at its very door and special trains laid on? Perhaps those five steps across the platform at Earl’s Court station are a bridge too far.

And, now, of course, the perennial complaint that the buying public has suffered a sea change in its taste and buying patterns. While Olympia remains a bit brown furniture heavy, Masterpiece is much broader in its luxury goods approach to what’s on offer, and its broad range did not offer much insight, with lackluster sales across the board.

There were surprises during the final few days of the season, a few, including an extraordinary early 17th century portrait of Thomas Pope, 3rd Earl of Downe, by William Larkin (1580-1619) for £370,000. Worthy of note- this sale at auction at Bonhams in New Bond Street at 6 times high estimate puts paid to any notion that it is only contemporary art that is the market’s bright spot.

Of course, not all lots at auction or at fairs are stellar, but in days that have so far gone by they seem nearly legendary, it was almost axiomatic that, if a dealer offered any kind of fairworthy material, it would probably find a home, and not accompany him back to his shop in Nether Wallop.

The why of this? Last year, it was thought moribund trading conditions were brought on by uncertainties related to Brexit. This year- well, Brexit is still proceeding apace, and global political uncertainties throughout intensify daily. Still, stock markets burgeon with unrealized profits the result of asset appreciation. One would think modest encashment would provide enough of the ready to result in more than a few fair purchases.

So who’s to say? Certainly the internet provides a virtual fair all day every day, with online platforms taking the place of not just bricks and mortar but also the fair marquee. While only one and at most two platforms offer material of fair quality, that there are so many- with a new one announcing its presence just today- all function to some extent to whittle away some little bit of business.

Still, the fair experience, at the likes of Olympia and Masterpiece, cannot be equaled, and for those who have once experienced this portion of the London season, it is likely to become an annual event. And the virtual online competition? And will it fade? Sometimes, the only thing to do is persevere and wait until the gods driving both market forces and the experience of the art market patron decide to focus a beatific countenance on dealers in the trade once again.

The London trade continues to be abuzz with discussions about the vacuum left in the auction market with the closure last week of Christie’s South Kensington. The last sale at the venerable venue was on July 19, consisting of an ‘Interiors’ sale, a grab-bag of period and not-so-period material in the fine and decorative arts, price point driven to appeal to younger and design-driven buyers. This is a format CSK pretty much invented, but has now been adopted by very nearly every other sale room- except, it is significant to note, Sotheby’s, who tried the concept at their Olympia saleroom, abandoning the concept, and the saleroom, nearly 10 years ago.

Jussi Pylkkanen of Christie’s claims that CSK was still profitable, but that the company made a strategic decision to deploy its resources in more profitable areas, like expanding its presence in China and online. I imagine those resources are a bit more plentiful now it’s shed a rumoured 14% of its workforce, including everyone at CSK. Still, a few senior CSK staffers have landed on their feet it seems, finding work in some of the other local houses, including Chiswick Auctions in west London, and Rosebery’s in southeast London, and Sworder’s to the north.

While one would imagine there will be some expertise carried along, whether there is anything in the way of a book of business is an open question. Certainly, the local houses that offered employment expect something in the way of an increase in sales over and above what might naturally come their way the result of the closure of CSK. The Antiques Trade Gazette reports that CSK’s annual volume of consigned items ran to 8,500 lots, but one doubts this will be distributed wholly to the likes of the smaller local houses. Bonhams retains its two London rooms- New Bond Street and its second rank room in Knightsbridge, which room will certainly benefit. Christie’s of course retains its King Street location, and will doubtless high grade consignments that might have formerly gone to South Kensington, and Sotheby’s will probably benefit in the same way.

What has seemed with the loss of CSK will prove, in my opinion, not a vacuum but an overfilling of the marketplace that will certainly result in not too long a time in a winnowing out of the sale rooms now optimistically but nevertheless hell-bent on expansion. Who will survive? An open question, but we’ll certainly see another wave of redundancies sometime soon. And we’ll see a general testing of the liquidity contained in the balance sheets of all the sale rooms in London and the Home Counties, as company cash is strained while awaiting an illusory increase in revenues.

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.