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Diary of a dealer, 1999

Geoffrey Munn gives an insider view of the last year

The best sellers have been the top objects: the very best of Fabergé and the very best wearable jewels. It is still quite rare in England for people to wear gem-set jewellery; in our experience that is really an American habit. The gold-box market is almost moribund, as so few good ones come on the market; if you are lucky enough to find a good one, which we did recently, you can sell it instantly. All those in private collections are now in the hands of four or five collectors. One of these is Arthur Gilbert (to go on display in Somerset House, London, this May) and the rest are all intensely private.

These days we are constantly having to reinvent ourselves and find new markets. Katherine Purcell’s book on Falize and the exhibition she organised this year has had a tremendous impact (see p.62). More and more jewellery by Falize is coming onto the market. It has always been ludicrously valuable; even twenty-five years ago things were making gasp-making prices at auction because they are so beautiful. People bring them to us privately and if they do end up in the salerooms the experts there always consult Katherine about them.

The great thing is to do something fresh and inspired. Castellani and Giuliano are still doing deservedly well, but in the last three or four years very few good pieces have turned up. They had a very small output, whereas Fabergé was the largest jewellery firm in the world—ever. There are some very powerful collectors of Fabergé and that is where the best things have now gone and we are unlikely to see them for many decades. There are very few ancestral collections of Fabergé left, apart from The Queen’s. Like the family silver, it’s always the first thing to go in a financial crisis. Thirty years ago we had eight or nine cabinets stuffed with Fabergé; now we are down to two.

We have developed a new market in tiaras since the exhibition in 1998 and sell many more than you might think. There are very few occasions when they are worn, but if one by a famous maker such as Fabergé, Chaumet, Giuliano or Castellani comes up, it fits a double category because it is a great thing by a great name. Some can be dismantled and made into necklaces and brooches, which makes them more wearable and therefore more saleable.

Selling utterly useless yet very beautiful things is hard enough for anybody and the odds are stacked against us all. To compete with the salerooms, dealers now spend much of the year on the international fair circuit. These fairs are like a huge pond with one or two wonderful gold fish and thousands of rods hanging over it. Just once in a while you have a great catch. Maastricht has the most up-hill public for us; until recently Fabergé was not a byword for them. There are great masterpieces there, but the fair is so vast I find it difficult to locate them. The organisers have to resort to bicycles while the fair is setting up!

Wartski are most at home at the Haughton’s fair in New York. We found a new customer there this year, a gentleman with big diamond worry beads on a platinum chain. I spotted them from yards away and was allowed to see them. The fair is superbly organised and New York is a natural venue for Wartski. It is full of Russian families and Fabergé and Russian works of art have been appreciated there for decades. The Americans also love big theatrical pieces of jewellery which need not be conventionally valuable. One of our customers wore a fabulous enamelled Lalique necklace to a soirée dominated by what we irreverently call "swimming-pool diamonds" and every one pitied her for wearing what they thought was costume jewellery. She didn’t mind a bit!

The Palm Beach fair still has to find its feet, which I hope it will. We see many of the same faces there that we see in New York. It is on the same social circuit but interestingly they don’t seem to want to buy in quite the same way. They are all on holiday and there is not the same competitive edge driven by rival collectors.

We have a web site, but I don’t think the internet is in any way suited to Wartski. It is impossible to buy a work of art from a photograph; you cannot measure the full visual impact or the scale or tell the difference between a really great object and an average one.

Wearable antique jewellery is definitely on the up. It is so much part of people’s emotional life: when love goes out of fashion, so will the jewellery trade. Fifty percent of our stock is bought by men. Some of these are collectors who understand the history of it and are interested in the magnetic, talismanic quality of jewellery and they are not necessarily buying it for women. Women may come on their own or with their husbands and occasionally they may ask me to drop a heavy hint. We do have celebrity customers, but very little of this new money has come our way. They are more likely to be lured by the huge rocks offered up and down Bond Street

The days have long gone when you could just put something into a shop window and expect it to sell. In 2001 we are having an exhibition to coincide with the publication of Vever’s La bijouterie française, translated and edited by Katherine Purcell. There is talk of a Castellani and Giuliano show in America and it is also my ambition to produce a programme on the history of jewellery for the BBC. We could do that here because we have access to the best public and private collections in the country, as well as the best experts. I must stress, though, that none of these projects at Wartski would have been possible with out the support of our chairman, Kenneth Snowman, who has been fantastically encouraging since I joined the firm the best part of thirty years ago.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 99 January 2000