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A tribute to British savvy in a time of increasing globalisation

London may be the loser in the end, but the Brits brought it on themselves

London’s decline is in part due to the increasing globalisation of the art market. Ironically, it is largely the British themselves who are contributing to the development of the overseas market. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are pursuing a relentless policy of expansion. Where higher value items are sold no longer bears any relationship to their country of origin. The emerging economies of South East Asia are being wooed to compete for Western works of art, and early Chinese ceramics are transported from Hong Kong to New York for sale.

In 1974, Christie’s had only eight overseas offices; in 1984 this had grown to thirty and today they have ninety. In 1974 Sotheby’s had sixteen, forty-five in 1984 and it has ninety-eight today. Expansion has been concentrated in the US and, more recently, the Far East. In the last six years, between them the two auction houses have opened offices in Singapore, Taiwan, Shanghai, Bombay, Brisbane, Seoul, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok and Taipei. As the balance of wealth shifts towards the Far East they are set to become a major force in these areas.

Within the EU, a threat is posed to London by Paris, where the auction market will be deregulated from 1998 and foreign auction houses will be able to hold auctions there for the first time (until then, Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Paris are limited to business-getting). It is likely that the London salerooms and dealers will be the main losers as the Paris market expands.

Phillips, the world’s third largest auctioneers, opened a permanent saleroom in Geneva in 1996, and are the first major auction house to do so. They are expanding their saleroom in New York, with three senior members of the London staff moving there. Earlier this year they formed an alliance with the French auction house PIASA to organise joint sales in London, Paris, Geneva and New York. Once deregulation takes place they also hope to form a joint company to operate within France.

Some of the smaller auction houses have joined together to form the International Association of Auctioneers. These include Bonham’s in London, Etude Tajan in Paris, Butterfield’s in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Swann Galleries in New York and Dorotheum in Vienna. The organisation offers enormous marketing advantages to its members and the first joint auction organised by Etude Tajan, Dorotheum and Bonham’s of Art Nouveau and Art Deco took place at the Dorotheum on 5 June.

The British art market has always led the way in the high standard of its date-lined and vetted art fairs. Nothing of similar quality and reliability existed in America until 1989 when British fair organisers Brian and Anna Haughton decided to take an international art and antiques fair run on British lines to New York. They now run three fairs there, the International Fine Art and Antique Fair in October, the Fine Art Fair in May and the Asian Art Fair in March. With glittering charity gala openings all three have given an enormous boost to the New York market and are regarded as pre-eminent in their field.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A tribute to British savvy'