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Going...going...is the traditional antique gallery dying?

Dealers race to sell stock at auction as buying tastes change

New York

On 17 May Christie’s New York will send 200 lots, valued at $10m, from the London dealer Partridge Fine Arts under the hammer. This is the latest example of what used to be a rarity, dealers openly selling stock at auction, which is now becoming commonplace.

This year, six sales have featured stock from dealers, and this month there are another four in London, New York and Amsterdam (see right). These include 3,700 lots of antiques, objects and paintings. ranging from a porphyry vase in the Partridge sale (est $400,000-$600,000), six George IV mahogany dining chairs (est £1,500-£2,500) from Christopher Gibbs to Puiforcat table silver (est £22,000-£28,000) from Gordon Watson. In October 200 lots, valued at $6m, from the French dealer Segoura will be sold in New York.

This slew of sales demonstrate that a profound change has taken place in the antiques market. In the past only one or two openly acknowledged sales of dealers’ stock would be held each year, often with dire results. Dealers were reluctant to pay premiums at auction when they could buy from their colleagues in the trade.

Will Stafford, Christie’s head of European furniture , says: “This is about a generation of dealers moving on and dealing patterns changing. The old model of the grand gallery on New Bond Street is less viable today as clients no longer travel so much. Fairs are replacing the great emporiums of old.”

In London, Didier Aaron is closing its gallery but maintaining an office. Mallett, which reported a drop in its 2005 profits last month, is selling its Bourdon House premises. The ailing Partridge Fine Arts has recently been sold to a consortium headed by the ceramics dealer Mark Law (see below). In Manhattan, Roger Prigent and Israel Sack have closed their galleries to work privately.

Hervé Aaron, a director of Didier Aaron based in the main gallery in Paris, explains that he has closed the London space because he does not have time to travel to the UK. “Our business is doing well because we have a decorating side, and because we deal in drawings and paintings,” he says, “but dealers who just sell 18th-century furniture are having a terrible time now.”

Furniture is particularly hard hit, as tastes among traditional collectors move towards sculptural objects. At the Wildenstein sale of furniture in December 2005, the fiercest battle was fought for an 18th-century ormolu-mounted nautilus shell which made $1.9m, well over the $1.2m paid for a pair of Louis XVI side cabinets attributed to Boulle.

The New York-based British antique furniture dealer Alexander Cohane says 11 September was a critical turning point for the trade. “Clients no longer wanted to inspect possible purchases. Everybody stopped travelling and that hasn’t really changed,” he says.

Meanwhile, new young buyers entering the market are focusing on contemporary art, which offers the right look for vast white loft walls and an entrée to a trendy lifestyle. These collectors, often working in finance, are also attracted to the speculative nature of the contemporary market. They do not want to follow in their parents’ footsteps by collecting Chippendale tables or Gainsborough library chairs. Eames or Prouvé is more their taste, and goes better with their Richard Prince photographs or Leipzig school paintings.

So will the thousands of antiques going to auction this month find buyers? Judging by the results of the recent Turpin and Hermitage Antiques sales, which sold out, the answer is a resounding yes. The reason? According to trade sources, the auction houses are attracting new buyers for antiques from among their regular customers—people who don’t usually visit dealers. Estimates are also kept enticingly low.

“The Turpin material was very average, we were astonished how well it did,” said one leading London antique dealer sourly. “These new buyers will spend too much at auction on mediocre material, but they won’t come into our galleries and buy there.” Which sums up the problems the trade is currently facing.

Dealer sales 2006

Already gone:

26 January: Dealer’s Eye (old master paintings from dealers), Sotheby’s New York, 69 lots, 47% sold by lot

22 February: John Jesse (furniture and objects), Sotheby’s London, 342 lots, 73% sold by lot

14 March: Turpin (furniture and objects), Christie’s South Kensington, 840 lots, 100% sold by lot

4 April: Hermitage (furniture and objects), Christie’s South Kensington, 514 lots, 92% sold by lot

Still to come:

3 May: Gordon Watson (20th-century and objects), Sotheby’s London, 500 lots

16 May: Christopher Gibbs and Lindsay Jones (furniture, objects and paintings), Christie’s South Kensington, London, 500 lots

16 May: Frans Leidelmeijer (furniture and objects), Christie’s Amsterdam,

551 lots

17 May: Partridge Fine Arts (furniture, objects and pictures), Christie’s New York, 200 lots

October: Segoura (furniture, objects and pictures), Sotheby’s New York, around 200 lots