Magazine article The Spectator

The Ideally Expensive Thing

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ideally Expensive Thing

Article excerpt

Junius Spencer Morgan caused a sensation in 1876 when he paid the staggering sum of £10,100 -- more than the National Gallery of London's annual purchase grant -- for Gainsborough's celebrated portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Since then a seemingly interminable line of nouveaux-riches American 'Despoilers' has relieved the impecunious (and often only too willing) European aristocracy of the art treasures their ancestors had amassed over the centuries. The phenomenon prompted the foundation of the National Art Collections Fund in Britain in 1903 to help save such treasures for the nation, and was subtly dissected by Henry James eight years later in The Outcry. Revealingly, the essence of James's acquisitive American, Mr Breckenridge Bender, was his desire for 'an ideally expensive thing'. He had 'no use' for Lord Theign's £10,000 Moretto; he was out to spend millions. He had come to England to bag the prized Sir Joshua.

It is a familiar enough story. Only now it is the Reynolds that costs the equivalent of £10,000 and, almost inconceivably after more than a century of hoovering up masterpieces major and minor, it is the Breckenridge Benders that are selling up.

Astonishingly, the Americans have turned from being net buyers of works of art into net sellers. America is, so to speak, the new Europe.

According to The European Fine Art Foundation's (TEFAF) latest report, 'The International Art Market: A Survey of Europe in a Global Context', which includes dealer as well as auction sales, the tide turned in 2006. Sotheby's own figures put it earlier (its privately owned rival Christie's is not obliged to publish its accounts). The US auction house revealed that Americans have been selling more than they have been buying since 2005, with the original negative value of $106 million quadrupling the following year and rising to $702 million last year.

This marks a watershed in the history of the western art market, for the transatlantic flow of works of art has reversed. According to Sotheby's, the flow of art into the UK has risen tenfold since 2005 to $734 million last year. Art treasures are not, however, returning to the walls of Lord Theign's Dedborough Place. What has loosened them from their often illustrious old money American moorings is the seemingly inexhaustible supply of even newer money from Russia, China, the Middle East and India. A perfect illustration is Gauguin's 'Te Poipoi (Le Matin)', which sold from the collection of the late Joan Whitney Payson at Sotheby's New York last November to the Hong Kong property tycoon Joseph Lau for $39 million.

Petrodollars, however, favour London.

Long in danger of turning into a sleepy market backwater, London has been revived as a great international art entrepot. As the British government is only too aware, it has also become the preferred place of domicile of a significant number of the world's newest rich -- or at least the place in which they keep their works of art. (Given the draconian export laws in their own countries, most Russian and Indian collectors choose to buy and keep their art overseas. ) In fact, probably not since the likes of John Pierpont Morgan (son of Junius) and Henry Clay Frick assembled their picture collections in London to avoid the 20 per cent US import tax on works of art (books were excluded) has the capital offered refuge to so many distinguished foreign collections. …

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