COMMENT: I have serious concerns about the new report published by the University of Portsmouth’s School of Law on the UK’s antique trade in ivory.
The Elephant in the Sale Room, as it is titled, is an exercise in futility. The real ‘Elephant in the Room’ here is the study’s vast shortcomings, rendering any solid conclusions at best misguided, at worst dangerous.
First, let’s take the statistics. There are two measures to consider here: margin of error and confidence in accurate results.
Statistically, to be 95% confident that the answers were an accurate reflection of the whole population – in this case the UK art and antiques market – while allowing for a margin of error of plus or minus 4% in the spread of answers – the standard for such studies – the sample size for a population of 20,000 should be just under 600, or 3% of the population.
The sample size given here – 80 – is approximately 0.4% of the estimated population. Taken as a percentage of the Antiques Trade Gazette readership of 35,000, which I would see as a more accurate reading of the size of the market, that falls to 0.23% of the population, or just 7.5% of the minimum sample size needed to be confident of reasonably accurate results within a reasonable margin of error.
The sample size used in this case leaves a margin of error that allows you to drive two London buses through side by side.
Now add the fact that only around half of the sample actually answered a number of important questions and it gets worse.
For example, question 13 asked: How many of the following goods, either containing or made entirely from ivory, did you sell in 2015? This garnered a total of 39 replies, or 0.19% of the estimated population, rendering the response all but meaningless.
Questions 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 21 met a similar level of response.
The researchers are struck by the fact that “none of the organisations that we researched had any specific advice on their websites regarding the laws and regulations on the sale of ivory”. The implication of this is that they are complacent or incompetent. However, at this point the report fails to acknowledge that the Government had removed its own advice from the internet because it was so confusing and misleading. If the Government can’t give accurate advice, how are the associations expected to?
The report does finally acknowledge the problem on page 42, where one of the 12 interviews supplementing the survey notes how “confusing” and “unhelpful” DEFRA’s website is on this.
Additional efforts, such as the 2016 CITES panel at the Art Business Conference, and Antiques Trade Gazette’s recent conference, which could have been added as a late footnote, are ignored entirely.
Perhaps most surprising and disturbing was the assumption made on page 25 of the report that the low response rate to the survey pointed to dishonesty among the trade, with dealers being “sometimes secretive regarding [their] commercial activities”, followed by a reference to Stuart Henry’s The Hidden Economy and “illegality” taking place in settings “which (on the surface) seem completely legal and this, in turn, makes participants disinclined to be open about their activities”.
This is staggering in its arrogance and complacency, blaming the failure of this poorly composed exercise on the “dodgy” trade, rather than looking to its own structure, methodology and execution for the true shortcomings.
How is anyone supposed to trust the authors as dispassionate and unbiased in this light?
At least, on the same page, the report goes on to admit: “with such a small sample it is difficult to make strong assumptions about the universe of the antiques trade”. Nevertheless, the report does just that, and unhelpfully too.
Turn to the next page, for instance, and immediately we are told: “The survey results show that some respondents failed to answer all of the survey questions [a huge understatement] suggesting that some questions were maybe too sensitive…”.
Page 32 makes the ‘astonishing’ discovery that auctioneers tend to sell more pieces than dealers, but this is hardly true of just ivory. If even a small-time auctioneer with only a monthly sale of 500 items and a 70% sell-through rate turns over 4200 lots a year, how many dealers could match that?
So does the report meet its three stated objectives?
- To evaluate types of ivory objects being sold in the UK, their source and the buyer’s demographic? (A: To a degree, no and no).
- To understand how traders appraise an item before sale to satisfy themselves whether or not it complies with the law (A: Partially, although until the conclusion on page 52, the report utterly ignores the crucial matter of the costs and time delay of carbon dating tests – recently estimated in parliament as averaging between £500 and £1000 per item).
- To evaluate the effect a total ban on the sale of ivory would have on the British antiques trade (A: Not even close, based on the sample size, response level and demonstrable lack of understanding of key considerations).
The report does make some sound recommendations – not least those to DEFRA – but none that has not already been mooted by the industry without having to resort to the time and expense of this exercise.
It at least acknowledges its own limitations under the first concluding recommendation: “The study highlighted the difficulties in obtaining information from the antiques trade about the nature of their practices regarding the sale of ivory. We would therefore recommend further research…”
Again the trade is blamed, whereas, in my view, the pointlessness of this study as executed is the real cause for complaint. How much did it cost? How could the money have been better spent?
What do the customs figures say?
UK exports of art and antiques fell by 13.6% to £4.95 billion in 2016, while imports declined by 37% to £2.23 billion.
Having just completed my annual analysis of the trade figures, which I compile from from raw customs data, I noted significant drop-offs in values for the first half of 2016, with additional significant falls in fine art imports and exports between July and December.
Sterling declined an average of 5.9% year on year for the first six months of 2016, but the six-month year-on-year average post-referendum fell by 16.3%. So to get a true picture of how the market has changed you have to take this into account.
Although customs returns fell across the board for the last half of 2016, the two areas where this appeared to be significant were in exports and imports of fine art beyond European Union borders – down 24.2% to £1.68 billion and down 55.2% to £524.5m respectively.
Movement within EU borders is assessed differently by HMRC because of the single market, but its figures showed a widening trade gap for fine art, with twice as many works by value heading across the channel from the UK as in the same period for 2015, while the value of works entering the UK from the EU from July to December 2016 fell by more than 60%. However, the figures are comparatively small in the context of the global market.
This year I conducted additional research to see if any Brexit effect could be detected in the second-half figures, but the picture is not clear.
On the basis of what I have seen so far, I would say that the jury is still out. The fine art side shows significant weakening beyond exchange rate issues, but the global art market contracted in 2016 anyway, so you would expect to see cross-border trade decline.
Frieze Week sales boosted confidence
However, Frieze Week sales at the beginning of October underpinned confidence in the UK market, with Christie’s alone netting over £90 million for Post-War and Contemporary Art, including 19 artist auction records.
With an exchange rate of $1.27 to the pound then – compared to around $1.53 at this time in 2015 – this series would have been a very attractive prospect to overseas buyers. It also shows London’s ability to attract great works for sale.
Having said that, fine art imports to the UK for the second half of the year fell by more than 50% in value on the same period in 2015, possibly reflecting not just the weakness in sterling but also the likelihood that this would make London a less attractive place for consignors in the short term.
Nonetheless, all of this needs to be taken in the context of the long-term trend upwards, and we will have to wait to see how the next two years pan out to see if our changing relationship with the European Union will alter the UK’s global market status.
Drilling down to the detail, not much has changed in the structure of the UK’s trading relationships.
The United States remains the most significant partner (see table above), but the figures show significant market shrinkage: the UK’s fine art exports to the US were down by 20% at £1.85 billion, while imports fell 40% to £552.3m. Exports of antiques to the US dropped by 24% to £431.1m, and imports declined by over 30% to £224.5m.
Fine art exports to Hong Kong remain stable amid global decline
The two great entrepots who dominate trade relations with the UK art market after the US, Switzerland and Hong Kong, also saw dramatic change, with fine art exports to and imports from the former down nearly 40% at £584.6m and £507.8m respectively, while fine art imports from Hong Kong crashed by almost three quarters. However, fine exports there remained very stable at £81.3m, showing an overall healthier trade gap for the UK with the former British territory.
One of the most significant changes in trading partnerships came with South Korea, now acknowledged as an increasingly strong buying base: exports of pictures there rose by more than £450% to nearly £90m.
It is important to remember that the trade figures measure the value of goods crossing UK borders rather than actual sales, but they tend to mirror much of the market’s trends and spheres of influence.
The UK faces one of the biggest threats to its democracy right now. It’s time to fight Section 40
Whatever else you are doing at the moment, stop. This is one of the most – if not the most – pressing issue facing us right now, and if we don’t deal with it immediately, it might be too late.
How important? So vital that on December 15, 1791, the Founding Fathers made it part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Not the Second Amendment, Third, Fourth or Fifth, but the First. It even outranks that US holy of holies, the right to bear arms, which had to make do with the Second Amendment.
What I am referring to here is the freedom of the press. And in the UK it is under imminent and dire threat.
Section 40, as it is referred to, came in as a result of the Leveson Inquiry into press activity and is part of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 that deals with the award of costs in cases where individuals sue publishers for libel, harassment or other complaints linked to news-related material. In short, it orders courts to award costs against publishers, whether or not the claim succeeds, if the publisher has not signed up to be ruled by a Government-approved press regulator.
So, win or lose, every Tom, Dick or Harry with a grievance, however, unjustifiable, will be able to go to court knowing that they will have nothing to pay, because the bill for whatever costs they rack up in the process will be presented to the newspaper, magazine or website in question.
No publisher can afford to continue in business with such a Sword of Damocles hanging over them.
Where some of the problems lie
The Act became law in 2013, but Section 40 cannot be enforced until there is an approved regulator for the media to sign up to. Soon there will be – which is why the threat is imminent – so why doesn’t everyone just sign up and avoid the issue?
The problem is twofold. First, the introduction of a Government-approved regulator to which publishers must, in effect, sign up to by law also effectively gives the Government direct control over the media. Why is this a bad thing? Well if you consider that recent precedents for doing this are in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe and in Turkey under Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, you will begin to get the picture. On January 3, Rachael Jolley, editor of the Index on Censorship magazine, expressed her great fears of this development in the Daily Telegraph.
“There should be a clear distance between any government and the journalists who report on it,” she wrote.
Secondly, the approved regulator in question is IMPRESS, the body set up by Max Mosley, the hugely wealthy former racing driver who has gone after the press, bankrolling the campaign in the process, ever since the News of the World exposed details of an orgy in which he took part in 2008. IMPRESS fields a board of wide-ranging talents, expresses its commitment to press freedom and bills itself as “the first truly independent press regulator in the UK”.
It may be all of these things, but so far no national newspaper has signed up to its rules. Why so little confidence in IMPRESS? Go to their website and click through to IMPRESS Code Consultation for the first clue. This is what it says: “The IMPRESS Code Committee is in the process of drafting a new Standards Code for the press. IMPRESS ran a six week public consultation until 29th September 2016. IMPRESS received over 40 submissions. The Code Committee is considering the draft Code in light of these submissions.”
So, if I understand this correctly, the press must sign up to be ruled by an organisation that has not yet published its binding code of conduct. In other words, they would have no idea what they were signing up to.
Now check what it says under Our Regulatory Scheme on the website: “We have the power to direct the publisher to make a correction or an apology. We also have the power to award financial sanctions (fines) when a publisher has committed serious or systemic breaches of the Code or our governance requirements. We can award sanctions up to 1% of that publication’s turnover, to a maximum of £1m.
“If you believe that you have suffered real harm and you wish to pursue a legal claim for defamation, breach of privacy or harassment against a publisher regulated by IMPRESS, you may ask us to arrange arbitration for you.”
IMPRESS offers no clarity as it adopts sweeping powers
As I read this, then, an organisation that has not yet set out its code of conduct, expects publishers to sign up to that binding code and subject themselves to the whim of anyone who feels that they might have been harassed, without defining what that might be, whilst setting out the powers of enforcement. Don’t forget, the £1m fine would be in addition to the costs, however unjustifiable awarding them against a publisher might be.
Quite frankly, whatever other objections might arise, the lack of clarity across the board here is reason enough to dismiss this scheme out of hand, especially in light of the powers it adopts and the level of potential sanctions.
Section 40 itself is just as woolly. Paragraph 3 (a), for instance, orders that costs must be awarded against the defendant (the press) unless the court is satisfied that (a) “the issues raised by the claim could not have been resolved by using an arbitration scheme…” or (b) “it is just and equitable in all circumstances of the case to make a different award of costs or make no award of costs”.
Sub para (a) is a non starter, because any vexatious claimant would have no incentive to abide by any arbitration, safe in the knowledge that in pursuing an action in court it would be the defendant shouldering their costs regardless of the outcome.
Sub para (b) is so wide and undefined as to be meaningless as reassurance to any publisher hoping to stave off a vexatious claimant’s costs. Quite simply, none would take the risk of publishing in the first place under such circumstances.
The result of all of this? A hamstrung press, which either comes to the heel of those who want to muzzle it, or faces closure because it simply could not afford to continue under such threats and strictures.
Don’t forget, in all of this, that a great deal of other legislation regulates the press already, from the Contempt of Court Act to existing libel laws. When journalists were caught out hacking phones, they went to jail, including Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s former communications director. The law does work already. They won’t be doing that again.
Fighting Section 40 is about defending democratic freedoms
It is vital to understand that freedom of the press is not about protecting dodgy reporters intent on smearing the latest sex scandal across the Sunday tabloids; it is about protecting the very democratic freedoms that you and I have taken for granted as our right for centuries. The Fourth Estate’s most important role is in holding parliament to account and, beyond parliament, in acting as a democratic check and balance that makes the rich, powerful and unscrupulous think twice before acting against the common interest. The press does this by retaining the power to expose wrongdoing and the wrongdoer without fear or favour. Section 40 will remove that check and balance, while introducing fear and favour, and will close the essential democratic divide between the press and Government. It is not in my interests for this to happen, nor is it in yours.
How many times when scandal or tragedy breaks in public life have we heard the words: We must do everything we can to ensure that this never happens again?
MPs expenses; the current football sex abuse scandal; cash-for-questions and many other outrages would never have come to light if Section 40 had applied at the time.
Allow it to proceed and the chances are such horrors will not only happen again, but will continue to do so on a more frequent basis. The real scandal is that, under such circumstances, we, the public, would never get to hear about it. And so the malefactors would know they could act unfettered by the risk of public scrutiny.
As Rachael Jolley says: “If such laws were introduced in another country, British politicians would be speaking out against such shocking media censorship. There’s no doubt that authoritarian powers will use this example to bolster their own cases in imposing media regulation.”
There are peoples across the world fighting for such freedoms, and we are about to give it all up, and oh so casually.
Culture Secretary Karen Bradley needs to remember her responsibility not just to the British public in this, but also to other democracies across the globe; it’s more than a timely reminder for her as one looks out across the West now.
Hacked Off and those supporting Mosley’s stance are extremely well funded and have been making very loud representations to the Government in favour of enforcing Section 40.
You can do your bit to counter this by letting the Government know what you think.
Write to email@example.com NOW, giving your name and address and declaring that you are one of the following:
- A member of the public
- A lawyer
- An academic
and that you want your views to be considered in the public consultation exercise on this matter. Tell them the following:
- The Government should repeal all of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act now.
- That you believe Section 40’s implementation would seriously damage the press’s ability to hold power to account.
- That you do not believe Section 40 will incentivise publishers to join IMPRESS.
- That you believe there is no need for further investigation following the completion of Leveson One and the criminal investigations.
- That Leveson Two should be terminated.
Alternatively, you can write a letter containing all of the above and send it to: Press Policy, DCMS, 4th Floor, 100 Parliament Street, London SW1A 2BQ.
We haven’t got long to put a stop to this potential disaster. ACT NOW.
A new EU-inspired law is supposed to champion designers, but design itself, along with many others, will pay the price
COMMENT: The final nail has been hammered home in changing a small but important part of the Copyright Designs & Patents Act 1988 that will see a revolution in industrial design rights. Section 52 of the Act is about to be repealed. Sounds dry?
Maybe; however, it’s anything but, because the impact on consumer choice, design innovation, reprinting of books, reissue of films and many other facets of our cultural life will be far-reaching… and bad.
I have spent a fair portion of the last four and a half years trying to put a stop to this semi-suicidal, EU-prompted law change, which, like so many others, achieves the reverse of what it sets out to do, while causing even more disruption to our culture and way of life. The bit I focused on was replica furniture. The rights, balanced with trademark and patent, for original industrial designs – items produced in quantities of more than 50 – expired after 25 years. The idea behind this rule was to give creators sufficient monopoly to benefit financially from their designs before opening up competition in the market to the benefit of the consumer.
That meant that after the 25 years was up, quite a bit of post-war modern and contemporary furniture design could be copied in considerably less expensive replica form in an ‘inspired by’ format. Those wanting licensed design originals such as the Eames lounge chair and ottoman could still pay considerably more for them if they wished. As the Government acknowledged, the price differential was so great between the originals and the replicas that they served two separate and distinct markets.
What the replicas could not do legally was pass themselves off as the originals, as pirated copies do, and doubtless will continue to do; ‘inspired by’ was as close as they could get while staying on the right side of the law.
As of the end of January 2017, the replicas will be outlawed too, with a further tranche of designs added to the list as of April 6 next year. If you want anything that looks like an Eames chair and ottoman after that date, you will have to pay around £6,815 at The Conran Shop for a licensed original instead of the Eames-inspired version you can currently get at Wallace Sacks for £599.
I wonder how Charles and Ray Eames themselves would feel about that, having made it clear that they wanted “to make the best (designs) for the most (people) for the least (amount of money)”.
Certainly Design Museum co-founder Stephen Bayley does not approve, telling The Independent that the changes are “at odds with the principles of widely available democratised luxury which make design such an interesting subject”.
Retroactive rights are causing the real problem
Instead of waiting 25 years after the first year of manufacture or marketing for these designs to open up to the wider market, the public will now have to wait until 70 years after the death of the designer. That brings the law in line with copyright for artists, photographers and musicians, but rather upsets the applecart when additional trademark and patent protections are taken into account.
What is causing the real problem is that the law will be retroactive, reviving rights in designs that expired sometimes decades ago, while awarding rights to other designs that never enjoyed them in the first place.
To give you an idea of how massive this is, let’s take an example.
The Bauhaus table lamp was designed by Karl Jucker and Wilhelm Wagenfeld in 1923-24. Had the 25-year rule applied at the time, their right would have expired in 1949. However, Wagenfeld did not die until 1990 and Jucker not till 1997. So under the new rules the right is revived and lasts until 70 years after Jucker’s death: 2067. That’s an additional 118 years after 1949 when the right would have expired originally. And that is not even the most extreme example.
The other change is the one that is likely to hit designers, because the right has also been upgraded from design right to copyright. Why is this important? Because under design right it was permissible for a designer to incorporate an element of the earlier design of a work with artistic merit into a new design as long as the overall appearance and impact of the new design was substantially different. Copyright does not allow for this ‘inspired by’ element, known in the trade as ‘follow-on design’. Breaching this new rule risks committing a criminal offence and incurring a heavy fine and prison sentence.
While the Government has assured many that matters are unlikely ever to reach such a stage, designers in the know are likely to be less sanguine, especially as the rights holders of many of the most popular designs coming back into right are mega-wealthy and powerful international corporations and highly active when it comes to enforcement and civil claims. Notice I say ‘rights holders’. That is because some of the most active of the rights holders are not designers themselves but companies that have licensed the rights from the designers or their heirs.
This is not about protecting design. It is about money.
What will make the everything so uncertain is that for a work to qualify for revived rights under the rule change, it must be deemed to have ‘artistic merit’, but the law does not define what that is. Instead, the Government has said that it will be up to the courts to decide.
Now consider that it can take up to a decade and hundreds of thousands of pounds to develop a new design and test it on the market. Many designs fail to make their mark even after all of this, so it is a costly and high-maintenance process. Imagine, then, having succeeded in all of this and launched a blockbuster new design that the public flock to. Then imagine having it snatched away as the rights holder to an earlier design claims that your new design breaches their rights because of an unintended similarity between a small element of your design and theirs. Are you going to risk a costly court action fighting an international corporation without having any certainty at all about the prospects of the case because of the obfuscation over the definition of ‘artistic merit’ or even if the challenge of copying has any validity at all?
Changes would have a “chilling” effect on innovation in design – The Government
And what incentive will those same corporations, who declare themselves champions of design, have to invest in developing new designs that might suffer the same risks?
No wonder the Government stated repeatedly that the change in the law would have a “chilling effect” on innovation in design.
If you think this is fanciful, let me tell you that it has already happened several times in high-profile cases in the world of music, costing Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke £5 million over their hit Blurred Lines and Richard Ashcroft all his royalties and even the writing credit for his 1997 composition Bitter Sweet Symphony.
The result of all this is that the wholesale and retail sector in replica design furniture has all but collapsed in the UK. The Government had promised a five-year transitional period to allow businesses to convert to new activity – deeming such a period ‘necessary’ – but pulled the rug out from under them in October last year after the powerful rights holders based in Switzerland, Italy and the US threatened it with a Judicial Review.
Having read the Government’s February 2015 findings after a lengthy consultation process, it was clear that it viewed anything earlier than an April 2020 enforcement as disastrous for business, jobs and taxes. The complete U-turn in October 2015 never even attempted to explain or justify the change in position. I use the word ‘position’ carefully, because my reading is that the Government clearly did not change its opinion at all in the interim, a fact confirmed to me in person when I met the former Business Secretary Sajid Javid when I met him in December 2015.
So where do the museums, books, films, photographic archives and the rest come into all of the this?
Quite simply, along with the introduction of copyright for these 3D designs comes the 2D rights in them. In other words, the designs also acquire their own image rights. So that means where an Eames lounge chair and ottoman appear in a magazine photo for a room set, or in a book on design, in the background of a film, on a tea towel or mug sold through a museum shop, or are represented in any other similar way, the rights holder acquires image rights to that representation. All was not lost until now thanks to an assumption made when copyright in images extended from 50 to 70 years: Regulation 24 stipulated that any works whose copyright was “revived” as a result of this increase in term were to be “treated as licensed by the copyright owner” if the person wishing to use them gave reasonable notice, subject to payment of a reasonable royalty. Now though, that assumption is seen as being at odds with a 2001 EU directive relating to copyright because it denies exclusive rights to the rights holder to control reproduction of their work.
The result? The Government is repealing the regulation. This is potentially disastrous for film and photographic archives, which must now actively check anything they want to republish, seek out rights holders to any potentially infringing images, secure a licence for them and pay the fee.
The British Film Institute has serious concerns for the future
The task is monumental. The British Film Institute, which is the world’s largest film archive, formally objected to the changes, pointing out: “The likelihood of any rights holder whose works appear in a film being aware of these renewed rights is very low,” meaning that they would be unlikely to come forward and register a claim, leaving the BFI with the obligation of seeking them out.
“The administrative cost on the current owner/distributor of the film of meeting this obligation by ensuring clearance for all embedded designs with revived copyright will be high, the level of remuneration available to license such use will inevitably be minimal,” it concluded.
The BFI raised further concerns, which explain why some treasured films may never see the light of day again: “For companies and archives involved in re-releasing films where copyright has been revived they will lead to additional burdens on an already financially challenged sector when it wishes to provide online access to materials in collections or prepare theatrical rereleases of titles. Simply put, the information needed to secure the necessary licences for embedded designs will not be available in most cases where archives hold a copy. This will discourage organisations from making such material available in order to avoid unwitting infringements.”
One museum, thought to be the V&A, estimated that the loss in revenue from its shop, together with new restrictions on its existing collection, resulting from the changes, would cost it £850,000 in the first year alone. And the change in law will affect its collections policy moving forwards, it says. In other words, it may well stop acquiring anything that would come with such rights, which would skew the view of cultural history at one of the nation’s leading repositories for it. Will the Government be forced to replace this loss of revenue? If so, it will give the lie to its own assessment that the new law will have no significant economic impact on the public purse. And that is just one public body affected.
The greatest irony, I suppose, is that all of this is coming into force on the back of an Italian court ruling linked to an EU harmonisation directive in the months after the Brexit vote.
Understandably, one of the biggest concerns of those who voted Remain is the potential threat to the UK economy of leaving the EU. What will such a move cost in terms of jobs and tax revenues? No one can be certain at this stage. However, what they can be certain of is that here we have a highly damaging EU policy that is already costing jobs and millions in tax revenues, while inflicting very significant damage on our creative industries.
And what the industry can do about it now…
In recent years, global media coverage of multi-million dollar auction prices, combined with the rise of art as an alternative asset class, has focused more attention on the international art market than ever before.
That increase in awareness has brought the issue of transparency to the fore, but what exactly do we mean by it?
To the public – the market’s client base – transparency largely means more clarity about terms and conditions, pricing, and consumer rights when buying and selling.
However, to politicians, interest groups, the media and the many and varied corners of the market itself, concerns over transparency focus on a far wider range of topics: provenance, finance, crime and market manipulation, to name the most obvious. The general attitude seems to be that improved transparency will boost confidence and reduce the risk of things going wrong.
With the trade in antiquities, concern gravitates towards looting and fakes, with money laundering and theft following close behind. With finance around high-end auctions, critics argue that a lack of transparency allows auction houses, dealers and collectors to skew the market to give themselves an unfair competitive advantage or create bubbles to sustain their holdings in artworks that might otherwise decline in value.
For the trade, though, increased transparency can cause problems. Thanks to the internet, it is far easier for potential buyers to find out what a dealer paid for an item, making it much more difficult for them to cover their costs and sell at a decent profit; most people are not interested in the time, effort, expertise, or the restoration, transport or other costs that the dealer has to account for in acquiring the item, as these are not seen as contributing to its value. How justified are concerns, and what should be done?
Focus on the four key variables in any transaction
Let’s deconstruct all of this a little. Every transaction really only has four key variables: the buyer, the seller, the goods, and the money. Each brings its potential to the deal, and its risks. Due diligence on behalf of both buyer and seller can tackle much of that risk, but not all of it. How can you be absolutely sure where the buyer’s money comes from? How robust is the seller’s paperwork? And who exactly are they? Surely the answer is to regulate the art market directly, like the worlds of finance, insurance and the law, so that officialdom can intervene where necessary and public confidence in honest trading does not have to rest on what some view as little more than a person’s word.
The first thing to understand is that hundreds of laws already regulate the market (you can download the list that applies to the UK art market from the British Art Market Federation website), but experience tells us that direct regulation rarely solves the problem.
The establishment of the Conseil des Ventes in France in 2000 to govern the market once France liberalised its auction laws did nothing to prevent the cols rouges scandal at the Drouot auction house nine years later, where the closed shop of portering services masked a criminal network of theft. Nor did the Wine Association’s establishment of a rigorous code of practice in 2003 prevent people from falling victim to rogue funds in the years that followed. Then we have the age-old issue of what exactly art is: if you can’t define something clearly, then you can’t legislate for it effectively.
But more pressing, perhaps, is where questions of art market transparency overlap with debates about public interest and the right to privacy. If politics is to intervene here, then the lawmakers as a whole need a better understanding of how to balance public interest with the practical needs of business. That means consulting trade professionals to a far greater degree than happens now rather than relying on the opinions of academics and others lobbying against art market interests. We also need more consistency on codes of practice across trade associations as well as with legal definitions for cultural property, what constitutes art and other loose terms.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the minister guiding the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill through the UK parliament, recently declared that creating such passports would breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the right to privacy.
In 2014, in a case involving the auctioneers William J. Jenack, the New York Court of Appeals overturned a New York Supreme Court ruling that an auction contract was null and void if it did not name the seller. The court clearly recognised the damage this would do to auctions and declared that having the auctioneer’s details on the paperwork as the agent of the seller was good enough.
How to use the art of persuasion when it comes to transparency
I have always believed that the most effective way of getting people to change their behaviour is to show them why it is in their interests to do so – and enlightened trade professionals are already demonstrating how and why this should be done.
Online aggregator Barnebys has just published research showing that transparency online at auction, along with ease of bidding and post-sale fulfilment, is the most important factor in building brand trust and improving sell-through rates. ‘The new generation of buyers and sellers expect all information to be easily at their disposal, without any barriers,’ says Barnebys co-founder Pontus Silverstolpe. ‘Withholding information, such as final prices, foments distrust and alienates users.’ Anna-Karin Laurell, CEO of Scandinavian auction house Bukowskis, echoes this sentiment: ‘Transparency and [improved] function increases credibility. Through our new website we have also reached new target markets we previously believed were very hard to reach – the youngest between 18–25.’
The Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2014 concurs, while its 2016 report highlights the growth in businesses that are improving access to art market information online, while simplifying fulfilment services.
Enhanced condition reports for online auctions, accompanied by excellent images, certificates of authenticity and a clear summary of all charges are the building blocks to buyer confidence and brand trust for sellers and their agents. So you may not know exactly who you are buying from, but if the auction site handling the transaction effectively underwrites it with all of the above, then it is a form of transparency that addresses many buyers’ concerns. This reflects the appeal court ruling in the Jenack case.
Having assessed auction websites professionally for nearly 20 years, my first and most important test is how easy it is to find the buyer’s premium rates. If there is any difficulty at all with this, I simply will not buy from that auctioneer, nor recommend them. Newly launched Forum Auctions have made a virtue of publishing exactly what their charges are at the top of their advice page on buying, and they also promote a set of core values, including a pledge on dealing with complaints promptly and fairly. It’s a simple, cost-free and uncomplicated piece of marketing that immediately promotes confidence. It is also a wise move because the Advertising Standards Authority has just launched an investigation into charges at auction, including whether buyer’s premium rates, VAT and other charges should be reflected in auction estimates.
The transparency issue is not going to go away. The market needs to regulate itself better if it is to keep the legislators off its back. It also needs to be better organised and more proactive in developing relationships with government. If the UK industry is serious in this, it needs to increase funding to its lobbying arm, the British Art Market Federation, by a factor of ten. The US would do well to follow suit.
This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Apollo, the International Art Magazine