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International set boosts sales in London

Overseas property buyers in Kensington and Chelsea are having an impact on the art market

Strutt & Parker's sales to international clients

The influx of overseas property buyers to London’s Kensington and Chelsea area is having a marked effect on the art market, and helping to revive some of its less-loved and more traditional categories.

The borough boasts six of the ten most expensive streets in England and Wales, according to a report published by Lloyds Bank in December. Egerton Crescent in South Kensington takes the top spot, with homes selling for an average of £7.4m. Lulu Egerton, a partner at Strutt & Parker estate agents, says super-rich overseas buyers are fuelling the boom: international clients account for 72% of Strutt & Parker’s sales in Knightsbridge and 62% in Chelsea. Buyers come from Russia, the Middle East, Africa, Malaysia, South America and Europe, among others, Egerton says.

Gillian Craig, the director of the British Antique Dealers’ Association Fair (Bada), which opens next month (19-25 March) in Chelsea’s Duke of York Square, says it was a “very English fair” when it started in 1993, but that visitors are “increasingly international”. Last year, the antiques dealer Laura Bordignon, who specialises in Japanese art, reported a high volume of visitors from China and Hong Kong, while this year a Russian representative has been appointed to promote the fair. It is a trend in evidence elsewhere: in the first six months of 2013, the number of bidders from China at Christie’s in London was up 21%.

Instant luxury

Craig says collectors who come from abroad can be divided into ex-pats and people who visit London regularly or who have homes in the capital. “People now want instant luxury. If they buy a house, they want it painted, decorated and furnished at once,” she says, adding that spending at the fair—whose chosen market was previously out of favour—has increased over the past three years, with price tags of between £100,000 and £500,000 becoming more commonplace.

It’s a trend that has helped support Chelsea’s Masterpiece fair (26 June-2 July), now in its fifth year, which offers everything from the classical to the contemporary and across all disciplines, including fine art, furniture, jewellery and even vintage motorbikes. The sense of luxury spills into the top-end restaurant concessions that are present at the fair. Nazy Vassegh, Masterpiece’s chief executive, notes that newly wealthy collectors often start by buying heritage pieces from their own countries, but soon go on to collect across other genres and periods.

Decline in connoisseurship

However, the rise of international art buyers in London, together with increased sales online, has been accompanied by a decline in connoisseurship, says Nic McElhatton, the chairman of Christie’s South Kensington, where the average lot value is £4,000. “New money at our middle level is less discerning to a certain extent, it’s more about achieving a look,” he says.

Despite the success of its online ventures, the consensus at Christie’s is that there is no substitute for viewing art and objects in the flesh. The salerooms at Christie’s South Kensington were refurbished in 2007—before that business was focused on the trade and the regular furniture sales weren’t displayed. Now, McElhatton says, 90% of clients are private collectors. Last year the South Kensington branch had 400,000 visitors, its highest figure yet and double the visitors it had in 2010.

Lights out in Mayfair

Buzzing Chelsea—also home to the Saatchi Gallery and the Chelsea Arts Club, as well as a myriad of top-end fashion houses and Michelin-starred restaurants—is now attracting art businesses from nearby Mayfair. According to John Martin, a 20th-century and contemporary art dealer who has run a gallery on Albemarle Street for 21 years, footfall in London’s West End is falling. “So many properties in central London have been bought as an investment, the lights are rarely on in Mayfair,” he says. “Ten years ago, people who lived in the area would drop by the gallery. The patch of darkness is growing.” Martin opened a second space on the Fulham Road last month where, he says, more lights are on. For the opening show, “Vernissage” (until 22 February), contemporary painters pay tribute to the artists of Chelsea’s past, even if, as Martin acknowledges, most have long since been priced out.

From Alfred the Great to “Made in Chelsea”

As the cast of the reality television series “Made in Chelsea” could testify, Kensington and Chelsea has been home to the royal, rich and famous for hundreds of years. A royal connection can be traced to the ninth century when Chelsea became a centre for religion and politics: around AD 898, King Alfred the Great met leaders at Chelsea to discuss the re-establishment of London. From the 13th century onwards court officials, nobles and kings frequented the area because of its position by the Thames and its proximity to Westminster.

The physician and art collector Sir Hans Sloane bought the Manor of Chelsea in 1712 and in 1717, Elizabeth Sloane, Hans’s younger daughter, married Charles Cadogan, paving the way for the Cadogan family’s ownership of much of Chelsea today. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the area fell into decline and only improved after the Second World War. In the 1960s, the King’s Road became a bohemian hotspot and in 1965, Kensington and Chelsea were combined and made a “royal borough”. In the mid-1980s “Sloane Rangers” set the seal of gentrification. In 1999, Earl Cadogan spent £120m redeveloping Duke of York Square, now home to the Saatchi Gallery and the British Antique Dealers’ Association Fair.

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