Agnew’s sells historic home

Firm will put more emphasis on contemporary art

LONDON. One of Britain’s oldest art dealers, Agnew’s, which

has a distinguished history of selling masterpieces from Rembrandt to Raphael, has sold its historic building in London. It is downsizing and will be focusing on contemporary art. It is currently looking for new premises in the area.

Julian Agnew, chairman of the 190-year-old family firm, and the sixth generation to work in the company, said that a confidentiality agreement prevented him from discussing the terms of the deal, but sources in the London trade put the price of the building at 43 Old Bond Street at about £25m ($50m). It has been bought by Italian company Etro, and will become a fashion store. The sale is yet another example of the increasing encroachment of top-end luxury goods stores—Agnew’s flashy neighbours are now De Beers, Gucci and Alexander McQueen—in Bond Street, once the centre of London’s art trade.

Agnew’s green flag has flown over the building since it was purpose-built for Mr Agnew’s great-great grandfather in 1877. The masterpieces the firm once handled include Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647-51), now in London’s Nat­ional Gallery, and Rem­brandt’s Self Portrait (1659), in Washington’s National Gallery.

In the past, generations of American collectors and museum curators flocked to Agnew’s annual exhibitions of old master paintings and watercolours. But the art market slump after 1990 was harsh for the firm, which had over-borrowed in the 1980s. It reported debts of £15m ($30m) in 1994, and subsequently sold the back part of its building facing onto neighbouring Albemarle Street. It now has about 9,000 sq. ft on six floors.

Veteran old master dealer Alex Wengraf says:?“This is a sign of the times. I don’t think any large-scale old master gallery is viable anymore, because there is a dearth of traditional paintings on the market to sell. And it also shows that property values have far exceeded even art at the moment. Julian Agnew has probably done well to do the deal now, just as property is going down. Going into more contemporary art will keep the firm going.”

“We are profitable, Agnew’s has a strong balance sheet,” Julian Agnew told The Art Newspaper. The firm’s accounts from December 2006 show that turn­over in that year was just over £9m, with a loss of £100,043. The firm reported net assets of over £12m in the same year.

Agnew’s Grade II listed building is among the finest commercial art galleries in London, with its original 1870s décor of heavy wood panelling and plush purple curtains. But, says Mr Agnew, “the building is unsuitable for art dealing in the 21st century, and some artists have refused to show here. And it’s too big for us.” Art dealing, he says, “now takes place so much in fairs like Maastricht, that the physical location is not as important.”

Agnew’s will move out on 18 July, taking with it a huge library, several marble busts of past Agnews and furniture that adorned the newly-built gallery, as well as its inventory of everything from old master paintings to contemporary works.

Mr Agnew—whose daughter Gina is the seventh generation to work in the firm—is now seeking a new director of contemporary art. Asked what he will do with the money from the sale of the building, he said: “It will be ploughed back into stock. Almost all art dealers today are under-capitalised, but there will be big buying opportunities in the next two years.”

Asked how he felt about leaving the building his ancestors had created 131 years ago, Mr Agnew said: “We are a business, not a museum, and you can’t let the weight of history prevent you from making decisions. A business can only succeed if it does this.” Georgina Adam

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