Sixty years in the salerooms
For half of the life of the magazine, Frank Davis followed by Huon Mallalieu have profiled the objects that mattered and charted trends in the art world
IN October, it will be 60 years, half the lifetime of this magazine, since my predecessor Frank Davis launched his new column, ‘Talking about Sale Rooms’.
For Frank, it was a retirement job. The son of an Oxfordshire farmer, he had first encountered the London art world before the First World War—he survived four years on the Western Front because his job as transport officer kept him out of the trenches for at least some of the time—and then came to know the dealers on his return in 1919.
His father-in-law, a French commandant, was horrified that he should be on speaking terms with undoubted swindlers and ruffians.
One of his earlier auction memories was the sale of the Carel Fabritius self- portrait to the National Gallery in 1924. It was estimated to perhaps £500 and ‘I so enjoyed watching the owner—a nice plump woman from the Midlands—as it went to 6,000gns’.
His first article, on a Sickert portrait of Churchill, was published two years later in the Illustrated London News (ILN), which then took him on for a weekly piece at five guineas.
He continued to write for the ILN and The Times while working as a labour-relations negotiator at the Appleby Frodingham steelworks in Scunthorpe from the outbreak of the Second World War until 1957, when he carried his pen to us.
His last COUNTRY LIFE piece came out in the week we published his obituary and, right to the end, he wrote to entertain rather than impress, tempering his deep knowledge and love
of beauty and craftsmanship with a gentle, irreverent wit.
In one of his last pieces, he returned to a favourite subject. ‘I must have written acres about Picasso in my time. How tender and sympathetic he could be when he first came to Paris; what a tiresome old idiot I thought him sometimes as he grew older. How splendid his figures were after his visit to Rome in 1917; how perverse he could be when he felt like it; and how unmistakable his hand is in everything he touched.
‘I should have liked to give this pottery cache-pot to a greatgrandchild on his recent third birthday, for I am sure he would have welcomed it. But then, once it belonged to me, I should no doubt think twice or three times before handing it over… Yes, I think I should have kept it, deprived the child of a nursery masterpiece and made my breakfast coffee in it.’
There have been many revolutions in the art market since Frank’s early columns. Then, the Old Masters reigned supreme, although the Impressionists were beginning their ascent to international primacy, thanks in part to changes in the American tax system.
The Oriental market was, as he noted, sluggish. Contemporary art was a niche interest; the first British contemporary art fair, in Bath, did not take place until 1981. The prestigious fairs were Grosvenor House, founded in 1934, and Harrogate (1951), joined by the Paris Biennale from 1962. The days in the sun enjoyed by the Japanese, Arabs, Russians and Chinese were far in the future.
At lower levels, antiques were very much in demand. Rather than creating collecting as a national pastime, the television programmes Going for a Song, from 1965, and Antiques Roadshow, from 1979, were following an established trend.
In our Collector’s Number for 1966, we carried a piece by ‘H. R. C.’, who had opened a shop in a barn to occupy his retirement. It began: ‘During the last ten years antique shops have multiplied everywhere in villages and towns in answer to the popular craze for collecting and hunting for the things by car.
‘People appear to like being able to say to the admiring friend: “We found it in an old cottage junk shop one weekend”; it is akin to being able to describe a great run after hounds or the tricky tenth in two.’
Metropolitan auctions also welcomed collectors at all levels. In a sad contrast to today’s attitudes, the 1959 Sotheby’s annual review noted that: ‘The prosperity of the art market depends not on spectacular figures, but on the thousands of lots which change hands at prices between £20 and £200. Last year Sotheby’s held 189 sales at which more than 45,000 such lots came under the hammer.’
However, by the 1970s and 1980s, the eyes of the City had turned to the market and the idea of art and antiques as investments began to dilute the pleasure of collecting. In 1992, when the veteran St James’s picture dealer Sir Hugh Leggatt retired, closing the 172-year-old Leggatt Brothers, he commented: ‘What I came into was the art trade; what I am leaving is a financial service.’
So much else has changed over the 60 years that, at times, 1957 seems a different world, although, at others, it is reassuringly familiar. In one of his first pieces, Frank commented on an 18th-century powder horn.
It was an actual horn, so it might not now be possible to sell it in America, depending on what sort of horn was used.
However, ‘I found it fascinating as an historical object, engraved with the Hanoverian Royal Arms, a map of the Hudson Basin and representations of the fortifications on Lake Ontario. It was obviously a thing of pride to its maker in 1760, for he signed it— David Stubbles.’ It sold for 140 guineas, a price worth remarking on.
Christie’s continued to sell in guineas until some time after the introduction of decimal currency and their abandonment was a contributory factor in the introduction of the buyer’s premium.
For some decades, it seemed that the best English silver, like the best English furniture, could only continue to rise in price. In that 1966 Collector’s Number, Frank noted as surprising that a rare 1729 ninesided cream jug by Edith Fletcher should make £1,750, when ‘only 12 years ago’ the only other nine-sided cream jug so far recorded’ should have sold for only £350.
One or two others are now known, by Edith’s son, Bernard Fletcher, but they are still rarities. However, in December 2015, I noted that this same jug had just been sold by Freeman’s of Philadelphia for $12,500. I think (but am not certain) that £1,750 in 1966 would have been worth about $4,900, so, given inflation and depreciation that does not seem much of an increase over half a century.
Tastes have changed, which is partly due to so much of the best having departed the market- place to go into museum collections. The grand old annual fairs first loosened and then dropped their datelines so that ‘new’ categories could join the Old Masters and they were then overwhelmed by the flood of modern and contemporary.
As the furniture dealer Guy Apter, a Grosvenor exhibitor and then a founder of Masterpiece, the successor fair, wrote last year: ‘There are of course people who still collect, but… nowadays the customer is far more likely to be eclectic in their taste. The piece they buy could just as easily be Art Deco, turn of the century or modern, and be mixed with pieces from other periods.’
Nowadays, too, serious collectors in the middle and upper ranges, other than contemporary, are probably more likely to attend Maastricht and the best new-generation fairs than auctions. They not only provide the goods, but much of the fun and excitement that were generated by the great country-house sales from the 1960s to the 1990s. Some of my happiest memories in the job come from Malahide, Mentmore, Great Tew, West Green, Hackwood and many other great contents sales.
The other great change that has altered the business, along with all the world, is the coming of the internet. Even if viewing should still be essential, many rooms are virtually empty for the sales themselves. Research has been revolutionised. As late as 1999, when writing about a lobster-shaped chair that had sold for £21,850, I fretted that I could not remember who had taken his lobster for a walk on a lead. Now, the answer comes instantly: Gérard de Nerval. However, I still don’t know who made the chair or for whom.
Next week Dawson rules the waves
‘Nowadays, the customer is far more likely to be eclectic in taste’ their
Above: In one of his last columns, in 1990, Frank Davis described how he would have loved to have kept this Picasso cache-pot. Left: One of his first pieces, in 1957, featured this 18th-century powder horn, which sold for 140 guineas
Above and right: The sale by Christie’s of the contents of Viscount Camrose’s Hackwood House in Hampshire took place over three days in April 1998
As collectors’ tastes have changed over the years, so have the styles of the fairs, from Grosvenor House, 1934– 2009 (below), to today’s highly successful Masterpiece (left)
Right: This rare 1729 nine-sided cream jug sold for $12,500 in 2015. In 1966, it was noted as going for £1,750 (about $4,900) —not much of an increase over 50 years. Below: Lobstershaped chair, which sold in 1999 for £21,850