London Art Market 2017 – First Half Trends

London Art Market - Christies lions
A pair of addorsed lions from the funerary monument of Charles V of France sold for £8.2m at Christie’s Exceptional sale in London on July 6 – a record for medieval art at auction. The 18in (46cm) marble lions were part of a tomb made by André Beauneveu (c.1335-1402) and his workshop from 1364-66.

It was a strong summer season but change is in the air as the London art market takes its traditional August break.

London Art Market - Christies vases
The pair of 9in (23cm) high Qianlong (1736-95) mark and period vases decorated in falangcai enamels on an incised ‘graviata’ ground with flowers and butterflies. Only four other vases of this type are recorded (all singles) including that sold first by Christie’s in 2003 and again in 2007 for HK$13.76m.

As we pass the halfway point in 2017 the London art and antiques market is entering a state of flux. On a macro level, it has been a relatively straightforward six months. The sort of statistics thrown around in the growing number of art market reports (half a dozen in various guises already this year) suggest a UK trade holding its own in second place next to the US. And, depending on which figures you believe that trade was holding relatively steady, give or take a few percentage points, at around £9.2bn ($12bn).

The showpiece London auctions from the first half of the year posted more than respectable numbers.

Supply was conspicuously down in the May Asian art sales but a pair of Qianlong famille rose ‘butterfly’ double-gourd vases had brought a spectacular £13m at Christie’s.

London Art Market - wassily-kandinsky-sothebys
In-keeping with the collecting choices of the global rich, the June sales of Impressionist and Modern art were dominated by 20th century masters rather than Impressionists. ‘Bild mit weissen linien’ (Painting with white lines) by Wassily Kandinsky sold for a record £29m at Sotheby’s. The picture came fresh to the market from the family of the German businessman and collector Wilhelm Hack who had bought it in 1974.

At Sotheby’s June Imp and Mod sale Murnau – landschaft mit grünem haus’ (Landscape with green house) by Wassily Kandinsky sold at £18.5m, setting an auction record for the artist that lasted approximately 15 minutes. Six lots later ‘Bild mit weissen linien’ (Painting with white lines) from Kandinsky’s ‘big bang’ year of 1913 took £29m.

London Art Market - Christies Guardi
The Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi by Francesco Guardi sold for over £23.25m at Christie’s on July 6. One of a pair acquired in 1768 by the English grand tourist Chaloner Arcedeckne, both paintings stayed in his family until 1891 when they were sold privately for £3850 to Edward Cecil Guinness brewing fame. The paintings were separated in 2011 when the pendant, Rialto Bridge from the Fondamenta del Carbon, was sold at Sotheby’s for a similar sum.

Old Masters had a strong showing. Against the backdrop of a buoyant Masterpiece fair that attracted a record audience of 44,000 (Olympia was a much quieter event) this ‘unfashionable’ sector recorded two eight-figure prices. A large-scale Venetian scene painted in the mid-1760s by Francesco Guardi took £23.25m – the highest price for an Old Master this year while Sotheby’s 68-lot July 5 evening sale – with its highest ever sell-through sale of 85% – was topped at £17m by JMW Turner’s 1835 Rhine landscape depicting the ruins of the Ehrenbreitstein fortress, a picture last sold in 1965, when it fetched £88,000.

The price was shy of two works by Turner sold in the same room in the last seven years: Rome, from Mount Aventine which took £27m in December 2014 and holds the auction record for the artist, and Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino sold in July 2010 to the Getty Museum for £26.5m.

London Art Market - Sothebys Turner
The 1835 Rhine landscape The Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s Childe Harolde is one of the few large-scale oil paintings by JMW Turner left in private hands. At Sotheby’s on June 5, it sold on its revised low-estimate of £17m to a lone phone bidder.
The price was shy of two works by Turner sold in the same room in the last seven years: Rome, from Mount Aventine which took £27m in December 2014 and holds the auction record for the artist, and Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino sold in July 2010 to the Getty Museum for £26.5m.

These and other blue-chip sales are pictured here – all of them a boon for the London art market at a time when vendors can also choose New York, Hong Kong or Beijing as a place to sell the world’s most expensive art.

London Art Market - Christies Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann’s terrifying image Bird’s Hell (1938), representing the horror of the Nazi regime, sold at Christie’s £130.8m Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on June 27 for a record-breaking £32m. Dealer Larry Gagosian bought it for a client. It came to auction from the collector dealer Richard Feigen who had acquired it privately in 1983.

So why, as the London art market takes its traditional August break, a sense of unease?

Impending Brexit is partly to blame. Last month the British Art Market Federation (BAMF) took its concerns directly to government with the launch of (another) new report. The significance of the art and antiques sector in terms of jobs, economic generation and tax were laid out in black and white. BAMF’s key Brexit priority is free cross border trade but who knows at this stage whether they will get it or not?

But it’s not just the Great Repeal Bill – or other potential law changes regarding antique ivory or cultural heritage – that bring the scent of change into the air.

London Art Market - CSK boardroom chairs
The Georgian style chairs and table from the Christie’s South Kensington boardroom were the last two lots sold on July 19, the final sale at Old Brompton Street. Together they raised £11,000 for a local charity.

Of more immediate significance to the rank-and-file of the UK antiques trade was the final sale at Christie’s South Kensington on July 19. The occasion bought a packed house and emotional scenes.

Some of CSK’s 10,000 lots per annum will now move to King Street and more will be offered to Christie’s global clientele across the digital platform in online-only sales.

There will be opportunities too for those catering to collectors unable to afford the Kandinsky. Chiswick Auctions in the west London and Roseberys in the south have already swept up ex-Christie’s staff while Bonhams are making a play for CSK clients with a blanket advertising campaign across every tube station in the capital.

However, whatever might take its place, as the hammer fell for the final time, it was clear the demise of another of London’s middle-market salerooms will be acutely felt – by the dealers who bought and sold there across 42 years, by the collecting areas that prospered under the Christie’s brand and by so many talented staff who now enter the job market.

Related Blogs

London’s Summer Auctions and a Farewell to Christie’s South Kensington

Fewer Offerings but More Variety as London’s Summer Fairs Scene Evolves

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


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.