OPINION: Art & Antiques Auctions 2020 Outlook

For better or worse, Brexit is finally set to proceed and will be a major factor in the year ahead for art and antiques auctions – as will timed auctions, anti-money laundering rules, the  prospect of a near-total ivory trade ban, a new buying ethos for antiquities based on cultural sensitivities, changes at major fairs, and a growing ‘green’ movement.

The Antiques Trade Gazette gives its annual overview of the trends and stories set to shape the year ahead. In summary:

  1. Brexit uncertainty over

The end to some of the Brexit uncertainty will help the art and antiques trade. Pent-up consignments from previously reticent vendors could now be released possibly leading to a bonanza for auction houses in 2020. Foreign dealers previously unwilling to exhibit at UK fairs may feel more willing to commit to new schedules in 2020 now that the fear of a no-deal Brexit has receded. In the longer term, however, the trade will face significant complications as a result of inevitable changes to import and export rules.

  1. Timed auctions on the up

The ‘online-only’ or ‘timed online’ auction is not exactly a new way of selling art and antiques. Ebay, founded by Pierre Omidyar in the autumn of 1995, turns 25 years old in 2020. However, the perception of the timed sale as the place for low-value collectables or unsold lots from ‘live’ sales is finally changing. The year just ending was something of a breakthrough for this selling model in the UK. While some specialist UK auction houses have made timed-online their exclusive way of selling – witness the success of Comic Book Auctions and its sales on thesaleroom.com, for example – a few of the UK’s biggest regional firms have also made online-only sales a core part of their business model. The future is increasingly online.

  1. Red tape challenge

The European Union’s Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive is to come into effect in the UK on January 10, 2020. It inserts extra layers of administration in the purchasing of art and antiques at values of €10,000 or more. As the trade adjusts to the new regulation there will be concerns about how it will impact day-to-day processes.

  1. Ivory ban looms larger

The Ivory Act 2018 was given Royal Assent in December of that year but is yet to come into force. The act is on hold until at least the spring following steps by a group of dealers and collectors, known as FACT (the Friends of Antique and Cultural Treasures Limited), who sought a judicial review of the act in 2019. They lost their High Court battle in October but were later granted an appeal which is expected to be heard in the spring. If the act does come into force this year dealers and auctioneers in antique ivory – and the authorities – will again face both the difficulty of new regulation and questions of its interpretation. For a reminder on the Ivory Act’s details and background see the Antiques Trade Gazette guide.

  1. Antiquities turmoil

The growing politicisation of the antiquities and tribal art trade is set to continue in 2020 with nation states, heritage bodies and now social media users making increasingly loud protests over what they regard as pieces of ‘stolen’ history. In July 2019, the Egyptian National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation raised a complaint over the £4m auction of a bust of Tutankhamun at Christie’s. This followed a call from Greece in 2018 that a Corinthian Geometric period bronze horse that sold at Sotheby’s be returned. These factors will affect not just the world’s top salerooms selling the most valuable works but also those further down the price levels. With due diligence becoming ever more important, regional auction houses are increasingly likely to receive legal letters from ministries and embassies about the works they are selling.

  1. Redressing the imbalance

There will be a further push by museums and institutions to seek to redress the imbalance in their collections, including an increase in female, black and minority ethnic artists and historical revisionism. Institutions are seeking to tell the “other side of the story” which has in the past been ignored by curators or the collectors. The trend of focusing on historically under-represented artists and objects will prompt more research, discoveries, a rise to prominence of previously under-appreciated artists and new auction records. Dealers can take advantage of this development and concentrate on buying pieces that will appeal to institutions’ new criteria.

  1. New era at BADA

The British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) enters 2020 without a permanent president, CEO or a fair under its own brand. It could mean an identity crisis for the association or it could be a chance to reassess and reaffirm its place in the trade.

  1. Major fairs up the ante

Fair organisers are going big. Many national and international fairs have joined forces or expanded, offering more dealers and more dates in a bid to lure buyers with ‘unmissable’ events. The importance of bulking up was recognised publicly by MaD Events, new owner of Birmingham’s Art & Antiques for Everyone (AAfE) fair. Its commitment to reviving the thrice-yearly event is tied to enlarging it, offering buyers access to more dealers and a wider variety of stock. Others have tried to grow outside as well as in, such as the organisers of Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair. Meanwhile, Art and Antiques Fair Olympia has taken a different tack, expanding the length of its run (June 17-28) to encompass two weekends next summer. And Masterpiece is slated to continue its partnership with Fine Art Asia, the October fair in Hong Kong, with each hosting a showcase of the others’ exhibitors.

  1. Green is the theme

The art and antiques trade is better positioned than almost any other to benefit from the rise in interest among consumers in environmental issues. It is a great time to be selling well-crafted second-hand items with a tiny carbon foot-print. But the next generation of buyers is seeking even more than that. They will be looking at a firm’s own green credentials before deciding whether to buy a green product from it. So dealers, auctioneers, fair organisers and trade associations will be tackling this matter. They need to be able to answer questions such as:

  • How green is your business?
  • Do you get your electricity from a renewable energy supplier?
  • Is your packaging recycled or is it harming the environment?
  • Do you use carbon offset for your business travel?
  • And, crucially, how are you telling your clients and potential clients about your initiatives in this area?

Already underway at Christie’s, for example, is an ongoing sustainability programme that includes efforts to procure energy from renewable sources, reducing energy use in buildings, assessing travel of staff and artworks, and reviewing the production of materials and recycling to minimise waste. On this week’s Letters page in the Gazette, Nigel Worboys, who launched Antiques Are Green more than 10 years ago, provides his view on what the trade needs to be doing in 2020. Watch this space, too, for announcements from ATG about its green credentials.

For the full 2020 outlook in the Antiques Trade Gazette, click here.