Note to Old Master dealers

March 15 2015

There was a piece in The Art Newspaper recently about the state of the Old Master market, and in particular the place of dealers within it. I was quoted as giving some dealers a bit of a bash, for continuing to practice art dealing as it used to be done 30 or 40 years ago, and wondering why business wasn't so good any more. I stand by the bash.

The trouble is, a number of dealers have got in touch to express surprise at what I said. So I just want to make a few things clear. 

Here's the relevant part of the TAN piece:

The British art historian, broadcaster and former dealer Bendor Grosvenor strongly disagrees that the Old Master market is in retreat. He puts the blame for its supposed decline on the dealers and the ease with which collectors can access prices online. “The old retail-style operation, which is how many of the ‘established’ dealers began, is finished,” he says. Dealers can no longer buy a work at auction, then turn around and sell it with a nice mark-up. “Within 30 seconds, a potential buyer can walk out of your gallery and find out what you paid for a picture and often won’t come back,” he says. “The new collectors—for they indeed exist—aren’t going into those upstairs galleries you have to press a buzzer to get into, or visiting faraway Maastricht or browsing dealers’ websites to buy art any more. Like it or not, to these collectors, direct buying at auction offers an excitement and a belief that what one is buying is good value, and very few dealers can compete with that.”

First, I haven't totally given up the dealing thing. More on that soon. 

Second, I don't blame 'the dealers' for the supposed decline. Instead, I criticise some dealers for damning the market unnecessarily. My comments to TAN were actually given in support of the Old Master market, after I had been cheesed off by some long-standing dealers cotinually saying the market was dead. It isn't, and I was trying to say that dealers should adapt to the needs of newer collectors, who, whether we like it or not, prefer to buy at auction. 

And finally, and most importantly, the key word in the final sentence in the TAN piece is 'belief'. But even that slightly misinterprets what I said. Here's the quote I actually gave for the article:

Buying at auction is now seen so differently; it’s exciting, it’s almost cool, and it’s perceived as being good value (though there’s much to be said about that aspect of it). The thing is, it’s a process very few dealers can compete against.

So I'm sorry to my colleagues in the art world if they got the impression from TAN that I was damning them all. That's not what I meant.

For what it's worth, here's the entirety of my email to TAN, from which the quotes were taken:

The market is changing, there’s no doubt about that, as indeed is taste. Taste changes all the time. But I’d wager most of the dealers you spoke to are those who aren’t aware of how the business is changing too. 

Put simply, the old retail-style operation, which is how many of the 'established’ dealers began, is bust, kaput, finished. Even in the last ten/fifteen years or so you could get away with buying a picture at Christie’s, then walking over the road to your gallery in St James or whatever snippy part of Manhattan Old Master dealers occupy, and stick in the window with mark up. But that doesn’t work any more. Now, within thirty seconds, a potential buyer can walk out of your gallery and find out what you paid for a picture. And usually, once they’ve figured out your margin, they don’t walk back… 

But still dealers keep the same gallery spaces, go to the same fairs, market themselves in the same way, and wonder what the hell happened to all their clients, and why there are no new ones. 

The ‘new’ collectors (for they indeed exist) aren’t going to go into those upstairs galleries you have to press a buzzer to get into, or those fairs in faraway Maastricht, or browse dealer’s often pretty rubbish websites, to buy art anymore. Their whole manner of buying stuff – any stuff – is very different. 

I suppose it’s true that, when it comes to the auction houses, it’s a case of ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ [in regard to the auction houses saying that, in contrast to some dealers' reports, the Old Master market was actually doing very well] But there’s no denying that the auction houses have taken a sizeable, and growing chunk of the clientele that used to go to, or would be expected to go to, dealers. Buying at auction is now seen so differently; it’s exciting, it’s almost cool, and it’s perceived as being good value (though there’s much to be said about that aspect of it). The thing is, it’s a process very few dealers can compete against.  

And someone new is buying art from the auction houses. That Chinese collector who bought a Vermeer last year for £6m exists, I saw him. As I suppose does the one who paid millions for a Rembrandt, and who are the people buying Stubbs for close on £20m? They exist too. And you’ve only to look at the market for pre-Raphaelites to see how a sector of the art market can be transformed by just a handful of collectors competing for works. 

If it were the case the nobody was visiting the Louvre, or the National Gallery in London, neither of which contain much modern or contemporary art, then I’d believe people when they say ‘nobody’s interested in Old Masters’ any more. But people are queuing to get into those galleries as never before. 

There is a way of selling even middle market pictures successfully, and (thought this sounds a boast) I know how to do it. I know others that can do it too. It’s true, there’s not many of them. Often, it’s all a question of context and presentation – you’d be amazed at how few people can genuinely make an Old Master painting interesting or exciting. Then there’s the whole other question of expertise, and who collectors are willing to trust (these days, mainly the auction houses).

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