Anita Besson, Galerie Besson
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the gallery last year we organised three exhibitions by some of the most exciting, innovative ceramic artists: the Catalan potter, Claudi Casanovas; the Japanese potter, Ryoji Koie; and the French potter and glass-maker, Bernard Dejonghe. This was my first glass exhibition which also included ceramics. I sold one of his glass pieces to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I believe we are the only gallery in London showing international contemporary ceramics.
I have known Claudi Casanovas since I opened the gallery. Our very first exhibition was for Lucie Rie and the second for Casanovas. He works in themes and each exhibition is quite different. For this show he made ten jars to celebrate our anniversary. He has produced an amazing variety of forms, ranging from huge wall pieces and bowls weighing 300 kg to hand sized tea bowls. The textural and tonal quality of his work is unmistakeable. He is technically exceptional and always developing. Originally he used concrete to give his large pieces the mass they needed; now he makes plates over a metre wide using only stoneware and mixed media. They are so thin two people can lift them with ease.
I had no idea what to expect for the anniversary show. On unpacking the cases we found wonderful amphorae some five-feet high. They were not easy pieces, unusual for private homes, but we sold well, as we always do with his work. The pieces cost between £4,000 and £8,000.
Earlier last year, a regular client came to the gallery and asked if he could take away a small celadon fluted bowl by Bernard Leach “to show to someone very special.” When I enquired who the special person was, he replied, “Her Majesty The Queen”. The bowl was to be a gift to the Emperor of Japan. I later learned that in return the Emperor had given Her Majesty a bowl by the National Living Treasure, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, whose work I have shown here. I had a special presentation box made for the Leach bowl, inscribed by Bernard’s son David Leach.
I worked at Marlborough and Fischer Fine Art for a total of twenty-seven years before setting up Galerie Besson and have always run it as an art gallery, not a craft shop. I work in a very specialised niche of the market and the business has grown gradually by word of mouth. People seem to find their way here from all over the world. There are not any trends in the ceramics world; prices are too low to reflect major swings in the economy.
I look for quality and follow my own instincts about artists. If you believe in what you show, you will convince the customer.
Jean-Luc Baroni, Colnaghi
This untitled portrait by Barocci came up at Christie’s in December 1997. It was dirty, unframed, and hung in a corner behind a pillar. Barocci is an extremely important artist, but his work never appears at auction and his portraits are especially rare. The painting was completely unknown. Christie’s had catalogued it correctly, but there was confusion among the experts as to whom it was by, with at least one person believing it to be by Annibale Caracci.
The day before the sale I had lunch in the Italian Embassy, where one of only two paintings by Barocci in the UK hangs. I was absolutely staggered by how similar the two portraits were, and was convinced they must have been painted at the same time. We bought the painting for £170,000 against Christie’s estimate of £60,000. I think there was no doubt that the slight confusion surrounding the attribution enabled us to get it for a very good price.
The painting cleaned like a dream and has now undoubtedly been accepted as Barocci. Ted Pillsbury, the leading expert on the artist, has called it “a major addition to the artist’s small oeuvre”. We took the painting to Maastricht and sold it to a European collector for £500,000.
I made no secret of what we had paid for the work. We had taken all of the risk and the collector was happy to acquire a painting that was transformed after cleaning. It is now fully recognised and, moreover, guaranteed by Colnaghi.
I took over running Colnaghi’s in 1997. The company had been losing over $1 million a year and our owner, the Oetker Group were no longer prepared to tolerate this. I formed a partnership with them. I am selling the old stock on a commission basis and have set up a separate company, not financed by the Oetker Group, which deals with the new stock. We are going to review the situation in five years’ time.
We have dramatically reduced our overheads and last year we made a trading profit of $500,000, turned over about $5 million and have sold about half of the old stock to date. It was basically good stock and, although there were some difficult pictures, some of them had been bought at the top of the market. We have not sold at a loss, but dropped the prices considerably. We were helped by the change in the market, but I think people were also excited by a change of management. Most of the old Colnaghi employees have stayed on, success and all the positive moves mean there is now a terrific team-spirit.
It was never my intention merely to sell off the old stock, but rather to continue an active paintings business upholding the Colnaghi traditions. Our catalogue last year contained twenty-eight paintings of which seven were old stock; we have sold twenty of the twenty-eight.
We have all worked extremely hard and gone to all the major international fairs. However, it is vital to choose one’s stock for each fair incredibly carefully.
The Paris Biennale was our best fair last year—we sold half the stand: nine paintings and four drawings. This year we are going back into Grosvenor House, which is a brave move, as it is not really an Old Master fair.
The biggest worry is finding quality stock to sell. We are moving more into the nineteenth century, but will not open an Impressionist department. What the clients want now is quality; they would rather buy a small unknown drawing of exceptional quality than a second rate painting by a major name.
Condition has become of paramount importance to collectors. We go to great lengths to explain any problems to our clients and document all stages of restoration.
Indian textiles and miniatures
One of the most exciting things I handled last year was an unpublished Imperial manuscript of Persian poetry made for Emperor Jahangir (1604-1628). It was tiny, only 6 x 4 ins, with seven exquisite miniatures by the leading court artists.
It came out of a private European collection and was bought by a European collector.
There are only a handful of handful of documented Imperial manuscripts from this period considered by some to be the pinnacle of Moghul painting. It cost several hundred thousands dollars and nothing like this had been seen on the market for decades.
The market is still very underdeveloped. The majority of things have only come out of India since World War II and the 50s and 60s were very active periods of collecting, especially in the US. Until now collectors have been specialised and academic in their approach. They have been highly educated people with a special interest in Indian culture.
There has always been demand for things at the very top level, but I think it is an area of huge potential for new collectors especially the expatriate Indian community.
Textiles is another market with enormous potential, but it is also a very high risk area. Things have come out of Tibet which are hundreds of years old, but looking as if they were made yesterday because they have been so well preserved and there are a lot of fakes on the market. The textiles I handled had come from an area known as Sogdiana, Central Asia; they were completely unknown and examples were sold to the Metropolitan Museum, the Cleveland Museum and the Abegg Foundation in Switzerland.
Last year was my most profitable year, double that of the year before, and in addition to the manuscript I was lucky to handle two groups of highly important Indian paintings. Unlike Old Master paintings or Western manuscripts, there are still superb things unpublished and hidden away in private collections.
Stair and Co.
We have had a very mixed year, which I think has been the experience of a lot of the furniture trade. There have been brief periods of frenetic activity, followed by nothing. Grosvenor House this year was very quiet. The Asian crisis was already well under way and in tricky times people sit back and take stock rather than spend. You cannot force people to buy luxury goods; they have to be in the right mood.
We find clients are more and more reliant on their decorators. They like to come to London and tour all the shops.
While English furniture was very fashionable in the 80s, there is now a new generation of taste makers and a much greater diversification of image. People are mixing styles and periods—the 30s and Art Deco are back in fashion and I wouldn’t be surprised if oak, which has been in the doldrums since the 80s, didn’t start to come back. There is a fin-de-siècle feeling; the old tastes and values are being challenged, but people are unsure what to re-
-place them with. Our turnover last year was down on the year before at £1.5 million and our profits are nowhere near what they were in the 80s.
If people are prepared to pay vast sums for paintings, there has to be a move back to refurnishing and decoration. I think one problem is the complete dearth of editorial coverage of the antique furniture trade.
This superb bronze colza lamp was the best of its type I have ever seen. It was made in England in about 1815 by the firm of Messenger and Son during the great period of Birmingham metal manufacturing. It was commissioned for Clare College, Cambridge, and is over 90 cms in diameter, 210 cms in height. It survived the fire at Clare in 1890 and was still there in 1926 when it appeared in an article in Country Life.
I saw the lamp in a private collection and immediately thought of a client who is building a library. The quality of the bronze casting, with its applied oak leaf motifs, is superb and the lamp will look wonderful viewed from a gallery level. At first, the client was not sure about it, but it grew on him. If it came on the market again it could fetch £200,000.
Sam Fogg Ltd.
The Gospel book is a masterpiece of Ethiopian art. It dates from about 1400 and contains twenty-four full page paintings.
Very little of this quality has survived—there is one comparable book in the Ethiopian National Library. It is the first object I ever sold to the Metropolitan Museum. Western manuscripts of this importance very rarely come onto the market.
Book illumination is the main Ethiopian art form but little survives before 1500. Because it is Christian in content, it does not appeal to tribal collectors, while those who collect Christian art find it an alien culture.
This was the first Ethiopian manuscript to enter the Met. It is displayed in the centre of the African Gallery where it looks superb. We acquired the piece from a private European collector who had been in the diplomatic service. It probably came out of Ethiopia about twenty-five years ago. The price was approximately £200,000—a lot of money for an Ethiopian manuscript, but it would not buy you a Western masterpiece. We have had a record year; our turnover has been twice that of last year. There have been fewer transactions, but we have been able to find some major pieces. If you have fantastic pieces, the market is there for them—anything second rate and frankly you may as well burn it. We sell mainly to private American and European clients and they are very much affected by the world economy. We have never had many middle Eastern clients. October was a quiet month. We did not sell a great deal during Asian Art Week, but by December things had picked up. The most fantastic opportunities now lie in non-Western manuscripts. There are only a few secrets left in Western Manuscripts, but this is not the case with Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Himalayan material. For the last twenty or thirty years interest in these areas has been confined to a few connoisseur collectors, but I think that is now beginning to change. Several of my clients are now collecting Eastern material.It is well known that treasures are coming out of Tibetan monasteries which are completely altering our whole perception of this field. And it is not only Tibetan material that is emerging, but also Chinese books, unknown even in China. Last year, I handled one of the greatest Mongolian Korans, executed in about 1300, which was completely unknown. It is no fun buying things through the auction houses and marking them up by 20%. With Oriental manuscripts and miniatures it is still possible for a dealer to lead the market. We do most of our business from the London gallery and are beginning to think that art fairs are not really the place to sell books. I don’t tend to meet many new clients at fairs and from next year we will cut down on those we do. This is a highly specialised market, and if you can produce wonderful things, you can always find a buyer.
The Fine Art Society
Everyone is now familiar with the work of the sculptor Gilbert Bayes (1872-1953)—from the famous clock on the façade of Selfridges to the relief at Lord’s Cricket Ground or the cast lion’s heads for mooring boats outside the former County Hall—but until our major exhibition last year his name was almost entirely unknown.
When I began dealing thirty years ago, there were huge areas which were uncharted, but nowadays when everyone is so much more aware of everything, it is very difficult to find areas which have been overlooked. There are very few galleries which could produce an exhibition on this scale. We are not just commodity dealers; exhibitions like this are not highly commercial, but we have an educational role to play, revealing things the public are not aware of. With Gilbert Bayes we were not producing a new wonder star, but exposing something to the public, rather like a conjuring trick.
Bayes had two children, now elderly, who have preserved all his work. I was given carte blanche to explore the family home and turned up things which had lain untouched for forty years. The garden shed proved a veritable treasure chest. Among the things which came out of it was a bronze “The guardian of the seas” which was bought by P&O for their liner Arcadia. Some of these which were made during the war years had never been cast, due to the shortage of bronze. We have been licensed to cast limited editions of a few of them.
I had the first edition of the “Goose girl” in the gallery for a matter of hours before it was snapped up a collector celebrating his recent divorce.
I don’t think we ever really came out of the 1990s recession; the whole decade has been tough. Our turnover last year was just over £4 million—this was slightly lower than the year before but we were slightly more profitable. We carry about 17,000-18,000 items in stock, with a value of about £4 million, so we aim to turnover about 50% of our stock each year. We have had a policy of doing very few fairs. As our premises are in central London, it is easy to pop in and we get between eighty and 100 visitors a day. Amazingly, when the society mounted its Millais exhibition in 1881, there were 40,000 visitors.
No commercial gallery would ever get that attendance now, there is just too much else going on.Times are changing and we did our first international fair in New York last January.
There is a new breed of buyers who go to fairs because they have a social cachet and you won’t meet them by staying in the gallery.
We have a huge advantage over the auction houses because we can concentrate on quality. The dealers and the salerooms are interdependent and if they have a bad auction, we feel it in the gallery. My most pressing concern for the coming year is where to buy fresh stock of the highest quality.
The high point of last year was Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The gallery has represented him for the last eighteen years during which his career has grown solidly and steadily. A solo exhibition in a major public gallery is a weighty endorsement of an artist’s work and a tremendous excitement both for the artist and the Lisson Gallery.
The show gave Anish the opportunity to produce a major body of work which has created a marvellous inventory of museum-scale works for the future. The exhibition attracted 80,000 people, which is the highest attendance figure at the Hayward Gallery for a contemporary artist. Anish also had an altogether different kind of exhibition at the CAPC in Bordeaux, which also received a large amount of attention. As a result of the success of these shows, Kapoor’s work occupies a new level of achievement for himself and his international reputation.
It was a good year for many of our artists and we have seen some of them achieve new levels of recognition. For example, Douglas Gordon, who is from Glasgow, and who won the Turner Prize in 1996, last year won the Hugo Boss Prize, awarded by the Guggenheim Museum, and had two major catalogues published on his work by the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven and the Kunstverein Hanover. A number of important projects for 1999, such as one-person exhibitions at the Dia Foundation in New York, at the Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon and the Neue Staatsgalerie in Berlin, are the result of the achievements of 1998. In London, Douglas will have a one-person exhibition here at the Lisson Gallery this September and we will also see a new commission by Artangel at some point this year.
Our client base is entirely international, although the home market is becoming much more interesting with new collectors in the UK. The rest of our sales are to Europe, America, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. The Far Eastern market has held up surprisingly, well considering the economic situation in that part of the world. We have continued to do business with both Japan and Korea.
Concerning last year’s widespread debate on auctions, it is quite clear that the auction houses are trying to take on the role of the primary market as a new venture to expand their business. However, I am not sure this is good for the galleries. Hot and fashionable artists’ work sells well at auction. However, only a small percentage of these works go for above gallery prices and the rest go for similar prices as in the galleries. What most clients forget is that most galleries will negotiate a 10% discount, while the salerooms add on a 10% to 15% buyer’s premium. Auction houses cannot have the level of expertise in an individual artist’s work and they overvalue or undervalue works in their estimates, resulting in works being bought in or oversold. A relationship with a good gallery has something far more personal and authentic.
Prices also rise according to an artist’s international stand-ing. Many years ago we were the first contemporary gallery to realise the only way to match the artist’s ambition was to provide them with an international context.If the contemporary art market is not to leave Europe, we must have a level playing field with the rest of the world. Droit de suite would ultimately destroy the London as well as European art market unless adopted globally and the current VAT of 17.5 % on contemporary art is destructive for business. If we are to remain a centre for the art market, a uniform 2.5% VAT on art and antiques throughout Europe would be viable for us to remain central to the global activities of the art market, but this is a complicated set of issues that cannot be discussed in depth here.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"It was good for me"'