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.
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.