Cork Street and Mayfair – the Royal Academy’s new Narnia

David Chipperfield's new link between the Royal Academy and 6 Burlington Gardens

David Chipperfield’s new link between the Royal Academy and 6 Burlington Gardens

How the Royal Academy’s new architectural link may well lead to the building of even more important cultural and commercial links

Two parallel worlds suddenly and dramatically linked by an unexpected and hidden doorway. In the case of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie first discovers the magical world of Narnia while playing hide and seek, pushing her way through a store of fur coats at the back of a deep wardrobe until she finds herself brushing aside the branches of fir trees and emerging into a snowy landscape.

As of 2018, visitors to the Royal Academy will also be able to make their way from the world of public art through the new link corridor joining the RA’s Burlington House off Piccadilly to 6 Burlington Gardens, the building it acquired in 2001.

In turn, this access will help introduce the art-loving general public more directly to the wonders of a new world many will not have seen before: the art trade in Mayfair, most specifically in Cork Street, which lies just across the road from number 6’s front door.

Even better, the £50m transformation of number 6 includes a 300-seat lecture theatre, a permanent home for Royal Academy Schools students to exhibit their work and more space for contemporary and current exhibitions. The public coming through from Piccadilly will also gain access to one of the best-kept secrets of 6 Burlington Gardens: the Cast corridor.

Making a whole new world of artistic connections

The single most important change is that the Burlington Gardens building will be used a great deal more on a daily basis. As architect Sir David Chipperfield put it, “We’re knocking a hole in the wall. It’s a small amount of architecture for a large amount of result.”

So Royal Academy students will be regular visitors to the building, giving them the opportunity to look across the road to commercial galleries that could soon become their mentors and representatives.

This is very welcome news after the depredations dealers have faced in the Narnian-like perpetual winter of recent years, forced out of galleries they have occupied for decades as the White Witch of luxury brands and property developers has cast her frozen spell.

As Charles Saumarez Smith, the secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy, told The Guardian: “This is not just a major building development, it is an undertaking which will transform the psychological, as well as the physical, nature of the Academy.”

And just in time for the RA’s 250th birthday.

The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions lists the Royal Academy as having had just under 825,000 visitors for 2014, putting it in 35th place. That was a 19% fall from the 1,015,505 it welcomed in 2013, when it took 26th place, itself a 19% fall from the 1.2 million that brought it 17th place in 2012.

Since then the Houses of Parliament, Kew Gardens, the RHS Wisley and even Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, among others, have surged passed it, so the revamp and extension come at just the right time to breathe new life into Burlington House and the Royal Academy’s collection and exhibition programme.

Playing the percentage game with the Royal Academy’s visitors

If even 1% of those who pass through its portals – already interested in art by the very fact of their visit – proceed through the link to 6 Burlington Gardens and out the other side, that will mean close to 10,000 people already thinking about the wonders of art entering the magical world of Mayfair and its unrivalled gathering of fine art and antiques businesses. Echoing Charles Saumarez Smith, it will be a psychological transformation for both public and trade.

Not only that. The business potential for all will blossom too. As a public institution, using a fair proportion of its new space to educate artists in their formative years, the new-look Royal Academy will doubtless be looking for support in various guises to help keep its programme fresh and vibrant.

What better opportunity can there be for auction houses and galleries to offer their services and even financial backing in forging new relationships with the Royal Academy and its students? It could even help fill one of the biggest and longest-standing gaps in fine arts degree courses: teaching student artists how to negotiate their way into the commercial market and make a living.

This must surely provide one of the best arguments of all for Westminster Council to press ahead with its Special Policy Area initiative, aimed at protecting the cultural and artistic profile of Mayfair.

The unique juxtaposition of the expanded Royal Academy with the premier art-dealing enclave this side of the Atlantic should also give the Government pause for thought as it brings together the politically attractive possibility of boosting the nation’s culture, business and employment prospects in one fell swoop.

Less box ticking, more research – the survey and statistics crisis

Questionable survey marketing and lazy journalism threaten the media, public debate and the legitimate art and antiques trade

 

Survey image

 

COMMENT: Type in the word ‘survey’ under the Google News search and see what comes up.

I have just done this and found that there are 79.9m results. A significant number of these refer to media reports of new surveys conducted into all aspects of life and business.

Top of page one among the Google results was a Guardian news story on an Amnesty International survey concerning attitudes to the criminal status of abortion in Ireland. It tells us that the findings come from 1000 phone interviews made during May.

So here we have a survey by a named organisation with the reporter giving us at least some idea of its methodology. Not bad, although as Amnesty International is not an independent body but a campaigning organisation, the question arises as to how independent the survey actually was. If Amnesty brought in a professional polling company to conduct the survey on its behalf, the report does not say.

Another story tells of a survey conducted by Car Finance 2 Go, which assesses what annoys motorists the most about each other. It made great copy for The Bath Chronicle and The Gloucester Citizen, but the report gives no details of how independent the poll was nor how it was carried out beyond the Citizen saying over 1000 people took part.

 

Product placement

Global software security group Kaspersky Lab conducted a survey among 1000 people into the relationship between smartphone usage and amnesia.

How did this amnesia manifest itself? According to The Express Tribune, stablemate of The International New York Times, “Many adults could not remember important phone numbers of family members and friends. The survey also showed that people are not doing much to protect their information online.”

What’s more, the survey additionally reveals “Less than a third of the people surveyed put security precautions on their devices”.

By happy coincidence pollsters Kaspersky Lab are on hand with the solution. As the home page of their website tells us, they are “the world’s largest privately held cybersecurity company offering endpoint protection solutions to consumers and businesses around the globe”.

Work your way down the Google list and in many cases it’s the same story: product placement posing behind the fig leaf of a ‘survey’ to burnish the findings with some sort of scientific credentials that make it newsworthy.

The increasing frequency of this marketing technique is no accident; it is a symptom of the erosion of proper investigative journalism in the face of plummeting revenues in the traditional publishing sphere, largely brought about by the rise of the internet and free information online.

The good news is that there are still decent journalists out there who will not fall for this junk. The bad news is that there are others who will. The worst news of all is that many of those who do see questionable surveys for what they are still file stories on them because of deadline pressures – they need to fill space and an ever-shrinking set of resources leaves them with little alternative.

A lot of the time none of this matters. And if you run a marketing department, who can blame you for doing a bit of lateral thinking and turning what would otherwise be an advert into rather more powerful editorial?

The problem is that sometimes it really does matter.

 

TV series promotion

In September 2013, as the then Editor of Antiques Trade Gazette, I conducted an investigation into another so-called survey splashed across a number of UK national newspapers and the Mail Online, now the world’s most visited website.

The UK Fakes and Forgeries Report, as it was referred to in these articles, claimed that 40% of all antiques on the UK market were fakes or forgeries.

On closer view, it appeared that the report’s ‘40% of antiques are fake’ figure had been extrapolated from the finding that 43% of people who buy antiques don’t get them authenticated and that 68% of people who buy antiques are ‘worried’ that they may be fake.

So no evidence at all to support the 40% fakes claim in the survey.

The report coincided with the launch of UKTV Yesterday Channel’s new series of Treasure Detectives.

Needless to say, when I contacted the programme makers they were rather coy about who had actually conducted the survey. Pressed, they admitted that it was actually called The Yesterday UK Fakes and Forgeries Report. So, did they produce it themselves?

When I asked to see a copy of the survey they emailed me the press release that all the other news outlets had swallowed wholesale and regurgitated in screaming headlines.

Even then, the ‘findings’ in the release did not support its own headline – The nation’s love of antiques has led to rise in the number of fakes and forgeries – in any way.

On pressing the TV company again for a copy of the original survey, I was told: “I’m afraid we don’t release the survey data”, before they went on to disclose that the survey was completed by 2000 adults, using a reputable survey company (never named) and then the clincher, “The rest of the report was comment and expertise of Curtis Dowling”, the programme’s presenter, who gained substantial publicity for himself and his new show from the ensuing media storm.

As my later comment piece argued, “Count on it, in a year’s time when the issue of fakes and forgeries is raised again, that statistic will have morphed into hard, authoritative, indisputable fact for the news media – and possibly even Whitehall – to regurgitate, reinforce and beat our industry over the head with once more.”

And I explained that my comment piece would also be posted online in the hope that it would go some way towards diluting that effect of the TV report.

 

The $3 billion question over the antiquities trade

As my comment piece also mentioned, this method of validating unsubstantiated statistics has form, not least in providing ammunition to attack the legitimate trade in antiquities and at Government level in devising legislation to tackle stolen art and antiques.

This dubious practice persists today and news outlets continue to fall for it, feeding the propaganda in the process. In fact, it has been compounded by the emergence in the past couple of years by news aggregating websites that repurpose other outlets’ content to drive traffic to their own sites.

Lazy journalism is often as much to blame as the deliberate dissemination of questionable material dressed up as scientific findings.

In recent weeks, for instance, I have noticed a number of mentions of the figure of $3 billion as the estimated value of the global antiquities market.

As far as I can see, not one report among those published gives a source for this figure. The Toronto Star publishes it in the sub heading to its report Islamic State cashes in by peddling art loot on eBay, Facebook, and lists it again in the body of the report without attribution. Many of the other articles appear to have been inspired by, or even acknowledge, Bloomberg’s report titled Islamic State is selling looted art online for needed cash.

Bloomberg also quotes the $3 billion figure but again gives no source for it. Artnet news, which aggregates other news sources, put the figure in its headline while quoting Bloomberg.

In fact Bloomberg seems to have sourced its article from The Economist’s June 13 online report Save our stones, which makes no mention of the value of the global art market at all, but does mention the figure of $3 billion. However, it refers to this figure as being the estimated value of Egyptian antiquities lost since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, according to Deborah Lehr of American association the Antiquities Coalition.

Have later reports, starting with Bloomberg, confused these figures? I don’t know, but I do know that no one I have consulted has any idea of where the $3 billion figure came from in referring to the value of the global antiquities trade. Antiquities dealers I have spoken to believe the trade is worth far less.

Just to confuse matters further, another online article titled Plundering the past, by David Johnson, states that “A recently released report by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in the University of Cambridge, England, states that up to $3 billion in art and artifacts are stolen each year around the world.”

The Institute’s report is titled Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, says Johnson.

His article is undated, but ranks at number 3 of the articles on the first page for a Google search under the term ‘$3 billion antiquities’.

A search through the McDonald Institute’s online archive under the report’s title as given by Johnson reveals that it was published in June 2000 and is now out print. Further research reveals one of the authors to be Peter Watson, one of the most outspoken campaigners against the antiquities trade.

 

Background to illicit trade claims

Eventually, I managed to secure a pdf of the report and in paragraph 1.9 it gives a value for the illicit trade in antiquities as $2 billion, attributing the figure as an estimate by Geraldine Norman and qualifying the claim further by adding: “other estimates have ranged down to $150 million. As already pointed out, because the trade is clandestine, reliable data is hard to find.”

So recently turns out to be 2000 and when checking the report’s own reference to the Geraldine Norman estimate, that came from an article she wrote for The Independent titled Great sale of the century, dated 24 November 1990.

Just to recap then, Johnson has an article ranked 3 on the home page of the relevant section of Google quoting the $3 billion figure as applying to the illicit trade in antiquities and giving the institute’s report as the authoritative source. The institute’s report turns out to be 15 years old and quotes the different figure of $2 billion, which it attributes to a newspaper report by then already ten years old, noting that it was one person’s estimate. It also admits that other estimates put the illicit trade at less than a tenth of that figure and effectively further admits that none of this can be relied on because “reliable data is hard to find”.

We are now left with two claims: that the global trade in antiquities is worth $3 billion and that the global trade in illicit antiquities is worth $3 billion (or $2 billion if, as it seems, Johnson has misquoted the McDonald Institute report.

So what? Why does this matter?

Because, as with the bogus 40% of all antiques are fakes or forgeries claim, in a very short time indeed this figure has become established ‘fact’ and is being used widely in arguments against the antiquities trade. How much time will it take before academics who have long been trying to shut the trade down start to say that if the market has such a value, then the risk of associated crime must be very high and the trade should be bashed once more?

Believe me, they will jump on this one as soon as they can.

Whether it was Disraeli or Twain who coined the phrase lies, damned lies and statistics, my belief is that there has never been more need of reliable and truly independent statistics in the arena of public debate.

Those with an axe to grind can do serious and unjustified damage to legitimate interests by manipulating marketing techniques and taking advantage of poorly resourced media outlets that feed voracious 24/7 newswires.

For their part, reporters and feature writers need to be far more circumspect about the information put before them, especially in these embattled times for journalism, or they risk accelerating the rate at which the media becomes mistrusted and irrelevant.

Auction or dealer? The art market model is changing

Fine Art Bourse (F.A.B.) challenge the centuries-old auction model with an innovative fee structure and wave away various add-ons like the Artist’s Resale Right and VAT by bringing the hammer down in Hong Kong.

Simon de Pury launches his new online action model at Ely House, the Dover Street headquarters of Mallett in London’s Mayfair, where stablemate Dreweatts have already christened the building as an auction centre with the Pete Waterman sale… and where Mallett themselves, dealers of 150 years standing, will hold their own inaugural auction on July 7.

Only five days ago, Chicago auction house Leslie Hindman announced the launch of LH Exchange (LHX), a new retail online platform connecting buyers and sellers.

These are just the latest in what is becoming a long line of art market professionals blurring the line between traditional methods of business.

Online auction houses, dealer portals and other routes to market

Where once we had dealers and auctioneers – with never the twain meeting except in the individual world of coins, medals and stamps – now we have a growing range of routes to market, with many offered from the same outlet.

Traditional auction houses, online auction houses, online auction platforms, dealer portals, galleries with websites promoting bricks-and-mortar sales, online-only dealers occasionally exhibiting at fairs, auction houses pursuing private treaty sales, dealers holding occasional auctions… the list goes on. And within these, subtle tweaks to marketing and method of transaction add their own unique twist.

What’s behind it all? Is it a good thing? And what does it mean for the market, especially the buyer and seller?

The answer to the first of these questions is threefold: technology, opportunity and margins. Businesses simply couldn’t adapt successfully in this way even five years ago because even if the idea was there the technology to support it wasn’t. Many an investor and trade professional burnt their fingers 15 years ago when the first phase of internet commerce dazzled them and sound business principles – and plans – were cast aside in the rush to the flame; a case of more heat than light.

Even today there are some highly questionable business models out there, and my guess is that even a few of the best-known names in the market will not survive their ill-thought-out cost structures.

As I have argued before in Antiques Trade Gazette and elsewhere, the glamorous world of high-priced international art auctions grabs the headlines because of the vast sums changing hands, yet cut through the glitz and the profits all but disappear.

The challenges facing Sotheby’s and Christie’s

This is the conundrum facing Sotheby’s and Christie’s as they replace one management team with another. They need to continue cultivating an image of extreme wealth and luxury while – in Sotheby’s case, at least – explaining to their shareholders why they are getting so little in return for their investment.

Fine Art Bourse's auction house dandies video sets out to challenge the traditional auction house market and disrupt the market as it sets out its new business model.

Fine Art Bourse’s auction house dandies video sets out to challenge the traditional auction house market and disrupt the market as it sets out its new business model.

There are only three ways to go when your cost base is high and your margins are low: cut your costs; find new ways to make money; or do both.

No surprise, then, that the duopoly ensured they got a head start around a decade ago in targeting the private sales market. Although that source of income has dipped in the past few months, in the long term it has mushroomed, explaining the huge investment in gallery exhibition space under the Sotheby’s and Christie’s brands in places such as New York, London and Hong Kong. Together, they are the world’s biggest dealers today, as well as the biggest auctioneers.

Private treaty sales are undoubtedly helping to boost profits for auction houses across the globe, but a safe future means diversifying even more; hence the development of financial services, brand licensing and other money-spinners.

All this means that dealers have to be on their toes too.

Strategic partnership opportunities for Stanley Gibbons Group

The Dreweatts/Bloomsbury/Mallett axis is more than simply a list of diverse brands brought together under the umbrella of the Stanley Gibbons Group. It is the embryo of the sort of strategic partnership that promises to transform the international art and antiques industry as it frees each segment of activity from the restrictions of its traditional metier and capitalises on the talents and assets of its fellow interests.

Handled well, this really does have the potential to be more than the sum of its parts and to maximise value at every point.

Even relatively small dealerships have the opportunity to exploit technology and strategic partnerships with auctioneers and web platforms, realising their full potential in terms of prestige and profits without excessive outlay.

Is all of this change a good thing?

If it leads to innovation, more efficient business practices and more effective financial returns on investment all round, then broadly I would say it must be.

Why do I hesitate slightly? The matter of transparency.

Balancing analysis, transparency and discretion in the art market

As art dealing go online and behind closed doors, it makes it harder to track performance for those trying to analyse the market and it raises the risk of dubious practice as well as suspicion among the public and the authorities.

On the other hand, if auction houses and their charges have been the bane of dealers’ lives for decades, auction price exposure online has joined them in helping to raise the trade’s blood pressure. The extreme candour that the internet has brought to most auction sales reporting has not made it any easier for dealers to negotiate with their clients.

So it is important to strike a balance between acceptable discretion, needed to oil the wheels of commerce, and comprehensive reporting, essential for confidence in, and an accurate view of, the market for those who wish to operate within it. Most importantly, we must not forget the interests of buyers and sellers as we strive to protect those of art market professionals. Many of these new business models, such as Hindman’s LHX platform and F.A.B.’s cut-price fee structure, are clearly customer focused, simplifying the route to market to attract a much wider reach and capture dollars that have so far escaped the tidal wash of the international art, antiques and design market.

Ethics and judgment are key to the future of auction houses and dealers

Taking all of the above into account, I think we also need to relax a little. Dealers will continue to have a beef with auctioneers for all sorts of reasons; auction houses will remain fiercely competitive with each other; special interests in the curatorial and academic worlds will pursue their often curious campaigns against what they see as the unacceptable world of art commerce.

Businesses need to plan properly and temper their ambitions with cool dispassion. They need to assess their activities honestly and objectively to ensure that they behave in an ethically acceptable manner. If they do that, then we should have little to fear from all this innovation and breaking down of barriers.

Some trade professionals believe that clear demarcation between dealers and auctioneers should be sacrosanct, but actually most of the public not only couldn’t care less, but don’t actually understand what that difference is anyway.

My news, my views – Art, Antiques, the Law, Business and Politics

IvanMacquisten

Welcome to my new website. As a journalist of 30 years and art market analyst, pundit and campaigner for the past 17 years, my interests are many and varied.

My role as Editor of Antiques Trade Gazette for the past 15 years has afforded me rare insight into the mechanics and issues of the international art and antiques market, and I have been privileged to work with some of the most interesting and intelligent people in business today.

My aim with this blog is to continue my work observing, analysing and commenting on the international art and antiques market, as well as on other spheres that interest me, such as politics, the law and finance.

I hope you find what I have to say interesting and entertaining, and I will attempt not to bore.

Read all about me on this website’s profile page and see the wide range of services my business offers, from Business and Brand development to Reputation Management and Editorial Services. Plug over… I will stick to topical items of interest in future.

Ivan Macquisten