Silver, first editions, hall chairs or Qajar art of the late Persian Empire? What exactly should we be collecting that might, one day, provide a decent return, asks Matthew Dennison.
Aprovincial auction house recently sold a four-volume first edition of George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, in handsome contemporary black-calf bindings, for £140. For £50,000, rare-book dealers Peter Harrington is currently offering a first-edition, first-impression of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, of 1953. Eliot’s novel is of incomparably greater literary merit; its tooled and gilded bindings represent a level of skilled handcraftsmanship far in excess of a printed dust jacket. In collecting terms, Fleming is decidedly more fashionable than his erudite Victorian predecessor, the raffish Bond more sympathetic to 21st-century readers than Deronda with his gleaming virtue. Both market whim and cultural outlook are amply reflected in the novels’ disparity of price.
The impact of fashion on the art market is a phenomenon as old as dealership. Demand inflates prices and a buoyant market generates scarcity. Fashion moves on, puncturing prices, whereas some trends prove long-lasting. Intrinsic worth plays its part, but collectors are capable of making their own assessment of the value of quality and changing attitudes are reflected in purchasing habits.
In the early 1990s, Country Life drew collectors’ attention to hall chairs. These small, handsome pieces of brown furniture were widely available for less than the equivalent of first-purchase price and late-18th- and early-19th-century examples have a clean-lined elegance in keeping with modern taste, as well as being of a size suited to modern houses and London flats.
At the time, the disappearance of hall chairs’ original purpose was one reason for their affordability. The subsequent collapse of the market for brown furniture has kept prices down and they remain a manageable entry point for new collectors of English furniture. As investments, however, the majority of antique hall chairs purchased 25 years ago, if sold today, are unlikely to yield a significant investment return.
Sotheby’s Islamic-arts specialist Benedict Carter points to Qajar art of the late Persian Empire as a similar instance of market inertia. Museum interest remains in this courtly art of late-18th- and early-19th-century Iran, but ‘prices aren’t very different from 10 years ago, although the quality of objects is often very high, because there’s not as much enthusiasm among the younger generation of Iranians’.
Mr Carter indicates similar grounds for a dip in the market for medieval Persian ceramics, glassware and tiles, an area of collecting previously sustained by connoisseurial interest across the Iranian diaspora, also ‘a taste not translated into the younger generation’. Here are appealing potential opportunities for new collectors.
At Goodwood in West Sussex, seat of the Duke of Richmond, curator James Peill, a former Christie’s vice-president and an English and Irish furniture specialist, draws attention to plain Georgian furniture, late-Georgian black-and-white portrait engravings and mezzotints as areas of collecting so neglected that the market has reached rock bottom.
‘It’s now deeply unfashionable to collect anything that our grandparents’ generation would have chosen,’ he notes. ‘The mezzotint market peaked in the 1920s and has never recovered, but the best engravings after Reynolds or Romney allow collectors to own a decorative 18th-century work of art for a fraction of what it would have cost a century ago.’
Mr Peill points to the modern appeal of such items. Recently, he bought a set of 19th-century engravings of George Sanders’s iconic portrait of the 5th Duke of Gordon, one of Goodwood’s treasures, known as ‘The Cock o’ the North’. The series shows the printer experimenting with different intensities of black ink. Mr Peill has hung the whole series en bloc, ‘rather tongue in cheek, like Andy Warhol with his collections of Marilyns’, an exercise in reinvention that allows viewers to appraise afresh their decorative and artistic merit.
For former director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland Sir Timothy Clifford, the lack of interest in portrait engravings is part of a larger malaise in print collecting. ‘There’s now a very small following for Old Master prints, with the exception of prints by Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya. It’s a terrible shame. The world of 15th- to 18th-century print-making was sophisticated and prints look magnificent in monochrome interiors.’
Sir Timothy suggests these are exciting times for collectors: ‘Anything that looks slightly glamorous inspires fear and neglect.’ His advice is that of an intensely knowledgeable connoisseur who has retained a lifelong excitement in the wonders of art and craftsmanship. ‘As you enjoy good music or good food, you should enjoy good pictures. Go for broke, something really grand and magnificent and splendid.’ His recommendations include silver-gilt flatware, historic silver by major designers, English furniture and Old Master paintings.
At Christie’s, European head of silver Harry Williams-Bulkeley echoes this advice, referencing the headline prices of the Givenchy Hanover chandelier, designed by William Kent for George II and sold in 2011 for £5.8 million, and last month’s sale of a silver ewer of about 1619 by the greatest silversmith of the Dutch Golden Age, Adam van Vianen, which made $5.4 million (£4 million) at auction in New York. This is a phenomenon he labels the ‘masterpiece market’.
Mr Williams-Bulkeley points out easier starting points for collectors of shorter purses, including regional silver, where the market for York, Newcastle and Scottish pieces remains buoyant. ‘Smaller specialised markets are good areas to buy as there is a dedicated group of buyers with a passion for the subject.
Pre-1700 spoons is an area that has seen strong prices and a recent increase in the number of collectors.’
He does, however, sound a note of caution: ‘Silver by the female silversmith Hester Bateman was widely collected in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in the USA. The demand for her finer pieces remains strong, but her lesser works have declined in price.’
This is confirmation of the old saw that, for those whose collecting is motivated by investment considerations, there are few guarantees, but quality – plus provenance and rarity – is key. Yet even this is no hard-and-fast rule. Over three decades, portrait painter Timothy Morgan-Owen has built a collection of items associated with actress Gertrude Lawrence that extends to 5,000 photographs, including images by Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst and Edward Steichen, more than 1,000 letters, jewellery by Cartier, Syrie Maugham furniture from Lawrence’s New York apartment and Modernist furniture from her dressing room at the St James’s Theatre for the 1951 run of The King and I.
Lawrence was Britain’s most successful interwar theatre star. The provenance of much of Mr Morgan-Owen’s collection is impeccable, acquired from family members and staff, and her correspondents include Bing Crosby, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Daphne du Maurier. That Lawrence herself is a mostly forgotten figure means the market remains sluggish and, with the help of the internet, Mr Morgan-Owen continues to make exciting purchases.
Take advantage of the market slump
For buyers, any sort of market slump enables the acquisition of items of higher quality than might otherwise be affordable. ‘Because brown-wood furniture is overwhelmingly viewed as dark, boring, old-fashioned and with none of the attractiveness of the “new”,’ Mr Peill concludes, ‘collectors can buy pieces of genuine quality, as long as they are aware that restoration costs may easily exceed current values.’
The knowledgeable collector keeps abreast of shifts in taste and fashion, commenting on the limited attention currently paid to portrait miniatures. At Sotheby’s, Mr Carter notes a shift in the Islamic arts market from the great illustrated manuscripts of Mughal India to earlier Koranic material, once overlooked Hindu painting and the natural-history paintings commissioned in late-18th-century Calcutta by Sir Elijah Impey from artists Shaykh Zayn-al-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das.
Deaccessioned museum items
For the eagle-eyed, it’s also worth keeping an eye on items deaccessioned by leading museums in the USA, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The constitutions of many American institutions allows them to sell items from their collections, a policy the Met employs to reduce duplication and boost its acquisitions budget. As a 2015 sale entitled ‘American Collecting in the English Tradition’ demonstrated, such deaccessions are a barometer of changing fashions in art and antiques. The sale included mostly mid-18th-century furniture and decorative arts, including numerous pieces of good-quality brown furniture.
In 1906, Lady Dorothy Nevill warned would-be collectors: ‘Bargains are sometimes to be picked up, but only by those who possess a real knowledge and intimate judgement.’ A century after Lady Dorothy’s death, her caveat still holds water.
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