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

Country Life Every Week - - Art Market - Huon Mal­lalieu

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

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