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Christie’s close down Spink and take over the building for corporate headquarters

Serving a possibly premature coup de grâce to the oldest art dealership in the world

Christie’s have closed down the world’s oldest art dealers, Spink, founded in 1666. Its major departments—Chinese, Japanese and Korean, South East Asian and Tibetan and Himalayan—ceased trading on 29 February; seven senior experts have been made redundant and the stock will be sold off gradually. The building will become Christie’s corporate offices.

“This is the equivalent of closing down Fortnum and Mason”, said leading South East Asian dealer John Eskenazi. “It is a dramatic loss to the London art trade. Spink was a marvellous place for people to start their collections. It was approachable and people could walk in off the street and find some little gems. From Spink they moved on to some of the more specialist dealers. Its loss will have a huge knock-on effect.”

Spink has also been an extraordinary training ground for many of the top London dealers. Former Spink employees who have set up on their own over the last ten years include Michael Spink, Rodger Keverne, Jacquie Simcox, Ben Jansens, Paul Champkins and Francesca Galloway. They will now be joined by Jonathan Tucker, Antonia Toyzerand, and Deborah Ashencaen.

The decision comes as no big surprise to the London art market. With their large premises and overheads Spink hit financial trouble in the recession of the early 1990s. In 1993 they were bought by their neighbours, Christie’s, for a reputed £10 million, at which point Christie’s gained control of the lease of the building which adjoins theirs, thus giving them control of a huge block of King Street property, 100,000 square-metres in size.

Last year French department store magnate François Pinault purchased Christie’s for £720,000 million and is now clearly taking stock of the company’s assets.

According to a former Spink employee, “They looked at figures over the last ten years and the profits simply did not justify the capital investment.”

Spink’s managing director Tim Hirshl explained, “From the day we bought Spink we wanted to run it as a purely commercial business, these departments did not fit the criteria for our business plan and our future profitability. We have invested heavily in the departments where we feel our future lies; such as Spink-Leger—the picture department and coins and medals—which are moving to marvellous new purpose-built premises in Southampton Row.”

Christie’s will not reveal their true intentions for the former Spink building. They have recently renewed the lease for another 100 years and the building is due for a major two-year refurbishment. The obvious inference is that it will become part of Christie’s new enlarged London headquarters. A Christie’s spokesman confirmed that with the enlargement of the Great Room and public reception areas in Christie’s King street premises, Christie’s will almost certainly move into a part of the Spink building.

What remains of Spink will trade from separate premises. The highly successful picture side of the business, Spink-Leger, will continue to operate from their Bond Street premises. The profitable Islamic department, the only Far East Asian Department remaining, will trade from new premises in St James’s while coins and medals and stamps move out to new premises in Southampton Row.

In many ways the demise of Spink is symptomatic of the way the Far Eastern market is changing. The big old fashioned companies with high overheads (Bluetts and Sparks are two others which have folded since the recession) are giving way to small, flexible dealers who are able to take a long term view and invest in small but top quality stock. The emphasis of the market has also shifted away from London to New York, Hong Kong and Taiwan and London dealers are having to fight hard to retain their share of the market.

While the top end of the Asian art market has generally done extremely well, with a few very rich collectors competing for the very best objects, the middle market is much softer. This has been evidenced by saleroom results in recent years where specialist single owner collections have 100% sold rates while routine sales have been experiencing buy in rates of 40% to 50%.

Undoubtedly, the days of the old fashioned, department store types of dealers, with their massive overheads, are numbered, especially in the Far Eastern market, which has become highly specialised. The pity is that Christie’s could have taken better stock of the situation when they acquired Spink; they then had the opportunity to analyse the market, cut costs, invest in the long term, move with the times and turn it into a highly profitable retail business. The Spink name still carries huge weight and prestige throughout the world but there was an inevitable clash of cultures, with the auction house failing to understand the long term investment in top quality retail stock.

Equally sad is the loss of so much prime gallery space in the heart of the golden square mile. Christie’s is already planning to move many of its routine sales out to South Kensington. Now the Spink emporium is to become a slick corporate headquarters and with its demise goes part of the heart and soul of London’s West End art market.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Death of the oldest art dealership in the world'