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