Leslie Waddington: Always a Londoner

The welcome failure of droit de suite, the impact of internet sales and the future of YBAs and optimism about the Tate Modern


Leslie Waddington is the leading British dealer in classic Modern art, with a large gallery in Cork Street. He has been dealing since 1957 and, in addition to handling works by artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Henry Moore, he represents the Dubuffet estate, Barry Flanagan, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Hallé. He told The Art Newspaper how it went last year.

What were the most important factors influencing the art market over the last year?

One of the most significant events of last year was the European Parliament's failure to reach an agreement over the imposition of droit de suite (The Art Newspaper, No.99, January 2000, p.1). Given the recent highly damaging report that came out in December it now looks as if neither France nor Germany will continue to advocate it and, at the very least, there will be a massive compromise on the issue.

Some of the ideas coming out of Brussels are not only utterly stupid, but seriously dishonest. For example, the commission said it would improve the income of a quarter of a million artists. Now it appears it would benefit less than 600 artists in both France and Germany together.

If we can defeat droit de suite it will place the London market on an equal footing with New York. If droit de suite goes through, it will cost an extra £20,000 to sell a £2 million work by Matisse in England rather than New York. The figures speak for themselves.

However there are even greater factors about to effect the London market. What Nicholas Serota is doing with the Tate Modern will bring thousands of people into London. The new Tate is a cultural institution evolving in the twenty-first century and will have a massive effect on contemporary art in this country.

Young British Artists (YBAs) have also been an important development in the last decade, have they not?

It is typical of the British to take up the young and trendy element and ignore the established mid-career artists, but this is partly the fault of the critics. We no longer have any great critics of the calibre of Fry, Rosenberg or Greenberg.

The YBAs are gifted, but we are not into a great new school. If you think about it there were five great Impressionists, four great Cubists, three great Fauves and four important Surrealists and suddenly we have thirty geniuses in London all at the same time.

Where do you see the YBAs going?

I see one or two survivors. In my time as a dealer I have seen several generations which were going to change the world. I can remember when Phillip King and Jack Smith were as hot as Damien Hirst, but there was no sustaining power. The young dealers are, however, much better and more committed than in the past. I have huge respect for Jay Jopling and I think Damien Hirst will be one of the artists to survive because he is highly original and a great publicist. The problem with British art is that it has very weak critical and intellectual support; collectors move in for a few years and then move on to the next fashion.

What areas of Modern art have done well this year?

Selling art is always based on the economy and the North American economy is booming. Whereas a year and half ago 30-40% of our sales were to North America, this year it was about 80%. American artists are selling the best. Turn over is up by 20-25% at £16 million. We measure our turnover by profit and commission, not by sales volume.

Has the internet had a big impact on your business?

Yes a massive impact. We have a very good website and have sold a lot of sculpture on it. We have sold paintings because of it, but not actually on it. However, with sculpture people can view it on the web site and we can direct them to where they can see similar pieces. We have sold six or seven pieces this year, including works by Barry Flanagan at the half million dollar level.

Are there local peculiarities which affect London?

The exchange rate is highly destructive as the pound is seriously overvalued. There is also the anomaly over VAT whereby it is payable at 17.5% on works by living artists or a work made after 1973, unless the work comes from a private source where I have rebought it.

How do you see the London market developing?

The European market is definitely growing. A lot of art was selling to the Europeans in the December auctions and I am delighted by that. I see the London market concentrating more on Europe, but I also see it diminishing. It is flourishing at present because of its depth of expert knowledge, but, in the end, the buyers are in Europe and America. Christie's and Phillips are now French owned, Sotheby's are American owned and the only thing that is protecting London is the extraordinary knowledge of its dealers and experts.

I have no intention of ever moving the business to New York or Paris. Waddingtons will always be a London-based operation.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Always a Londoner'