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.

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.