The closure of Christie’s South Kensington, or CSK as it was affectionately known, in July was greeted by an outpouring of grief, even rage, by the art and antiques world. Why the fuss over the demise of this secondary saleroom, home of lower value, off-kilter lots? Since it opened in 1975, a golden age for London’s antiques trade, CSK has been a training ground; buying from or working there has been a rite of passage for a generation. But for many, the closure is a symbol of the polarisation of global wealth and the art market. With the focus on the increasingly rarefied heights of Modern and contemporary art, CSK became the martyr of the middle market, that amorphous phrase covering everything from the low thousands to the six figures: too small to make news but accounting for the vast majority of sales globally.
The numbers pale in comparison to those achieved at Christie’s King Street flagship. Turnover at CSK decreased from a high of £141.1m in 2012 to £66.3m in 2016 as the annual number of sales fell from 125 to 56 (in 2007, there were 224). The company would not disclose figures but, according to Nic McElhatton, former chairman of CSK, “we were still making a profit”, with a “break-even of about £700 per lot”. McElhatton, who started his career there as a porter in 1984, said he felt “phenomenally emotional” about its closure. “CSK was one of Christie’s biggest portals for new clients. We had just been given the go-ahead to do a huge refurbishment, so it was a real shock. It felt like the decision had been made in a very short amount of time.”
However, it takes as much time and money to sell a £500 lot as it does a £500,000 one, and Orlando Rock, Christie’s UK chairman, says: “It simply does not make sense to run two salerooms, about two miles apart, in London.” The company will instead invest in growing markets such as China, the US’s West Coast (Christie’s opened a space in Los Angeles earlier this year) and online. King Street is incorporating some of the more popular CSK sales into its calendar, including Out of the Ordinary, First Open and relaunched quarterly Interiors sales, and a new furniture and works of art offering, The Collector. But other sales will not transfer. The posters department closed in 2016 and specialisms such as carpets and clocks have been bundled into mixed-discipline auctions or migrated online in recent years. More niche categories, such as diecast toys and collectable ceramics, have been cut entirely in the past two decades, leaving provincial houses to pick up specialists and business.
"It felt like the decision had been made in a very short amount of time"
McElhatton, who became chairman of CSK in 2010, will now consult for the south London auction house Roseberys, one of several auctioneers angling to fill the vacuum. The largest, Bonhams, with its secondary Knightsbridge saleroom nearby, has embarked on a vigorous advertising campaign with the pointed tagline “Where the historic and modern are equally valued”.
On 6 September, Chiswick Auctions will open a South Kensington showroom at 127 Fulham Road to promote highlights and pick up consignments. “These sales don’t make a lot of money,” says the managing director William Rouse. “But clients get irritated when they go to an auction house with a collection and the auctioneer starts cherry-picking. We will sell everything”. The venture will cost around £10,000 in rent and business rates per month and is headed by Nigel Shorthouse, formerly the business manager at CSK. Chiswick has so far recruited ten former CSK staffers, including Peter Mansell (wine), Mark Lampe (carpets), Charlotte Peel (jewellery) and Melissa van Vliet (Old Masters). Rouse adds that they have “interviewed several others from Christie’s, not necessarily from South Kensington but also from King Street, who feel disenfranchised”.
Provincial auctioneers hope to pick up business as well, but after London has taken the choice cuts, how much meat will be left? Observing the posturing among players, McElhatton says: “The great thing about CSK was that we got astonishing prices. It was the kudos of the Christie’s name. Try to do that with another auction house.”