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Art consultancy and valuation firm Gurr Johns has bought books and prints specialist Forum Auctions in an all-share deal.

The deal, which will complete in the new year, brings together Dreweatts and Forum under one umbrella group owned by Gurr Johns.

Forum founder Stephan Ludwig joins the board of Gurr Johns to lead all auction operations including oversight of Dreweatts.

The two auction houses combined have a sales total of around double that of any other regional auction house, with the two firms’ premium-inclusive sales for 2021 close to £50m.

Ludwig will work with Ben Clark as co-chief executives of the group. Clark will continue to lead the global art advisory businesses as a separate entity and together they will work with chairman Harry Smith. Clark joined Gurr Johns last year and was previously at Christie’s.

“Digitalisation in the art market”

The enlarged group will focus on growing the “digital ecommerce experience to create opportunities which wouldn’t have been available to either firm individually”, Ludwig said.

The joint announcement stated that Dreweatts and Forum Auctions will continue to be led by their existing management teams operating under their respective brands. Jonathan Pratt, who became managing director of Dreweatts in 2018, will remain in this role. George Bailey, who was chairman at Dreweatts, left last year.

At Forum, deputy chairman and international head of books Rupert Powell and head of operations and business development Poppy Walker will continue in their leadership roles.

Ludwig said: “I have never hands-on managed Forum; I am not an auctioneer or valuer. I do business strategy so day-to-day management of Forum and Dreweatts will continue precisely as it currently is. Likewise staff roles will remain – there is no hint of redundant roles.”

Bloomsbury, part of the Dreweatts group, will continue its focus on manuscripts which Ludwig described as “highly respected”.

He said the firm’s focus “dovetails” with Forum’s works on paper specialism.

Ludwig also emphasised that Gurr Johns will continue to remain independent as a high-end art consultant and the auction businesses will be run separately within the mid-market of regional auction houses and below the major London auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Ludwig added: “We will not be chasing £2m pictures. We have a really nice niche in this market. The incident of six-figure lots for the regional auction houses, away from the big London houses, has increased in the last 18 months and we see this continuing.”

Clark said: “Marked change in global art collectors’ appetites and activities has spurred digitalisation in the art market, revolutionising the accessibility of artworks to consumers and sellers alike.

“Our expanded auction division will offer increasingly innovative and integrated services encouraging shoppers to become collectors across the entire art and collectables ecosystem.”

The all-share deal means that all Forum’s shareholders exchange their shares for new shares in the combined group – taking a 27% stake in the combined firm – which Ludwig described as a “corporate business transaction” and added “we are not cashing out”.

Ludwig was a former owner and CEO of Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions but left in 2016 when it was owned by Stanley Gibbons and set up Forum Auctions with former Bloomsbury staff.

Gurr Johns bought Dreweatts and Bloomsbury from Stanley Gibbons for £1.25m in autumn 2017.