The 2016 Art and Antiques Trade: New Threats to An Old Profession

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The authors of the Traffic report A Rapid Survey of UK Ivory Markets, published on August 31, concluded that “links [between the UK antiques trade and] the current elephant poaching crisis appear tenuous at best”. Of the 3000-plus objects sampled by Traffic, no new or unworked ivory was found and only one item (from the 1960s) was after the 1947 cut-off date for antique ivory.

Although among the world’s very oldest trades, art and antiques dealing made it to the 21st century without too much in the way of red tape and regulation. But will 2016 be remembered as the moment that was destined to change?

This year two highly emotive global issues – the modern-day poaching of elephants for their ivory and looted art from war-torn countries – came firmly under the governmental microscope. Resulting legislation will have significant consequences for dealers, auctioneers and collectors across the globe.

The so-called ‘final rule’ on the ivory trade that became law in the US in July has left many once valuable works of art unsaleable while the highly bureaucratic system now operating in France demands that all ivory objects, regardless of date, must receive prior approval from a police commissioner before sale.

For its part, and eager to show solidarity in advance of the CITES summit in South Africa, the British government has implied stricter measures will follow a consultation on the ivory question beginning in the New Year. And this despite a report by NGO wildlife monitor TRAFFIC that gave the UK antiques trade a clean bill of health and concluded “links with the current elephant poaching crisis appear tenuous at best”.

The impact on the market for everything from Georgian toothpick boxes to Art Deco figures and Meiji netsukes is self-evident. As the difficulty in selling increases, prices fall. Much less clear, is whether the sad plight of the African elephant will be improved by curtailing the sale of antiques.

The extent of an illegal trade in looted works of art from war-torn countries is also a moot point. Most claims here are based on anecdotal evidence and innuendo rather than hard fact. However, it was the fear that German dealers and auctioneers could contribute to the trade in smuggled antiquities that proved a catalyst to the passing of the controversial (and hard to pronounce) Kulturgutschutzgesetz in July. The law seeks to control the cross-border movement of ‘goods of cultural interest’ demanding documentary evidence of provenance and export licences should they be sold to foreign buyers. Unease surrounding what one auctioneer called “a bureaucratic monster” has led German salerooms to consider moving key sales to bordering countries while collectors withdrawn their loans from German museums.

Trade bodies in the UK fear similar well-meaning legislation could come to their shores: the Antiquities Dealers’ Association says the wording of a cultural property bill currently making its way through Parliament risks seriously damaging the legitimate market.

Of course, it was the possibility of throwing out some of the less popular EU legislation that persuaded substantial numbers of the British trade to push for Brexit. In the wake of the ‘Leave’ vote in June, senior trade figures lined up to say how cutting formal ties with the European super state could be a chance for the UK to enhance its status as an entrepôt for art and antiques. Axing the Artist’s Resale Right levy, that was 10 years old in 2016, was near the top of the post-EU wish list.

With so much still in flux, 2017 promises to be a big year.

Coupled with the softness displayed in some areas of the market (the traditional Western furniture and works of art that once sustained the antiques trade is now its Achilles heel) these challenges are great. But ultimately the US and UK art markets (ranked first and second in the 2016 TEFAF Report) are well placed to deal with them. Less so the smaller global players.

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It was not all gloom in France – or in the antiquities market for that matter. A record for an antique torso at auction was set at Christie’s Paris in June with the sale of this Roman marble of a dancing faun for €2.5m. The c.1st century BC statue had a provenance that could be taken back to 1777 when it was discovered at the Villa Negroni in Rome. Subsequent owners included Gavin Hamilton, Quintin and Sir Robert Grosvenor who acquired it in 1831 for Grosvenor House. It was sold as part of the 331-lot sale of the collection of Parisian couple Zeineb and Jean-Pierre Marcie-Rivière.

For the French trade, 2016 proved something of an annus horribilis. Security concerns were a dark cloud – resulting in the cancellation of Europe’s largest flea market, the annual Lille Braderie – but other woes were self-inflicted.

As dealers’ association Syndicat National des Antiquaires sought to engage the public in the revamp of its premier fair (the now annual Paris Biennale) the French press were more concerned with the conclusion of l’affaire des cols rouges that saw 33 auction porters convicted for stealing objects from vendors’ homes and a scandal surrounding furniture fakes that engulfed two leading dealers and the Palace of Versailles.

The French, in particular, will be hoping for better in 2017.

Related Blogs:
Post-Brexit Art Market: Keep Calm, Carry On and Negotiate Hard
The Global Art Market – Out with the New and in with the Old?
TEFAF Makes Its New York Debut

About the Author:

Roland Arkell is the Contributing Editor at ATG Media. For almost two decades, Roland has been writing about the British and international art and antiques market for Antiques Trade Gazette, the leading publication for serious buyers and sellers of art and antiques.