The (illusory) youth market

One of the local lifestyle publications arrived today and, per usual, I can’t prevent myself from looking at the society pages to see who was where doing what with whom. San Francisco is a small town, albeit with a cachet that allows it culturally to punch above its weight, but we nevertheless enjoy seeing the 100 or so of the beau monde that feature habitually doing whatever it is they’ve done in the past month. Keith has remarked that these 100 must inordinately enjoy one another’s company, as these self same are always month in and month out pictured together.

Cattiness aside, browsing the pages of the magazine and glancing at the features and articles, a disconnect frequently presents itself, with those front of the book consumables and features that are prominent always at a culturally significant variance from the back of the book grandees that form the core of the society news. That is, nothing really looks like it would be purchased by the great and the good. But the fact is, since there are not that many grandees nor events they patronize, the column inches they take up are limited, and other stuff must necessarily flesh out the magazine. The overall look of our local publication is what I believe passes for kicky, with items for sale or promoted in features that, perhaps the editor assumes, would appeal to a younger reader. Younger, that is, than those established citizens in the society pics at the back. One feature that stands out in the most recent issue displays a panoply of newly made items with at least one of its major components natural wood- a torchere that looks like a middle school wood shop project, a similarly designed vase, a stool with wooden seat surmounting a Bertoia-esque metal base- you get the idea. And all in the $200-$500 price category.

Presumably someone did their market research to determine that, for erstwhile design, this is what younger people will buy and the price point they will pay. No surprise here, as our experience with fine 20th century design, as with fine quality earlier period pieces, at price points many multiples in excess of $500, is that it is the same age demographic that purchases both. For us, in the 11 years we’ve been in business, our typical buyer has stayed basically the same, in the 48 to 68 year old age bracket. Not any older, and not any younger, and rarely, dare I say it? still in the bloom of youth. What we’ve found is that the buyer for fine quality decorative or fine arts is someone who basically has made their money. Makes sense, of course, as what we’re selling no one really has to have to live, and while most of our buyers have moved toward a level of connoisseurship that informs their buying, the nexus of their purchase decision remains one that is financially enabled. Money to spend and connoisseurship- an essential confluence that rarely appears before the fifth decade of life.

With so much local attention given to younger people in the tech world with, ostensibly, money to burn, the misapprehension remains abroad in the land that this forms a significant buyer pool for those of us in the trade. It is apparently the presumption of the print media, too, consequently the disconnect- society folk mixed with features aimed at a hoped-for youth market. However, with the print media generally regarded as on the ropes and with the well-known youth penchant for electronic networking, those of us of shall we say mature years who actually still purchase and remember how to read a magazine make the mistake of assuming that the publication we are reading necessarily has the ability to define a youth market. Doubtful, wouldn’t you say? Consequently, what we might, through the glass of print media, perceive as the constituents of a youth market are at best specious if not downright illusory.

What seems more apparent that, save for the first things anyone newly moneyed purchases- a flash car and a house, sans furniture- the younger consumer doesn’t spend any more now with the trade than they used to. While it might be, as some in the media would have us believe,  the retro chic Heywood Wakefield maple coffee table of my parents’ generation,  or the pseudo- Italian modernism made in Asia and delivered in a flat pack, what’s common to so much material prominently featured is that it is simple, cheap, made in multiples, available online, and crap. For myself, I have no intention of making any alteration to my stock in trade, and will continue to lie in a prone position and try and resume normal breathing when overcome with anxiety about being left behind and left out of a market that probably doesn’t now, and probably never did, exist.

Expensive, again

My last blog engendered a flurry of responders, mostly from colleagues, eager to chime in about the positive merits of the trade versus the salerooms. Well, yes, but a fair old amount of the recent criticism of the salesrooms, and the consequent glee at difficulty it is perceived they are now experiencing, has quite a bit to do with a nostalgia for the good old days.

Was a time, of course, when the salesrooms were the trade only province, a resource for goods bought at wholesale that could then be marked up and retailed to the general public. Unless the trade includes an inordinate number who took their cue from Rip van Winkle, such has not been the case for years. With the promotion of so called ‘interiors’ sales, a term adopted by a huge number of venues, very many salesrooms have sought to basically imitate what might be an online antiques mall, with a mixture of period and vintage material, of varying quality (by which I mean nothing of very good quality) that might be useful for the shopping designer or householder. I suspect that what has made this less successful, at least for the large salesroom that continues to offer this sales format, the proliferation of online platforms makes waiting for an auction a non-essential- the sales platforms are available all day, every day.

And, with items competitively priced, or they should be, with dealers, one would presume, comparing similar items to determine the going rate. But dealers don’t always and, in fact, frequently don’t. Admittedly, for those of us in particular thrall with our own stock in trade, our own inventory can always seem of better quality, and consequently deserving to command a higher price than that of other dealers.

But what sort of premium in pricing is appropriate? I’ve always said our primary criteria are quality, condition, and rarity, but these too often are entirely subjective terms, and, unfortunately, difficult for the prospective buyer to assess certainly when buying online. When in doubt, of course, purchase from a member of the accredited trade who should be able to justify, if such is the case, why their stock might be more expensive, because presumably of better inherent quality, than that of another dealer, or that of a salesroom.

Or possibly not. I remember vividly the first time, and I have subsequently heard the same dealer repeat this many times, that his material was expensive because of how much he had to pay to acquire it. In dealer parlance, ‘putz’ is the term for  a dealer with this type of pricing strategy. Although this gentleman’s runaway ego drives him to announce to prospective buyers how expensive is his acquisition cost, it is surprising the numbers of dealers who, although less vocal, function in the same way. Rather than knowledgeably considering what is a reasonable selling price for the piece prior to acquisition and making the wholesale purchase fit accordingly, items are acquired for an inordinately high price, marked up and offered for sale. Under circumstances where a dealer seeks to justify a sky high price by telling me how much he had paid, my thought generally is the more fool he.

And ultimately, this is how the salesroom, as well as online platforms, have certainly provided a benefit to antiques and artwork buyers, whether seasoned or novice, whether collector or interior designer, with the existence now of a pricing transparency that diminishes the prolixity and fearsomeness of dealing with even the most vaunted members of the trade. Will a buyer get a good deal buying from these online resources? Perhaps, but certainly not guaranteed. What is increasingly likely, though, is that an astute member of the accredited trade will, times being the way they are, will have done their homework and offer items similar to those of their colleagues at a similar price point.

Expensive

One of the major salesrooms has, in short order, announced it will close half its retail sales operation and increase its premium rates. Since the salesroom is privately owned, the why of this must be shrouded in mystery, but a reasonable speculation is that they’ve found becoming art market retailers an expensive proposition.

As, of course, it is. Any member of the accredited trade in any of the better venues in any art market city will tell anyone who asks, that this is and always has been a costly business. Rent, of course, staffing, keeping the lights on and the galleries up to the mark- and this says nothing of the cost of acquiring and maintaining one’s stock in trade. This is, after all, one of the luxury trades and that cannot be pursued on the cheap.

That a salesroom would choose to pursue this is understandable, given the disarray in the wider trade the last couple of years with the global economic downturn. One would assume the gap left in the retail art market with the departure of a number of well known galleries would open up the field. Well, possibly, but the fact of the matter is, now matter how well capitalized a salesroom is and how long length of purse can support a retail trading floor, what cannot be substituted now or ever is the service and expertise a retail gallery will always be able to provide. What early on struck us in this business was how high touch it was, with gallery patrons always spending a goodish amount of time with us, and lots of palaver and bonding occurring before the first purchase was made. Note that I said the first purchase, as, not a surprising corollary, this is also overwhelmingly a relationship business. Our clients may make one purchase at a time, but they seldom make only one- spot sales for us are unusual. The client likes our stock, likes us as gallery owners, and, when looked back over the years, a retail gallery and ours is no exception, finds it has a cadre of clients who, though not buying all the time, when they do buy, go see us first.

Well, of course the why of the bonding between client and retail dealer is not too surprising. Most purchases are destined for someone’s home, so there is, consequently, an intimacy established that, even at some remove, the client is at least symbolically inviting the gallery owner into their home. As is literally the case, too, as our sales typically involve a housecall to see the piece is received in good condition and likewise installed, and rarely does this not involve the client. Always eager are they to display their own collection, and to discuss it with someone they consider in a position to appreciate it.

It would be surprising to me to find that a salesroom would ever provide the same level of service or establish the same level of intimacy as the better retail gallery. As part of what we do, we undertake restoration projects for good clients, but I am ashamed to say, turn away projects from others with a degree of not always fully concealed glee when we find what they need done up is an auction purchase. ‘As is, where is’ is a pretty basic trading condition for salesrooms, and I suspect that that may be the limit of personal service, as well.

We service what we sell

One of very many things I value is the cadre of craftspeople we rely on to put our stock in shape prior to its display in our galleries. I am put in mind of 18th century workshop practice, because we can have a number of crafts involved in the process. A piece of painted furniture, for instance the small japanned bureau on stand illustrated, had three- a painter to restore the surface decoration, a turner to replace one of the legs, and a bronzier to recast a replacement drawer pull. Suffice to say, the end product is something lovely, and in its result, the livery companies of a former day haven’t a patch on us.

It’s also apparent, though, that there’s a degree in backroom complexity associated with this business that one determines in the fullness of time. Moreover, there’s no master protocol associated with anything that requires restoration and the only blanket statement I can make is that everything, and I do mean everything, that we sell has required something done to it. Admittedly, we strive to acquire pieces, whether of the fine or decorative arts, that are in fairly good and largely original condition, but thinking that something might be in entirely, untouched original condition and in good enough nick to offer it untouched is folly. The general rule of thumb, and one to which most connoisseurs would subscribe, is that everything requires some significant work done to keep it in a reasonable state at least once every hundred years. That seems like not much, but bearing in mind that a number of our pieces are three centuries old means that, of necessity, things have been seen to a number of times.

When someone comes into our gallery and admires, in if the planets are in alignment actually purchases, one or more items of our stock, what they’ve also purchased is our assessment of what it took to put the item(s) in saleable condition. Mind you, though our backroom team does a great job, what they do is what we, after a great deal of consideration and back and forth palaver, direct them to do. As a consequence, when we’re asked by those who have yet to favor us with their custom about recommending a restorer, or more frequently asking us to undertake a restoration, we like as not will demur. Probably more than likely. Determining what it is that the client actually has in mind is a tedious task and always requires us, on the odd occasion that we actually undertake custom projects, to provide supervision that is no less time consuming than that required on pieces we actually plan to take into inventory. Further, we always, it seems, have a backup in our workrooms, with a fair number of our own pieces awaiting the magic touch, so slotting in a piece from elsewhere necessarily delays the completion of our own projects. So venal fellows that we are, we will for the indefinite future focus on the remunerative aspect of our business, the retail sale of art and antiques.

Theta Charity Antiques Show

We’re back from Houston and the 60th outing of the Theta Charity Antiques Show, and with profoundly mixed feelings. Glad to be home, of course, but sad to leave the hospitality and accommodation the Theta ladies, and indeed all our Houston based clients extended to us during our stay.

For those of you venal enough to inquire about our at-show sales, let me assure you we brought home significantly less than we took to the show. But, frankly, that misses the point of this blog entry which is, basically, that the only show we’ve done for a long time that consistently understands the symbiotic relationship between benefit charity and show dealer is the Theta show. While of course the Theta ladies understand that for them, the show intends to be a money spinner for the support of their numerous charities, they never, ever seek to move more significantly into the black on the backs of participating dealers. They understand that, if the show is too expensive to participate in, their stock of dealers will wane, and that, if dealers do not do well with at show sales, likewise the dealers will stay away.

Consequently, the Theta ladies make every effort to promote the show and as much as possible accommodate the dealers. During the run of the show, Keith and I saw no fewer than 10 Theta show commercials on TV, and were aware of at least 3 features on the show on Houston morning TV. At least two feature articles on the show were in the Houston Chronicle, one of which, I modestly mention, featured a piece from Chappell & McCullar.

All in all, I’d have to give the Theta Charity Antiques Show the thumbiest of thumbs up for effort and hospitality. And the Theta ladies individually are about as nice as nice could be. We have never been as well fed and watered as at the Theta show, with the dealer hospitality area at the back replete with all manner of edible goodies. And the ladies are always there- from the first to the last, to make sure that everything goes well. Kudos of the highest order.

Moreover, we have to say that Houstonians generally are a hospitable and a loyal lot. Although not all our Houston clients made purchases from us at the show, virtually every one of them stopped by to say hello and browse. Will this lead to after show sales? I would venture to say so. As well, we did not lack for dinner invitations during the run of the show- our Thanksgiving started early. (Read- belts will be worn larger this winter.)

The talent at the show was thoroughgoing, extending through dealer colleagues Gary Sergeant and Lori and Mark Finke of Jayne Thompson Antiques and also speakers including Leigh Keno and Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill. Leigh and Lady Henrietta were ably shepherded by our good friends and ASID award winning designers Sarah Eilers and Sandy Lucas.

My goodness, I’ve nearly run out of superlatives. What more can I say, but do what all the best people are doing and mark your calendars for next years’ outing of the show.

Paean to the period

If you haven’t picked up a copy of the newly released Ann Getty Interior Style do so at once. With images of the work of Mrs. Getty and her design team, including in situ images of astonishing pieces from her own collections, dealers and collectors around the world should create an award for her of tempietto dimensions as keeper of the flame for the use of the finest quality antiques. The author of the text, and worthy acolyte to any temple of the decorative arts, is the redoubtable, and very readable, Diane Dorrans Saeks. With an astonishing body of work in both hardcover and periodicals, Diane pens a frequent and engaging blog, the Style Saloniste.  For those handful of you who, perhaps the result of spending the last five years either comatose or marooned on a desert island, are not subscribers, make all haste to do so.

Heart

I suppose success always has it detractors, and as often as I see a sports miracle, some pundit has to minimize it by saying what extraordinary advantages in training athletes have today. This always begs question- if that’s so, why does the extraordinary happen so infrequently?

Witness last night’s Giants performance. Can anyone be anything less than ecstatic about Pablo Sandoval’s slams into each section of the outfield, with his three home runs allowing him to join ranks with, count them, only three other players in the history of the game- including the ever vaunted sultan of swats, Babe Ruth.

Astonishing game, through and through, that showed the heart and determination of those Giants. Barry Zito, fully redeemed 10 years after his Cy Young award, humiliating the Tigers’ offense. Perhaps the most frequent comment I’ve heard prior to last nights game was what a force Justin Verlander was to be reckoned with, enhanced doubtless by the rest the Tigers enjoyed after beating the Yankees for the American League pennant. Between Zito, Sandoval and the rest of the Giants lineup, the Tigers starter has certainly been taken down a considerable number of notches.

No choice, then, but to leave science behind as the Giants have done. How do you measure momentum, team spirit, and heart? That’s what really counts and clearly, the Giants have it in spades.

What are you doing tomorrow evening?

What else can one be in San Francisco but a Giants fan? This sounds metaphysical, and it’s meant to, but for all the science, technique and training brought to any endeavor, heart and perseverance are what, in the end, pay off. If the Giants come back victory to win the National League pennant is not a metaphor for lives well lived, I haven’t seen one.

For those of you who haven’t darkened our door, it might come as a surprise that San Francisco is a small-ish big city, and as a consequence, the Giants players and management are fairly frequently, and casually, on the local scene. Matt Cain is very nearly a near neighbor, living an unprepossessing existence just over the hill from us in Noe Valley. AT&T Park is probably as close to our galleries as Angel Pagan could throw from centre field. The Navy jets in yesterday’s flyover banked for their turn just over our house. Well, you get the idea.

I suppose the notion of near at hand intimacy, though, just amplifies the larger positives the teams’ performance represents. And Marco Scutaro? What more can be said? Look up ‘perseverance’ in the next edition of Webster’s and you’ll see his face.

And where do you think I’ll be late tomorrow afternoon? As if you had to ask! Go Giants!

Mixed message

With the fate of the Cork Street galleries nebulous at best, a feature article in Saturday’s Observer reports on the huge expansion of other galleries- many of them New York based, and seeking to capitalize on the presence of London’s burgeoning population of  über-rich expats.

With London as one of my preferred stomping grounds, it has always seemed that, in England, there was London, and then everywhere else. The fact of the matter is, despite a very slow British economy, central London real estate has done nothing but appreciate, driven, it seems, not just by bonuses paid to City types, but also by those ‘traditional’ ex pat populations, driven to London not only for an enjoyment of cosmopolitanism that may be lacking in, say, Baku, but also as safe havens for family, wealth, and personal security. The Observer reports a total of nearly 6,000 London inhabitants with a net worth of more than $30,000,000.

It is surprising, though, that the expanding galleries are those whose stock in trade is so similar to that of the struggling galleries. 20th and 21st century art drives, or fails to as the case may be, both. Traditionally, newly rich oligarchs would collect two things- art from their home culture that had at some time in the past left its place of origin, and quality European fine and decorative art already broadly established in the canon of art and design. Neither of these collecting channels are too surprising- for those newly rich, collecting what was often the court art of their home country brings about an association with a golden age and an aristocracy that, in many cases, has gone extinct. European art and antiques, of course, has long functioned to establish an affiliation with generic wealth, with the archetype for taste and culture in the modern age the European, and most specifically the English, aristocrat. It has always mystified me that, in the last few decades collectors from non-western cultures would be aggressive acquisitors of cutting edge western art. Perhaps it is that so many of the successful contemporary galleries have within their bag of tricks the magical ability to be market makers. The length of their purses is enhanced enormously by collectors whose objective in their own endeavors is to be market makers, who financially assist their pet gallery owners in making strategic high profile (read ‘record-breakingly expensive’) purchases of works by artists well represented in the collectors’ own collection. That, and the occasional monograph by an art historian who is able quickly to adopt some suitably recondite methodology and spit out enough adjectives to fill a volume of requisite size can often result in a successful, by which I mean highly profitable, series of gallery shows.

Canonicity is established in a variety of different ways and I suppose that some conscious manipulation of the art market by salting certain auctions with inordinate prices, is one ever so slightly nefarious way. And I suppose that those high net worth collectors not in on the deal have enough on the ball generally to know what it is they’re paying for. Or do they? I can’t help but think all this is more than a little like the snaky art dealer proffering the work of some minor contemporary artist in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, victimizing the well-heeled but otherwise parvenu wannabes. Did someone say ‘dupe’?

Millionaires for billionaires

Yesterday I had a chat with a young man of long acquaintance, whose vocation as a business journalist means that, as well as knowing a collateralized debt obligation from a credit default swap, he’s also inquisitive. And inquire he did about what we colloquially term ‘the trade’. Over several beverages, I perhaps not waxed eloquent but yet always sufficiently loquacious, what we discussed elicited insights into the dynamics of this business that were certainly a surprise to my young friend- and as they are to me in the repeating.

Perhaps most surprising of all is my supposition that, while the trade captures the attentions of millions, those involved- sellers and buyers- amount to maybe 100,000 people on the planet. No question, the ranks of those who sell within the accredited trade have shrunk in the last decade, but those who are left- either through luck, trading skill, or depth of pocket book- have themselves had to make certain that their stock, their trading platform, and their palaver are consonant with and responsive to the small cadre that constitutes the buying public. And those buyers have never, ever been abundant. In our little business within this rarefied stratum, one’s inventory has to constitute an investment into the 7 or 8 figures. We are not, though, selling to ladies and gentleman with comparable net worth- we would, of course, but our material finds its way to high 8, and more likely 9 figure folk, whose acquisitive sense, we’ve come to discover, is through to their very marrow. They have money because they make money and are wont to let it out of their grasp. Not surprising, then, the sale of a  6 figure artwork or decorative item is always the subject of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and requires a fair old bit of finesse on our part. What we’ve found, to our chagrin, is that our buyers find it very, very easy to walk away from a deal. They do it in their everyday lives- when a punter can walk away from a billion dollar gas lease upon which millions have already been spent in development costs, can one really expect it would be any less easy a matter to close the book on the sale of a $175,000 early Georgian bureau cabinet?

With all that, we have come to understand that despite a stratospheric net worth, everybody has a budget- and I do mean everybody. We have never, ever seen anyone encash an investment to make a purchase from us. Purchases are always made from cash on hand, and, if the sale extends beyond the buyers’ immediate cash limitations, we have never seen anyone reluctant to ask for a bit of time to complete the sale. Mostly we can accommodate, sometimes not, but I suppose the point of all this is, given the limited pool of buyers, if one can’t roll with the flow, one had better exit the trade.