PASSING BY... Brown study

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In 40 years Antony Thorncroft has watched the auction scene change into a money market

It is 55 years now since I joined the FT, acquiring the arts and art market brief about a decade later. For me it was entering Elysian fields.

The arts page was well funded because the FT’s chairman, Lord Drogheda, also happened to be chairman of the Royal Opera House, and the FT editor, busy advising presidents and prime ministers, had absolutely no interest in this recherché area.

So I have been involved with three industries which, looking back, have experienced very different fortunes. For the arts it has been a period of unparalleled expansion; for newspapers an equally precipitous decline; and for the art market a seismic switch in power, with the auction houses, basically Sotheby’s and Christie’s, dominating the business at the expense of the dealers. I cannot imagine that anyone could have forecast these changes.

Although many in the arts like to moan – and they can justifiably complain about poor salaries and heavy workloads – no one can deny the transformation in the arts for the better. It has been a golden age for new buildings: just think of Tate Modern, the British Museum courtyard, the extended Royal Opera House, the Barbican, the new galleries at the V&A and other South Kensington museums, the extension to the National Gallery, Bankside Globe, the National Theatre and Sadler’s Wells for starters. I know these are all London-based but the Royal Shakespeare Company has had its Stratford home modernised; Glyndebourne has acquired a new auditorium; there are now Tates in Liverpool and St Ives; there is the Sage in Gateshead; and museums and theatres in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham and elsewhere have been renovated, thanks in the main to lottery cash.

Of course the arts are much more than buildings but, despite gloomy warnings, very few worthwhile performance companies have folded, many fewer than successful newcomers. Despite Arts Council attempts, London still has its four major orchestras; the ENO manages to survive, as do the regional orchestras and opera companies.

Off the top of my head I can only think of two significant losses, Kent Opera and the Cholmondeleys/ Featherstonehaughs dance company, and neither has been much missed.

There has been the great explosion of arts festivals across the land, to say nothing of the proliferation of book festivals. Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham can all lay claim to being cultural beacons and we have Hull gearing up to be a City of Culture in 2017. Let’s not forget Glastonbury and the other pop festivals, part of youth culture which has stimulated contemporary art, video art, rap, fashion and design. A career in the arts has now become a reality for many thousands.

It has been a very different story for newspapers. I joined the FT when Fleet Street’s golden age was soon to disintegrate, though few foresaw it. Indeed the replacement in the 1980s of printing methods that had little changed since Caxton’s day with automated off-site presses seemed to promise a bright future. But within a few years new information technology challenged the very survival of the printed newspaper. There are now attempts to persuade readers to buy their daily news fix through internet editions, but in a few years’ time print circulations will be insignificant compared with past glories, if they survive at all.

On the surface the art market  might seem a stuffy and unchanging business. The reality is very different. Take one example. When I began to cover them the big auction houses kept contemporary art at a distance; the artists and their work had no trading history and there was the danger of dealers bidding up prices to boost the sale value of their protégés. Today contemporary art is absolutely vital for the auction houses, accounting for in excess of a billion dollars a year of turnover and encouraging the arrival of the investment buyer.

Forty years ago most buyers at the key auctions were Americans and Europeans and often connoisseurs. Now the business is driven by Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern and other patrons, new billionaires looking for money making opportunities for their surplus cash, and contemporary art where, in theory, you can buy a young artist cheaply and watch prices spiral, is the favourite gambling field.

The boom in contemporary art is to some extent an inevitable consequence of the shortage of traditionally traded desirable goods – the finest Old Masters, Impressionists and Post- Impressionists, Modern Masters (like Picasso), sculpture, etc, which have over time moved slowly into the care of museums, thus restricting their supply. The auction houses have attempted to respond by developing new collecting fields, such as classic cars, photographs, modern design and pop memorabilia, and by building up their real estate activities.

They have also to a great extent become investment companies. Sotheby’s and Christie’s will loan money against the value of your art and antiques; if the price is high enough they will guarantee a return on your painting before it appears at auction; they will arrange private sales; they will hold auctions of expensive jewels which never leave bank vaults.

This courtship of the international rich means that the Big Two concentrate on a few high value markets and ignore what used to be their bread and butter. Forty years ago there would have been in house specialist departments for arms and armour, ceramics, clocks and watches, toys and dolls, scientific instruments and more. Now there may be an outside consultant to act as valuer if a great and expensive rarity is offered for sale. Often there would have been three auctions in one day; now there might be weeks with the salerooms quite silent.

As a result there has been a collapse in collecting. Lower priced objects can still be found in provincial auction houses, and in the antique fairs which have become the main selling arena for the hard pressed dealers. But many collecting fields, from pot lids to paperweights, Worcester porcelain to corkscrews, lead soldiers to fans, now cater for small ageing coteries. This is perhaps most revealing in the decline of what was one of the main trading sectors of the auction houses, brown furniture. Once, the London salerooms would have a weekly auction, offering hundreds of supposedly Georgian tables, Regency desks, oak, and painted furniture. Today fashion has moved on and few young people setting up home think brown.

Tastes change; life-styles change; globalisation happens. I dare not think what might emerge in the next forty odd years.


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