PASSING BY... Collecting memories
Antony Thorncroft mourns the passing of an old South Ken friend
It was in the mid 1970s that I started to cover for the FT the cultural industries (words which in those days would never have appeared in the same sentence), and its pushy cousin, the art and antiques market. If I had been asked 40 years ago to predict the future for these two activities I would have made a complete fool of myself.
The arts in the UK were unknowingly about to enter a period of great expansion, with new and refurbished opera houses and concert halls, art galleries and museums. Alongside these grandiose buildings there emerged enterprising young drama, dance and classical music companies. Fuelled by lottery money and aided by innovations in art, pop music, lm, video and new technology, the arts are enjoying a golden age, one that has gone largely unappreciated by its growing band of practitioners.
The experience of the art market has been quite different. Despite its apparently unchanging appearance it has been transformed almost beyond recognition. This is especially true of the two houses which dominated (and still dominate) the business, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Located a few hundred yards from each in London’s West End, and both tracing their origins back to the 18th century, they were in the 1970s proudly British, but just starting to dis- cover new opportunities for growth in the US and Europe. Each week they would hold dozens of auctions, selling anything from valuable Old Masters to silver teapots, and employing experts in arms and armour, musical instruments, English porcelain, paper- weights, anything that appealed to a coterie of collectors, however small.
Now both houses are foreign owned – Sotheby’s by Americans, Christie’s by the French - and both see their futures overseas, in the Far East and the Middle East, in Russia and South America, wherever those billionaires who have been persuaded that rare art is a safe investment choose to live. In London the only auctions regularly scheduled are for modern and contemporary art, Impressionism, Old Masters, and eye catching objets d’art which might tempt the mega rich. Bids in the millions, which once brought shocked applause in the salerooms, are commonplace. The two main auction houses are now wholesale emporia for the collecting fads of the very wealthy.
These thoughts were prompted by the news that Christie’s is closing its South Kensington auction room, which it opened in 1975 when the UK was still the heart of the business. It aimed to cater for collectors of early needlework, lead soldiers, mantel clocks, Staffordshire figures, county maps and a myriad more artefacts, the once loved detritus of the past which these days fill the schedules of day- time television. It also provided furnishings for affluent young locals who still then appreciated 18th century furniture and Victorian pictures, and, of course, sourced the most loyal clients of the auction houses, the dealers.
It was a pleasure to visit, especially if there was an invitation to a board- room lunch. The staff were less stuffy than at the King Street HQ, and entering into the bustling Old Brompton Street premises – with a packed sale- room for an art nouveau auction over there, a small gathering of dealers in rugs and carpets along the way, and with viewings for vintage posters and tinplate trains in the basement - was a happy immersion into the eccentric passions of British collectors, along with the Italian dealers who always seemed to dominate the furniture sales.
Sotheby’s, too, courted the home market, with salerooms in Chester and Billingshurst. It even opened premises in Belgravia which just sold Victorian art, all the rage during the Pre Raphaelite revival, and later one in Olympia. Now they are all gone and the cash registers tell why. Christie’s sales through South Kensington last year totalled £62m, less than half that it might hope to bring in from an hour’s energetic gavel wielding selling modern art in King Street. In recent years departments have been closed down, even those in areas such as vintage posters where CSK largely created
the market. By 2012 there were 120 sales; last year there were just 55. It had become much more pro table convincing a Chinese tycoon of the appreciation value of a Warhol than selling £100 lots to collectors of buckles and buttons.
So Sotheby’s and Christie’s have become basically investment houses, loaning money with art as the security; organising private sales; and offering guaranteed sums in return for auctioning off your Bacon or Pollock. Traditional collectors are left to try their luck on eBay and the internet; at antiques fairs; and in the provincial salerooms which still flourish. In London Bon- hams has made a good fist in grabbing some of the middle market.
But I do miss the old days. It was fun being guided through Sotheby’s and Christie’s to the pokey room where the militaria expert purred over a saddle cloth and trousers worn by an officer in the Connaught Rangers during the Peninsula War; to be allowed to touch a 15th century Book of Hours (gloves, apparently, need not be worn) in the manuscripts department; to handle the first Dinky toy, a 1933 tank; in fact in an hour or so receiving a crash course in everything from Chinese rice paper paintings to teddy bears.
Of course there will always be col- lectors, and it is understandable that today they are more passionate about Star Wars memorabilia and early Habitat sofas than Victorian sheet music and candle holders – and the internet offers the most wonderful global market place. But I will retain my nostalgia for the days when the past in all its strange- ness, variety and beauty was made tangible and avail- able in the salerooms, though perhaps some of the nostalgia is for my youth.