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Veteran dealer, Richard Philp on why young collectors aren’t buying antiques

“Dealers must overcome the interior decorator mentality”

London

After 35 years Richard Philp is closing his gallery in Notting Hill, where he dealt in Old Master paintings and sculpture. The area has simply become too trendy, and although the streets are packed out, especially at the weekends the new inhabitants are not interested in the art of the past. Mr Philp talks to The Art Newspaper about why there are no young British buyers for the art and objects of the past and what must be done to change this.

The Art Newspaper: What are your ideas for developing new young clients?

RP: I see this as an absolute priority. Hardly any one who comes to Grosvenor House is under the age of 50, which will be disastrous in 20 years’ time. We came up with idea of a young people’s evening for Grosvenor House. The organisers suggested free champagne; I thought cocaine might have been better! Following on from this we thought of a plan to show the work of young designers and announce a winner at the fair, with a presentation to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It would get young people to the fair and introduce them to traditional furniture and would also open the eyes of dealers to contemporary things. The sponsorship was a problem for this year but we hope to make it work next year.

TAN: Do younger people not wander into the galleries?

RP: Many dealers are now taking small, off-the-street premises, but this doesn’t bring in the new blood. Galleries need to have more small-scale evenings, openings and symposia so that you can introduce academics, restorers, old collectors, new collectors and create an old-fashioned soirée atmosphere where everyone can get talking.

TAN: But what sort of money have you got to be earning to spend £40,000 on a work of art? Isn’t the problem that younger collectors don’t have the money?

RP: You can start people off on small objects and sketches as we all started as dealers, and they can move on from there. I do have two new young clients since Christmas. One is a barrister in his 30s; his wife bought a 15th-century Florentine stucco from Olympia. The clients came over to pay me and ended up buying an Old Master painting as well. But it’s hard work, you have to encourage these people.

TAN: Do you think younger people are not interested in looking at art and objects unless they are contemporary?

RP: There is definitely a weakening of interest in looking at objects. My 21-year-old god-son ,whose father is an art dealer, has never been to the National Gallery. The gallery shops hardly sell books any more; it’s all aprons and umbrellas and the books are pushed into a tiny corner and are getting fewer and fewer. Exhibitions such as the Ron Arad glass display in the Medieval Treasury at the V&A or Richard Deacon’s installation of medieval sculpture at the Tate do enormous damage because they dumb down the objects and make inappropriate links between the art of the past ant the present.

TAN: What about everything Neil MacGregor has done for the National Gallery. Hasn’t he managed to reach out to a huge audience without compromising on the intellectual quality of the exhibitions?

RP: Yes, Neil MacGregor is one of the most remarkable museum directors we have ever had. “Seeing Salvation”, for example, was among the most popular exhibitions the gallery has ever done. But you go from the exhibition and the rest of the galleries are empty. By contrast, the Islington Contemporary Art Fair is the best attended art venue in London, and when you go there it is a mass of young people drinking champagne and being very enthusiastic, which is terrific.

TAN: A lot of it does come down to disposable income and contemporary art is generally less expensive.

RP: It is possible to buy early Renaissance and medieval antiquities for not a huge amount of money. I can think of several instances when I have sold really beautiful things for £5,000-£10,000. The press doesn’t help by only reporting the record-breaking sales so people think they don’t have a hope of affording anything.

TAN: What about the role of interior decorators in all this?

RP: When I started there weren’t any. Now the object has become subservient to the surroundings and that has been one of the main shifts. We need to encourage people to make constructive comparisons between objects. I recently bought something which I hoped was Romanesque but which turned out to be a 19th-century pastiche. A really good interior decorator brought in one of his clients. I also had a 12th-century Catalan Madonna and Child. I explained the other sculpture was wrong but it was decorative and they could have it for £4,000; the other piece was £12,000. They took both on approval and then the decorator called me and said: “You’re not going to believe this: she wants the 19th-century one because she thinks she might be paying too much for the other.” Dealers have to overcome this interior decorator mentality and make the time to take clients around the museums and galleries.

TAN: What about art fairs? Surely these have been enormously important for drawing in new collectors?

RP: We are all relying more and more on fairs. Maastricht has been an incredible success story and is owned by the dealers and run as a co-operative so they have kept their prices down. I think it’s a great shame that BADA and SLAD didn’t get together and have a joint fair which includes paintings and the decorative arts.

TAN: What will you do now you are giving up the gallery?

RP: I shall buy a flat somewhere outside Notting Hill. Doing six fairs a year was becoming a treadmill just to find the stock so I am going to cut out the three Olympia fairs and just do Maastricht, Grosvenor House and New York. I want more time to research and concentrate on the best objects and do my own painting. Sam Fogg and I are going to life classes together. We find it liberating; it trains the eye and we come back and look at our objects in a completely different way.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Why young collectors aren’t buying antiques'