Agnews to close

February 2 2013

Image of Agnews to close

Picture: Look and Learn

I was very saddened to read in the FT this morning that Agnews, one of the world's oldest art dealers, is to close. Georgina Adams writes:

Agnews, one of the world’s oldest art dealers, is to close. The 195-year-old London gallery will cease trading on April 30, after a final outing at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht.

Chairman Julian Agnew is from the sixth generation to work for the family firm, which has long been in decline. In 2008 the chairman sold its historic Bond Street premises [above], purpose-built by his great-great grandfather in 1877, for a reported £25m, and moved to a smaller space in nearby Albemarle Street.

Negotiations with a prospective buyer ended in failure last year. “I wanted to retire and there was no obvious successor,” says Agnew, whose daughter Gina left last year to start her own gallery. “We are not in a happy place: we are neither big like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the ‘supermarkets’ of the art world, nor small enough. We were undercapitalised for today’s art prices.” The firm is privately owned, with 16 family shareholders, and its most recent available accounts, dating from 2011, reveal a loss of £1.8m, including various writedowns for accountancy reasons.

In its heyday, Agnews handled major Old Master paintings: Reynolds, Gainsborough, Van Dyke and Rembrandt, as well as selling watercolours and British paintings. One of many splendid works it sold is Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus”, now in London’s National Gallery.

The firm has been running down stock, and the remainder will be disposed of gradually. Agnew says he will continue to work from home advising clients privately, and that he will keep the company name. “I actually want to spend less time with my family, the company, and more with my own family,” he says.

Now is not the time for post-mortems. But Agnews' closure is more evidence, if we needed it, of how hard it is to be an Old Master art dealer these days. Recently, another major London dealer retreated from their traditional ground floor gallery to second and third floor offices. The two major auction houses are almost totally dominant, and have captured most of the market. Dealers cannot hope to outspend them or outmarket them. The only way we can compete now is to outthink them, which is why dealers have to be ruthlessly focused on a particular area of expertise, and, if possible, try always to remain one art historical step ahead. Knowledge is our most valuable commodity - not premises, brands, or even capital. That's what makes it so exciting.

Despite what you might read over the next few days in response to the Agnews story, the end of the London art market is not nigh. In the modern and contemporary sector all is booming - David Zwirner, for example, recently opened an enormous town house gallery next to us here in Dover Street.

Update - did I speak too soon? Christie's have announced that they are closing Haunch of Venison in London and New York. However, it has seemed for some time that the health of Christie's contemporary outpost was under question, after its original founders, Harry Blain and Graham Southern, left to start up another gallery.

Update II - a reader writes:

I am deeply saddened by your news that Agnew's is to close. But I feel you missed a big part of the story: what on earth will happen to their incomparable library and archive? This actually is a question of great importance. I did much of the key work for my phd in the basement of their old Bond Street gallery. The library was amazing - I wonder, come to think of it, if it was the same library whose sale you wrote about last year? - but the archive is perhaps more significant. They have complete dealers books and many valuable photographs and related correspondence. For example, they handled the sale of drawings by Francis Towne from the Merivale family - Towne, a late 18th century landscape painter (I did my phd on him), had bequeathed his entire estate to the Merivales in 1816 and the descendants began to sell in the 1920s and 30s. Paul Oppe advised them, and drew up a handlist of all the drawings, which Judith Merivale annotated with the dates, prices and buyers of her drawings. The only copy of this catalogue is in the Agnew's archive. Agnew's was the major dealer in English watercolours throughout the 'golden age' of collecting.

Update III - a dealing reader writes:

I largely agree with your interpretation of the not entirely unexpected news about Agnew’s demise, but should point out that the auctioneers are not yet all-conquering. No sooner had the hammer gone down on a lot in the OMP sale at Sotheby’s NY last week than one of the specialists ran up to ask if we would be prepared to ‘take a quick turn’ and sell it straight on to their client (the underbidder on the telephone) for a token profit. What this tells us is that, for all their supposed might, the auction house specialists still can’t encourage every client to outbid the dealers, with the result that they are reduced to traipsing round Maastricht day after day arm-in-arm with the underbidder wondering what might have been!

Rather like vultures at the roadside, the auction specialists are now present at Maastricht from the minute it opens almost until the end, keeping an eye on ‘their’ clients and patrolling the corridors for ones they don’t know. They bring private buyers onto stands and say, ‘Here’s that picture we told you to buy; look what he’s asking for it now !’ The implication is invariably that, ‘We know what we’re talking about, so listen to us next time; and, oh, by the way, aren’t dealers awful to ask such big mark-ups !’

The first point here illustrates the importance of the trade to the auction houses, and overall values in the Old Master sector. It isn't in the auctioneers' interest to kill the trade off entirely - it's the trade that underpins prices. We don't do Maastricht, so I can't comment on the second point.  

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