New report on ivory trade is statistically unsound, as the author herself notes

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.Ivory report copy

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?

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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?

Did Brexit affect UK art market imports and exports in 2016?

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.

2016 UK Imports Exports table

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.

2016-2015 July to Dec comparisons

 

Why transparency is the Art Market’s – and lawmakers’ – latest obsession

transparencyAnd 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

ARR – The reality about the Artist’s Resale Right

The biggest advantage to those who champion
ARR is that so few people really understand it

One of the first issues to be raised in post-Brexit discussions with the art market was the long-running sore of Artist’s Resale Right.

Introduced in two stages (2006: living artists; 2012: artists’ estates for up to 70 years after their death), the combination of charges and red tape made it all but universally unpopular among auctioneers and, especially, dealers.

ARReaselArtists, the collecting agencies who stood to benefit more than anyone and various others saw it as overdue compensation for those whose work goes on to sell for huge sums without them benefiting further.

The message in brief: Why shouldn’t artists share in the benefits their art brings to others?

Now that the UK is heading for the door, will this law – the result of a European Union harmonisation directive – survive?

Difficult to say, but with everything else on the agenda, scrutiny of it is hardly likely to be a Government priority.

Failing the fairness test

As someone who spent many years campaigning against the introduction and then extension of ARR, I have always believed that it is not only detrimental to the art market, but also to artists. I also think that it fails the fairness test completely in the way it is structured. The problem is that so few people understand its scope and impact that, as with many other measures that should never have made it onto the statute book, they can’t see why art market professionals have any reason to object to it.

Let’s try to clarify that with a few facts:

  • ARR has nothing to do with copyright, which is an entirely different right subsisting with the artist for their lifetime and to their heirs for 70 years afterwards.
  • It is charged every time a qualifying work resells in the commercial marketplace.
  • ARR applies to qualifying works three years after the original sale when the price is the equivalent of €1000 or more and immediately if it is €10,000 or more.
  • ARR is not charged as a percentage of profits on an artwork, but as a percentage of the entire price when the art is sold in the commercial marketplace.
  • As long as the artist qualifies for ARR and the price is above the qualifying threshold (€1000 or equivalent), the charge applies, even when the seller makes a loss.
  • ARR cannot be paid directly to the artist but must pass through one of the two collecting agencies that administer it in the UK, The Design & Artists Collecting Society (DACS) or the Artists Collecting Society (ACS), which each charge 15% of the sum collected in fees, except on overseas sales, for which they make no charge. Originally DACS wanted to charge 25%, but this was reduced in line with the ACS prior to ARR coming into effect in 2006.
  • ARR is an inalienable right, which means a qualifying artist cannot opt to waive it, regardless of whether they think it is unfair or risks damaging the market for their work.
  • Those involved in the transaction are jointly and severally liable for paying ARR, although in practice the auction houses pass on the charge to the buyer, while only some dealers pass it onto those who buy from them. This means dealers suffer from ‘double dip’ payments – one on buying and one on selling. So a levy across the deal can be as much as 8% of the entire price.
  • There is no definitive list of qualifying artists.
  • Failure to meet your obligations under ARR rules risks a criminal charge.
  • The collecting agencies hold no liability for their mistakes, even if you are the loser as a result.
  • If a collecting agency accepts an ARR payment for a transaction that may not qualify, or for which the artist or their heirs cannot be traced, they can keep the money for up to six years before returning it. In doing so, they still charge their 15% fee and keep all the interest accrued.
  • ARR is primarily supposed to help poorer artists as they establish their careers. However, the vast bulk of sums collected go to the most successful and richest artists and their estates.
  • 30% of all monies distributed go to artists’ estates.
  • ARR is capped at €12,500 on any single work of art.
  • ARR rates apply as follows: 4% from €1000-50,000; 3% from there up to €200,000; 1% from there up to €350,000; 0.5% from there up to €500,000; and 0.25% above that to the cap. The scale is cumulative, so on artworks selling for more than €500,000, you pay ARR according to the scale of rates up to that point.
  • ARR applies to the hammer price for auction sales.
  • The UK Government went against its own policy by ‘gold-plating’ the threshold at which ARR should apply. The EU directive stipulated that it did not have to apply under €3000, but the Government went further than that by reducing the threshold to €1000. Originally, the Government had actually campaigned in Europe for the threshold to be raised to €5000.
  • Dealers complain as much about the paperwork involved as the fee.
  • Failure to comply with the directive and pay ARR meant that many dealers could not show its impact when the UK Government carried out its impact study into ARR at the end of 2013.
  • By DACS’ own figures, it has charged over £7m in ARR fees over the past ten years. If its overheads (taking into account other revenues it raises) are lower than this, then it may be not-for-profit, but will certainly be banking a healthy surplus.
  • I have never made a penny out of ARR and have no financial or other material advantage in arguing my case.

All of the above is quite a lot to take in. People will argue the fairness of the concept of ARR till the cows come home and still not agree. However, a number of things concern me.

The first is that ARR in the UK has never met the terms of the directive that imposed it on the market. It is not harmonised with other ARR programmes across the EU in terms of thresholds and application. It is not supposed to continue if global harmonisation fails to take place (it has failed and is unlikely ever to take place, as recent events in the US show), yet there appears to be no political will by those who imposed it on the market to meet these terms.

It is not in the interests of the market, which is put at a competitive disadvantage in relation to the other leading global art markets (US, Hong Kong, Switzerland), which have not adopted it.

It acts against the interest of artists trying to establish themselves in the market because dealers are less likely to take a risk in buying collections of their work for resale, giving them a lump sum in the process. Now, most will only sell on commission, allowing fewer artists to rely on this as a source of income.

Most of all, though, I have found that almost no one I talk to about ARR understands it fully and accurately.

Of these, nearly everyone who is not a dealer or auctioneer thinks it is a levy solely on profit. Not one – artists included – thinks that paying it as a percentage of the entire price is fair. No one at all thinks that it is fair that it should be levied even if the transaction makes a loss – not even DACS could come up with an argument for that one when I first asked them about it shortly after its introduction.

A practicable solution that better meets the fairness test

The only argument for these conditions is that it makes it practicable to collect the levy. If you were to charge 4% above €1000 for an artwork where the profit was, say, €100, then ARR would be just €4. From that the collecting agency fee would be €0.60. In this case it would probably cost more to administer and distribute the levy than the sum raised by it.

However, the driving argument by the collecting agencies and the supporters of ARR has always been one of fairness. If fairness trumps all, then make it truly fair. This can be done by raising the threshold to where it should have been in the first place and charging only on profits. The flat rate percentage charged by the collecting agencies allows them to subsidise loss-making distribution activities at the lower end of the scale with the large surpluses made at the top end of the scale, a fitting arrangement for the self-declared not-for-profit organisations.

To my mind, it would also be fairer to poorer, less established artists who might, once more, find a healthy level of patronage among dealers willing to take a risk on them by purchasing collections up front and giving the artists lump sums to work on their next phase. Don’t forget, those same dealers invest considerably in helping boost the artists’ reputations. Successful artists’ reputations are rarely built in isolation, so why would you want to penalise the very people who can make it happen for them.

Do I think anything will change?

Probably not. All I hope is that those who declare ARR a great idea are fully aware of its parameters and potential consequences. I have been looking at them closely for almost 20 years and still can’t see how fairness or common sense applies.

Art brings hope to South Africa in troubled times

Maggie Laubser’s Birds and Boats is a signed oil on canvas laid down on board measuring 15½ x 19½in (39.5 x 49.5cm), which sold for R1.3m hammer – around £59,000 – against an estimate of R700,000-900,000 at Strauss & Co on March 14.

Maggie Laubser’s Birds and Boats is a signed oil on canvas laid down on board measuring 15½ x 19½in (39.5 x 49.5cm), which sold for R1.3m hammer – around £59,000 – against an estimate of R700,000-900,000 at Strauss & Co on March 14.

The art market is a beacon of hope in these troubled times for South Africa, but those who want to be part of the success story need to prepare now

One moment, it was very much a man’s world, the next it is women coming to the fore in the South African art market.

This is the result of the death on Christmas Day of Stephan Welz, the colossus of the country’s art market for the past 30 years and more, and the passing of the baton to the new joint managing directors at Strauss & Co, the country’s leading auction house, Bina Genovese and Vanessa Phillips. Add to their skills, contacts and experience the talents of fine art specialists Ann Palmer and Emma Bedford, and the future vision rests very much on the shoulders of the women in the firm chaired by Elisabeth Bradley.

But back to Welz the man for a moment.

The dominant force for so many years in a way that no other individual can claim to have been in any other art market across the globe, his name added lustre to the works he offered for sale in a way that no one else has ever been able to imitate. The top consignors to auction looked for his personal touch as the magic ingredient, as so often it proved to be.

Such was his competitive spirit that despite ongoing health issues he never lost his edge, even taking R8.5m (£393,520) for the oil and gesso work The Creation of Adam I (1968) by Alexis Preller, the rising star of South African art, in Johannesburg on November 9.

So it was no surprise that the man Strauss & Co described as their “living archive” had two memorial services – one in Johannesburg, the other in Cape Town – and that just about the whole of the South African art market turned out to pay their respects.

Generational change in South Africa’s art scene

Welz’s passing marks not just the end of an era in the terms of his influence. It comes at a time of huge change in the South African art scene as the leading lights of the older generation give way to the new. With that change comes a whole new approach to art and antiques and the way they are marketed. And it all comes as the rand sinks to a new low against sterling amid political uncertainty and the shadow of recession. Five years ago the exchange rate was around 10 rand to the pound; now its sits at around 23.

The mood on the street is negative, as those I talked to in Cape Town and beyond told me at the beginning of February. But strangely, this is not reflected in the art market, where the trade, represented by the South African Antique, Art & Design Association (SAADA) have boosted membership by bringing in the pick of the Contemporary art dealerships to their Cape Town fair with a view to permanent membership of the association.

Having rebranded the association itself in 2013, they moved the fair, now called the SAADA Expo, to The Lookout in the V&A Waterfront last year and packed it out for 2016’s event from February 11-13, no mean feat bearing in mind that it is a considerably larger space than the old venue in the Botanical Gardens.

This was a shrewd move, because the Expo now finds itself right in the centre of the tourist trail for cash-rich evening visitors, who would only be attracted to the botanical gardens during daylight hours.

In turn, the blending of antiques with Contemporary art, and the new policy of marketing traditional objects as pieces of design and sculpture is helping to attract a new and younger domestic audience.

For the Contemporary art galleries, the endorsement of the SAADA brand sets them apart from the mass of other galleries that wouldn’t get past the vetting committee, while the new players help expand the reach and influence of the traditional SAADA membership.

Cape Town and Johannesburg trade adapting their approach

“I no longer market myself as a silver dealer; I sell sculptural artefacts that just happen to be in the form of silver,” says Jeremy Astfalck, former SAADA chairman and owner of The Old Corkscrew, who is the one South African dealer who regularly stands at British fairs (Olympia, LAPADA and the NEC).

“Alongside the Contemporary art this is definitely attracting a younger crowd.”

Some believe that it may also be showing signs of crossing the colour bar. And this is the holy grail for the art market in South Africa: attracting the interest and engagement of the newly prosperous black middle classes who simply do not relate to the traditional collecting fields in South Africa, much of it based on colonial history.

Astfalck, a huge admirer of how his successor at SAADA, Paul Mkrusic, has moved things on, is adamant that taking a new and dynamic approach does not mean compromising where it matters.

“The quality still has to be there for art and objects, including their history.”

He is also finding that his trips to stand at fairs in the UK pay off back home, where contacts he has made turn up at his Franschhoek gallery to make the most of the fabulous exchange rate.

These ‘swallows’, as they are known, because they fly south for winter, have been a staple of the market for years. The trade members among them, from the US, UK and Europe, come to snap up the best of what remains from old family collections for resale at a decent mark-up back home. Although some market watchers, like retired auctioneer Charles Rudd, believe that most of the European heirlooms have already been flushed out from colonial settler families, they still see treasures emerging that make the trip more than worthwhile.

Having closed his own Cape Town auction house in November, Rudd is still very active as an independent valuer and appraiser. Reflecting on the generational shift in the market, he is wistful about the gradual disappearance of the expertise in traditional collecting fields, but says South Africa still has a lot to offer here and believes that many European dealers and collectors are still missing out.

Weak rand attracting buyers to the Cape

“As far as the antiques side is concerned, there are still strong buyers and sellers in the traditional market and I would encourage the international trade to come down,” he says, noting the high level of fresh-to-market items available.

He acknowledges the gap left by Welz but is one of many who warn against writing off Strauss & Co, who, it must be remembered, remain the strongest domestic force in South African art. Also best remembered is that continuity is a strong feature because those now at the helm are not new at all to the company but worked with Welz for years – collectively 48 years, in fact. And they have a record R200m turnover for 2015 to build on. Add to that the strong brand and solid database of clients and their future certainly looks much more positive.

“Contrary to what happened internationally where major auction houses elected to operate only at the top end of the market and are now having to rethink their strategies, Strauss & Co has continued to operate in both the high end and the middle market (this also includes furniture and decorative arts) reaping substantial benefits both ways,” says Genovese.

“The weak rand, along with exceptionally high buyer’s premiums and VAT rates charged, have become a deterrent for local buyers. Conversely, the weak rand is extremely attractive for international buyers that are noticeably on the rise, in particular for decorative arts.”

Strauss are not without their rivals, foremost among them in South Africa itself being Stephan Welz & Co, the company Welz the man sold in 2006 when ill, only to recover his heath and his ambition, which led to the creation of Strauss & Co.

Ironically, despite carrying his name, the firm is still often referred to as Sotheby’s, a legacy of its former incarnation as the auction giant’s South African outpost.

With a new-look website and beefed up media section, as well as a range of specialisms that now includes vintage fashion, its owner Alan Demby clearly has his eye on an even more competitive future, especially now Welz the man is no longer a player.

These two, with Ashbey’s Galleries upping their game on European art but on a smaller scale, are setting the pace domestically.

One thing is for certain: all eyes will be on the next two or three series of sales to see how the rivals perform. The first test has been the March sales in Cape Town, which are still being assessed.

Bonhams continue to dominate international scene

On the international scene, though, Bonhams continue to dominate. It is ten years since Giles Peppiatt established The South African Sale in London and new records for Irma Stern, Vladimir Tretchikoff and others have held sway, even when lesser artists have failed to make their mark.

Here the weak rand is Bonhams’ greatest gift when it comes to consignments: quite simply, they are able to sell them for much more in London than their rivals can in Cape Town, with the caveat that currency rules mean that sellers from South Africa must re-import a hefty slice of the profits.

As for the art itself, Irma Stern and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef have dominated for a long time, but others have been showing strongly in recent years, among them William Kentridge, Alexis Preller, Gerard Sekoto, Maggie Laubser and Stanley Pinker.

“South African artists that should be followed and will in my opinion continue to appreciate are Stanley Pinker, Robert Hodgins and Lucas Sithole,” says Peppiatt. “The one artist who I think that will eventually eclipse all the South African hands is Gerard Sekoto. I would not be surprised if we sell a work by Sekoto for over a £1m in the next ten years.”

Pan-African art the next big shift

The next big shift, though, is likely to be towards the Contemporary artists from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and the Cote D’Ivoire, among other African countries, whose work is already being championed by new galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Africa’s most successful living artist, the Ghanaian El Anatsui, has already crossed over into Western taste. His Gustav Klimt-like bottle-top installations sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, have won prizes at the Royal Academy and have been on show at the Met in New York and the Venice Biennale.

Events such as 1:54, the Contemporary African art and photography fair that now runs in New York and London each year, are championing new and established African talent, with the art taking on global as well as continental themes, creating mass appeal in their wake.

Names such as Sokari Douglas Camp, a Nigerian in his late fifties, Mali’s Abdoulaye Konaté, in his sixties, and Adeola Olangunju a 29-year-old Nigerian photographer living and working in Lagos, are indicative of the explosion of talent and creativity to be found. This is an unstoppable force.

Names to watch coming out of South Africa itself now include Athi-Patha Ruga, Zander Blom, Michael Taylor and Georgina Gratrix, says Genovese at Strauss.

When the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opens around the end of this year on Cape Town’s Waterfront as the continent’s largest gallery of its type, it should provide a hitherto absent hub for Contemporary African art that has the potential to catapult South Africa onto the international art market, taking it well beyond the modest $35m auction market value it now enjoys to something on an altogether grander scale in a global market valued at around $55 billion. If that happens, those far-sighted enough to be ready for this will be the market leaders of the future. And it will be them, whether galleries, fairs or auction houses, who will also reap the rewards of the new and younger domestic market.

Players line up for market’s next phase

Bonhams, who already hold Contemporary African art sales in London and whose London specialists across several departments can be found in the Cape on a monthly basis, are clearly getting ready for the next phase.

“The growth of Contemporary African art over the past four years has been extraordinary and nominal values have risen by over 200% in some areas,” says Peppiatt.

“In my opinion the art market in South Africa is on the verge of being the key springboard for the larger African market. There has been such growth in Contemporary African art, both from South Africa and further North, and South Africa deserves to be at the forefront of this market.”

He and his colleague Hannah O’Leary keep a close eye on the political scene in South Africa, how the Government and economy are shaping up in that other great African art centre, Nigeria, and how that all plays into the art scene.

“Those lacking a global view are most at risk of missing the boat when it comes to the changing scene in both South Africa and the continent as a whole,” says Peppiatt.

Phillips are now openly preparing to makes moves on the pan-African market and the organisers of the Cape Town Art Fair have clearly taken this message on board too. They moved the event from the Waterfront to the much bigger Cape Town International Convention Centre for its February 19 to 21 run – a bold statement.

Displaying pan-African Contemporary art, its stated aims include showcasing new trends, exposing collectors to new artists and, perhaps most interesting of all, adapting the best international practices to build and sustain an economic platform for the art market.

The challenge for the traditional auction houses and dealers in the country is to make sure they do not miss the chance to join the party when it starts.

Like London, Cape Town has the advantage of being a nice place to do business, which can only add to the mix.

Mortgage rates may be going up and food prices rising, but the art market offers a beacon of hope in these troubled times for the Rainbow Nation.

Antiques are not dying out, they are just reincarnating

Antiques reincarnation

Human nature means people will always collect, so ignore the
doom mongers who say the antiques market is in a death spiral

COMMENT: Out with old and in with the new. I’m not talking about the turn of the year but antiques, of course. We all know they are finished. Dead. Buried. It must be true because the national newspapers keep telling us that this is the case.

What’s more, they have backed it up with references to John Andrews’ Antique Furniture Index as well as the odd quote from a disgruntled dealer.

I am absolutely certain that this story breaking now could not possibly have anything to do with the time of year or the traditional scrabbling round for holiday season headlines beyond Middle Eastern doom and gloom, domestic flooding or New Year overindulgence.

A slightly closer look at the stories below the headlines tell a slightly different story for antiques, however.

Here the ‘expert’ writers share the amazing revelation that widespread formal dining, along with formal dining rooms with their heavy mahogany furniture, has become a thing of the past. Equally shocking, and something we really all need to let everyone know about, is that people have been turning to IKEA in their droves.

Where have these journalists been since the millennium? Stuck in a Chippendale cupboard?

It’s the news reporting and comment that’s out of date

The Daily Mail tells us that “Shows such as Cash in the Attic have eroded the quality furniture market”, while “Some tables which cost £6000 a decade ago are now only worth £2000”.

It seems to me that the news reporting and comment here is every bit as antiquated and uninformed as the views being espoused.

The fact that run-of-the-mill traditional Georgian and Victorian furniture has suffered greatly over the last 15 years is hardly news. But extrapolating the collapse of the entire antiques market from what has been happening to a corner of the furniture market illustrates the level of expertise being applied here.

Having edited Antiques Trade Gazette, the leading industry newspaper, for 15 years until last year, I have noted one or two things:

  • The word antique refers to anything over 100 years old, which means it is an ever-changing market;
  • Amazingly, tastes change; and
  • Equally amazingly, many markets are cyclical and yesterday’s piece of junk or outmoded collection of antiques sometimes turns out to be tomorrow’s retro must-have.

Janice Turner, writing in The Times on January 2, ironically slightly behind the times herself in arguing that the move is away from antiques towards a cheap throwaway culture even for furniture (hasn’t she heard of the rather more up-to-date upcycling and the return to the BoHo chic distressed look?), says that most people want constant change these days, explaining the popularity of IKEA, and that “even the nicest brown furniture looks like it belongs in a funeral home or a Dickens set”.

I suspect that Janice has never come across nice stuff like the Arts & Crafts Movement and Godwin, or early 20th century giants like Rennie Mackintosh, Gordon Russell and Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson. Mostly antiques now and nothing funereal about them. Prices seem ok for sellers, too, so someone’s prepared to pay for it.

Chinese buying bog-standard British antique furniture?!?

And where did she get the idea that the Chinese have developed a taste for bog-standard British brown and are snapping it up as fast as we can ship it out to them?

Tell us the secret to that one and, to paraphrase Del Boy Trotter, next year we’ll all be millionaires, Rodney.

One of the biggest growth areas in recent times has been the revival and development of that most Victorian of obsessions, taxidermy. Now that Hoxton hipsters are seen as rather passé, I await the first stuffed and mounted example on the wall of Shoreditch House or the Groucho Club.

Not that long ago, I found myself looking through the 1928 Olympia antiques fair catalogue. It was not just the black and white photography that looked dated, but much of the heavy Georgian and Regency furniture being promoted in it (most Victorian pieces, at that time, were not yet antique, of course). And it was also not that long ago that fairs like Grosvenor House would vet anything off that was post 1837.

The dealers who do not even know they are part of the antiques trade

Guess what? The antiques trade moved on and discovered the virtues of Victoriana in all its forms. Now they are doing the same with early 20th century design and even, shock, horror, post-War pieces – not even ANTIQUE yet!!

Nor is Art Deco, a trade and collecting favourite for decades.

Sections of the antiques trade are doing badly. Personally, I think it will be a long time, if ever, before the ordinary mahogany bedroom furniture of yesteryear makes a comeback.

But I also think that the great tradition of collecting is here to stay – as the recent Star Wars toys sale at Sotheby’s in New York showed – as is the desire to own great designs and well-crafted pieces.

In my view, the most fascinating aspect of today’s antiques trade is that so many people are utterly unaware that they are part of it. If you have a shop selling vintage clothing, or stand at a weekly market punting fifties and sixties retro chic kitchenware, you are already part of today’s antiques trade.

Great, isn’t it. And have you noticed just how many of the buyers are in their twenties and thirties? Yes, me too.

Give people the chance to see this stuff – and the money to buy it – and they will clear out the flatpacks to make way for it, believe me. Saleroom prices show this now.

As these people start to earn more, and switch on to the thrill of saleroom bidding or visiting fairs and galleries, history shows that they will start to spend at a higher level too.

Technology is also moving on, giving them easier access to what may interest them.

If the trade really were on its last legs, why have so many magazines and websites just published predictions for the year ahead on what is likely to be hot when it comes to the art, antiques and collectables market?

Furnishing trends may be changing because homes are, on the whole, smaller, but it’s a big world out there and people adapt. Key antique statement pieces often form the focus of more modern interiors, and smaller antique collectables still attract buyers in their droves when presented well. Just take a closer look at what’s really going on and you will see.