Decorative Arts may be a volatile market but it follows a patternDECORATIVE ARTS by Anne Crane

The roller-coaster ride that is today's decorative arts market loops on. Recent sales with their handful of blockbuster prices set against often lacklustre overall statistics, highlight the volatility of this arena and show how dependent it has become upon whim and preference.

Recent front pages underscore the upside. The Lenci earthenware figure Abissina (ATG 1688, May 7) set a new high for the factory at Christie's South Kensington (20/12% buyer's premium) on April 27 at £32,000. The Voysey designed chest of drawers (ATG 1690, May 21) was one of five pieces designed by the architect for the home of his friend C.T. Coggin and offered by a direct descendant at Sotheby's Bond Street (20/12% buyer's premium) on May 6. A private collector rumoured to have his own Voysey house spent no less than £82,000 to secure this and a further £69,000 on three other pieces.

But the runaway demand for these entries was not mirrored throughout. As detailed in our results table, only 57 per cent of the material for CSK's April 27 event got away, while at Sotheby's two weeks later the take up was 67 per cent - better but hardly unstoppable demand.

Pity the auction specialist, dealer or investor/collector trying to make sense of it all. But although one could be tempted to think the only pattern to this market is no pattern, there are some broad commonalities and these are underscored by the Christie's results in our table.

The South Kensington rooms have a strong tradition of niche decorative arts sales rather than wide-ranging events and the seesawing selling rates for these more specialist auctions hint at some of the market's strengths and weaknesses.

The high take-up for their May 11 British decorative arts sale is testimony to the relative strength of the British decorative ceramics which made up over 80 per cent of the content and to the feverish demand for Fairyland lustre wares in particular. By contrast, the lacklustre results for the lower value selection of European decorative arts offered on the afternoon of the same day attests to the much weaker demand for routine Continental material especially the metalwares, art glass and to the ceramics unless they are partiuclarly stylish sculptural examples of Lenci or Goldschieder.

The rather better set of results - higher selling rates, bigger total - for the auctioneer's Art Nouveau and Art Deco sale of April 26 is testimony to something else. Although this featured much of the same type of material offered as that offered on May 12, it was in a different league: 150 lots of Art Nouveau and Deco glass and sculpture carefully assembled by a single owner through the London and New York rooms in the 1980s and 90s with an eye to the choosing the best examples of their type. Provenance, quality and a realistic approach to reserves all paid dividends here.

As usual, buyers want market-fresh, keenly estimated, good quality material, but Christie's specialist Daniel Gallen added the following refinement: "People want glass and sculpture by well known names and they want the best they can afford" an observation which goes some way to explain the foundering lower end.
But for enthusiasts of this volatile market, London still has plenty more to offer. May 26 sees Bonhams offer their equivalent early summer Decorative Arts and Christie's King Street turn the spotlight on 20th Century Design. Next month promises a more mid-range Decorative Arts offering at Sotheby's Olympia on June 1 Modern Design at CSKon the 5th and at the other end of the month, a themed sale devoted to the Arts and Crafts movement at CSK on June 30.

It will be interesting to see how these events compare with what has gone before. Meanwhile we look in more detail on this and the followinng page at individual highs and lows from the April and May events.