Art market

Diary of New York art advisors: Nancy A. McClelland and Lars Rachen on trends in the decorative arts market

Sophisticated collectors are crossing over from 19th- and 20th-century painting


New York

On the eve of their first anniversary as art advisors, the venture they set up after leaving Christie's, Nancy A. McClelland and Lars Rachen can look back upon a successful year. Their client list is already highly distinctive, and as advisors (under the name McClelland + Rachen) their most recent purchase was the Isamu Noguchi upholstered sofa (est. $100/150,000) at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg for a record $250,000.

When they headed up Christie's 20th-century decorative arts, in the last year the duo achieved worldwide sales totalling $65 million with a 75% market share. At that time, they saw a number of new world records, including $2.8 million for a Tiffany lamp; $1.8 million for Ruhlmann and $1.2 million for Mackintosh.

With more than 20 years’ experience at Christie's, Ms McClelland's areas of expertise include Tiffany, Arts & Crafts and French Art Deco. Her most recent publication, co-authored with Martin Eidelberg, is Behind the scenes of Tiffany glassmaking: the Nash notebooks (St Martin's Press, 2001). In addition, she serves on the IRS Art Advisory Panel.

Lars Rachen, a native of Germany, served at Christie's for eight years. His particular focus is Austria's Wiener Werkstätte, Tiffany, French Art Deco and design.

The Art Newspaper: Are you the only advisors in this area?

Nancy McClelland: We are unique and very anxious that this area be viewed with the same seriousness as fine arts.

TAN: What were the signs indicating a need for a private dealer in your speciality?

Lars Rachen: There are three. One, the rising value of many 20th-century decorative art objects demands experts. Two, problems as to condition, provenance and authenticity are surfacing. Three, the client base is composed of a number of crossover private collectors who want to be sure of complete anonymity while building new collections.

TAN: To what degree are the services you offer different from private dealers?

NMcC: We don't buy for stock. We broker sales and therefore represent both the buyer and seller on a commission basis. In selling, we provide service, expertise and research to achieve the maximum price. We are the ones to ask the difficult questions of the seller, whether it be a collector or an auction house. We actively pursue the auction houses for the best terms and conditions. We also provide buyers with advice on conservation and installation. While we provide high-end appraisals, we not perform appraisals for estates or gift-tax. As to fees for brokered sales, we charge both buyers and sellers as we did at auction.

TAN: Some of your colleagues said that since you did not buy and sell for inventory you would never make it. Just how did your sales break down in your first year?

NMcC: We're doing fine and 50% of our sales were single objects sold in excess of $500,000. Categories we sold broke down thus: Tiffany, 40%; Art Deco, 30%; German and Austrian, 20% and Important Design, 10%.

TAN: Can you profile your clients and identify emerging markets?

LR: Clients are North American, 60%; European, 30% and others, 10%. We are in the process of developing additional clients in Russian and China. [They made their first trip to Russia this year and met with clients who were accompanied by numerous bodyguards.]

At the same time, we are increasing the amount of work we do with museums. It is regrettable that they did not fill their gaps earlier, because there is less and less available each year and the competition has increased substantially. It is very satisfying to work with museum curators who spend a good deal of time defining the object intellectually as well as aesthetically

TAN: What is the makeup of your client base and where are private collectors coming from in terms of crossing over from other specialities?

LR: They are coming from 19th- and 20th-century fine art. At least 50% collect Impressionists and Modern paintings, while 25% own contemporary art. The balance collects 18th- and 19th-century painting. A few focus on Old Masters and the medieval period. One Art Deco collector also owns Old Master drawings.

TAN: How is this market changing?

NMcC: Prices overall have achieved a great deal of momentum if the objects are great. There is enormous activity at the high end because of the dryness of the market.

In well established areas, the buying patterns are fairly orderly; however, we have observed much indiscriminate buying in the area of post-war design.

TAN: Is the Denver Art Museum alone in building a major collection and if not, what other institutions are adding to their holdings in a major way?

NMcC: Most museums in America, Europe and Asia who have a dedication to this field are continuing to collect.

TAN: What areas are museums fighting to get and to what degree are they getting squeezed out of the market?

NMcC: The great classic areas: Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Tiffany, Austrian and German, Scottish/British and Important Design. The prices are escalating so quickly now that the competition with private collectors is enormous. The museums often do not have the ability to act quickly.

TAN: Where will the most dramatic rises in the market be?

NMcC: The blue-chip names and categories. The middle market always has greater variables than the high end.

TAN: We are seeing so many newly launched fairs dedicated to 20th-century decorative arts and too often the quality is uneven; worse, they include new jewellery, items usually found in retail shops. What is your view of this phenomenon?

NMcM: Twentieth-century decorative arts are a growing market with many people rushing into this market. The fairs have been created to address that phenomenon.

We think the greatest potential is realised in fairs with broader high-level agendas such as Maastricht, the Paris Biennale and the Haughton's October show at the Armory.

TAN: What percentage of your clients buy at fairs?

NMcC: About half attend fairs with only 25% buying there. A total of 75% of our clients do not buy at fairs for the simple reason that they prefer to maintain anonymity.

TAN: What is undervalued, if anything?

NMcC: Historically, ceramics. With Gallé and Daum almost aesthetically passé, there is good value there.

LR: Italian applied art. Work by the likes of Bugatti has long been considered the neglected European stepsister. Now, there's difficulty exporting examples that are prior to 1950.

TAN: What is your advice to a beginning collector?

LR: Buy the very best. If money is an issue, buy less and buy ahead of the market to obtain the best. Find an advisor that you can trust.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Even the Russians are buying 20th-century decorative art now'