Magazine article The Spectator

Dealers versus the Auctioneers

Magazine article The Spectator

Dealers versus the Auctioneers

Article excerpt

So, everyone has had lots of fun vilifying Sotheby's. Cartoonists have shown them as upper-class spivs, commentators have produced dire warnings of the end of the auction trade as we know it, politicians have thundered about tomb plundering and all the other auction houses and dealers have kept very, very quiet.

But, as more measured voices, until now drowned by the shrill cries of instant outrage, are saying, the Channel 4 sting's most likely effect is to send unprovenanced works of art underground. Most of us who buy and sell at auction will notice no change whatsoever. Much more interesting to ordinary buyers is the long-term shift from patronising dealers to bidding at auction and the threat to the London art market by a proposed EU levy which would effectively drive much of its business to America (though that's another story).

Peter Nahum, the London art dealer, is quite right to liken the big houses to supermarkets. `Our Sainsburys and Tescos are called Sotheby's and Christie's. They used to wholesale works of art - they now retail them. Just as the superstores are now offering financial services, banking and anything else they can think of, so do Sotheby's and Christie's. . . They now own dealers. They are us - plus.' He might have added that, if the auction houses had stuck to wholesaling, Channel 4 would not have been interested in their practices.

Dealers have only themselves to blame for the public's flight. Fewer than 30 years ago, when auction house catalogues looked like PhD theses and views were thronged with desiccated grey men peering at smudged hallmarks through magnifying glasses, the dealers were supreme. It was the time when antiques were offered by dealers without a price tag so it could be upped if you looked particularly rich and when supercilious young men, equivalent to those in Rolls-Royce showrooms, sneered at anyone less than a Getty before offering furniture that cost about the same as a Silver Ghost.

It was no better if you were selling. Treasured possessions would attract the same camel-lipped sneer and, if you were lucky, the dealer `would take them off your hands' for a couple of quid. Later, these same objects would turn up as stars in the dealer's window, though at least you were spared the knowledge of their actual price. As a result, most of us thought dealers would refuse to buy their own grandmother for more than a fiver while remarking that the old dear was in a bad condition and not especially sought-after but would happily sell her for thousands if she turned out to date from the Ming dynasty.

The auction houses didn't take long to spot their opportunity. As Nahum says, they became retailers and if, in the process, took on the availability of Tesco or Sainsburys, it needed to be done. They cleaned up their act so that the public would entrust them with commission bids (in the old days, my auction house bids always ended up suspiciously near my top price, now they don't), they gave rough price estimates for every lot, they created catalogues as demandingly beautiful as the World of Interiors and they employed press departments to make sure we knew all about it. And, if they demanded a commission from both buyer and seller, we still willingly paid. …

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