It may be my lack of business acumen or my age-made scepticism, but I felt sad, no actually it was more like mild nausea, to read about the latest stratospheric figures for 2019-20 announced by Christie’s and Sotheby’s as they vie for dominance of the art market (especially in Asia).
This is because I suspect the mind-boggling figures and percentages they boast actually belie what’s really happening at the two most historic auction houses in the world, that I once loved visiting so much.
Average lot value
They are now run not by the lovely art and antiques experts or departmental specialists, the researchers and the charismatic auctioneers conducting the sale from the rostrum, but by accountants who know instinctively how to systematically turn a multicoloured business into one that’s beige – to pare it down until the only relevant factor is average lot value (now claimed proudly by Sotheby’s to have risen from £10,000 to over £20,000).
They are short-sighted, uninspired solutions for an industry which was once full of excitement and idiosyncrasy. Despite new powerful ownership and ‘transformative changes’, it seems they’ve become greedy gas-guzzling monsters.
When I stumbled accidentally into the antiques trade in the late ’80s it was full of the most interesting characters with unique shops. They were the core of the business and it must not be forgotten that the auction rooms relied on them almost completely.
The great country house sales that Christie’s and Sotheby’s staged so brilliantly were where I met most of the great dealers and learned so much.
Reminisce fondly as I will, we cannot bring all of this back, but we can bring back diversity and value in what is fascinating not just ‘high-end’, a most vacuous expression.
The unexpected decision by Christie’s to close the South Kensington rooms in 2017 and cease all of its more interesting and diverse but less lucrative specialist sales, along with great evening events and most of the wonderful staff, was perhaps the final straw.
The pandemic may have speeded up the shift to online sales and an ‘omnichannel’ future but when the pandemic passes and we regain humanity, will we crave our tactile senses even more?