This week, the Gazette Drouot, the house organ of the French state auction monopoly, led its online edition with the following:

Paris or Hong Kong? Why, both, my good sir! While the City of Light is preparing, in a tense environment, to host the new offshoot of the Biennale des Antiquaires, rechristened ‘Biennale Paris’ for the occasion, the former British colony is awaiting collectors of art and antiques for the 12th edition of Fine Art Asia. According to a joint report by Artnet and the China Association of Auctioneers (CAA), Asia, particularly Hong Kong, is gaining the upper hand in the Chinese art and antiques market to the detriment of less demanding Westerners. In this category, “the share of value sold in Asia (excluding mainland China) increased from 66% in 2011 to 78% in 2016,” to quote the report. A tendency favourable to the fair founded by Andy Hei, where turnover depends largely on Chinese antiques and a local clientele. In contrast, the new Biennale Paris is seeking a more international audience, and aiming to finally steal the limelight from its competitors, TEFAF (Maastricht/New York) and Masterpiece (London). Will collectors turn up in the hoped-for numbers? An unknown factor that should not affect the visitorship of the unobtrusive Parcours des Mondes: the tribal art fair staged the same week as the Biennale, which in only a few years has become a gold mine those who love the genre. Why not give it a go!

Frankly, it’s difficult to know what to make of this squib, since presumably the publishers of Gazette Drouot would prefer to focus exclusively on the redesigned Biennale. It’s unfortunate TEFAF and Masterpiece were identified as competitors, but I suppose all this is an acknowledgement that, for the moment, the trade in art and antiques in the western hemisphere is, shall we say, in a state of flux, while China appears to be where the action is.

Perhaps there is some truth in this, but the fact is, the Chinese market remains primarily driven by an interest in golden age Chinese fine and decorative arts. Qianlong porcelains and huang huali furniture, never precisely the mainstay of any but a handful of dealers in the west, continues to command enormous prices from newly enriched Chinese collectors. The irony, of course, is that so much of this material is being repatriated following a centuries long diaspora that did not abate until less than 2 decades ago. In fact, our first visit to the People’s Republic of China in late 1985 included stops during our tour to government owned galleries specializing in period material- porcelains, cloisonné, and jade- at what were knockdown prices. We did, frankly, acquire some excellent pieces. But then, we had something the Chinese government wanted more- hard currency.

It would be foolish to fail to acknowledge that, through whatever complex processes, economic and cultural hegemonies shift with some varying degrees of fluidity, and China for the moment continues in the ascendant.  Not just for this reason, the Biennale this year has nevertheless changed, with the Drouot Gazette opining it has gone a bit down-market. Two of the fair’s longtime mainstays are gone, Didier Aaron and Galerie Kraemer, formerly considered the crème de la crème of French furniture dealers.  No longer, with both caught up in a scandal, accused by French authorities of selling chairs to be placed in the Palace of Versailles that were, shall we say, fudged up.  An interesting side note, for 2017 Christopher Forbes is listed on the Biennale advisory panel, a real irony, as Forbes magazine had printed an article unctuously praising now besmirched Galerie Kraemer, terming it ‘the billionaire’s IKEA’.

Still and all, scandal and global economic shifts aside, it would be foolish to ignore that the traditional triumvirate of art market cities- New York, London and Paris, in no particular order- remains paramount. If I’ve a choice of destinations in the next month, gentle reader, you’ll find me in Paris at the Biennale in the glorious Grand Palais- as you would have found me at TEFAF Maastricht in March, and Masterpiece London in July.

Of all the good times I’ve had in my life, those enjoyed in Houston particularly stand out. We’ve been privileged to do a great deal of business in Houston and environs and without exception, we’ve been generously gifted by Houstonians with extraordinary hospitality.

In light of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, it may be a small thing encouraging my gentle readers to join me in sending relief to those beleaguered from its effects.

For very many years, we participated in Houston’s Theta Charity Antiques Show at the George R Brown Convention Center.  While we know Houston will bounce back, we know as well that the charity endeavors of the Theta ladies will in no small part assist that effort.

Many hands, they say, make light work. Let’s see how many hands we can contribute to lighten the work ahead for all Houstonians.

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.