I was advised that my bashing the Duopoly auctioneers is a bit overdone. Perhaps is it, but looking at the state of divergence between the decorative and fine arts markets, these auctioneers realize which one has reduces maintenance and storage costs which tend to be pretty high and fixed, for an easier way. Now is a great opportunity for collectors but also dealers who see the hand writing on the wall; the private treaty format was conceived for these 800 pound gorillas to play the role of a dealer.
The fine arts trade in a very crisp format that works well for the auction process. A huge inventory of bought-in art is a lot better than chairs, tables, mirrors, chandeliers, and assorted bric-a-brac. And there is no contest on the average price point. Those that can stock an inventory can have a real competitive advantage over the auctions, not just to purchase but take consignments. Perhaps that is the greatest opportunity a dealer can have is to get it for free on consignment, like the auctions. And if you want to make an investment you can give an advance, just like any good Duopoly does with art.
From my point of view, I see so little amazing decorative arts coming on the market. I have seen many items many times in many places, and by many dealers. It’s not a pretty picture at what the auctioneers are offering today. However, if you keep your eyes open there is still great and interesting merchandise out there of excellent quality that the auctions just can’t sell successfully. The public too recognizes their failure of not being able to find and sell good merchandise. Their reputation in the decorative arts industry is no longer very intimidating and those dealers that have survived have been weaned off their supply.
When the Duopoly can’t control a market they jettison it; coins, stamps, and other chump change departments have spawned their own dealers and auctioneers. Why not the decorative arts too?
If they can’t make a go of it, I’m sure their respective managements will make that decision. When you peruse any of the weekly advertisements in the English Antiques Trade Gazette or American Newtown Bee, there are no shortages of auctioneers willing to take on decorative arts and furniture. It also seems there are more available good pieces out there than run through the Duopoly.
Of course they will always get the seminal estate or collection; Elizabeth Taylor, Yves Saint Laurent, etc; but without the buzz of the name these one hit wonders don’t come along very often anymore. Perhaps there’s no one left, but the picking are getting slimmer and that is where a dealer and or private treaty has its best hope.
For the dealer in the decorative arts, having control of merchandise to sell and not auction to the highest bidder in a rigged environment should be an advantage to not only the seller but the buyer too. Just like a car or a piece of real estate, the price is always negotiable. That is what a private treaty sale is all about and why Sotheby’s and Christie’s want to pursue this method. However, the price of entry into this field requires a different sensibility that dealers in the decorative arts can and should still do better.