Collecting special: auction houses and autumn fairs

Can anything stop the relentless drive to dominance by the auction houses in the world of fine art and antiques? In recent years the main response by their rivals, the dealers, has been to pool their strengths at fairs, offering a collective array of artefacts to tempt customers.

Now the auction houses have muscled in here. On October 15-18, to coincide with Frieze – London’s most successful dealer fair – Christie’s is throwing open its South Kensington rooms to host Multiplied, a new fair mainly devoted to prints but also including contemporary art editions of photographs, videos and sculptures.

Thirty-five dealers, ranging from some of the biggest names in the field, such as Paragon, White Cube and Purdy Hicks down to recently formed enterprises such as the Henningham Family Press and Barespace, are taking part. The aim is to appeal to new collectors (prices start at less than £100) and new dealers (the stands cost around £1,000); Christie’s is taking no commission on works sold and admission is free. With this new venture the auction house clearly hopes to tempt first-time buyers and younger art lovers who have never made contact with a saleroom.

Christie’s head of prints, Richard Lloyd, got the idea from the Editions and Artists Book Fair in New York last winter.

“I was struck by the energy of the participants. There were young dealers, publishers, collectors and artists creating a buzz, and on many of the works the ink was scarcely dry.” Lloyd hopes to recreate this atmosphere in the Brompton Road. There will be prints and photographs by established names such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, and Sam Taylor-Wood, costing a few thousand pounds, alongside modestly priced work by unknown artists.

The most modest prices are to be found at the Henningham Family Press, which will bring along a mobile printing workshop and offer anyone interested a takeaway work printed on chipboard “for the price of a bag of chips”. Dundee Contemporary Arts has prints for £75 but even big names carry moderate prices: Counter Editions offers a 2010 Gary Hume print, “Vicious”, for £490 and Sims Reed an Eduardo Paolozzi for £950.

Multiplied is timely. The most sought-after artist of the past decade, Andy Warhol, built his reputation on multiple images, while photographs, limited edition sculptures and videos are increasingly fought over by new collectors, many of whom like the reassurance of acquiring a popular image. Last month Picasso’s “La Minotauromachie” sold for £1.27m at Sotheby’s in London, a record price for a print.

But there is more to Multiplied than an opportunity to cash in on the visitors in town for Frieze. Nic McElhatton, chairman of Christie’s South Kensington, says that in the recently refurbished rooms “we’ve got a facility with a lot of potential for display; auctions only take up 60 per cent of our capacity”. He expects to be holding more exhibitions, fairs and showcases for dealers. This summer there was a selling exhibition of prints by Sir Peter Blake which was successful enough for the artist to request a repeat, and Multiplied is already booked in for next year. McElhatton has been given a free hand by Christie’s to make South Kensington, its outlet for lower priced antiques, “a cultural hub” as well as a kindergarten for new clients.

It is one more example of the move by Christie’s and Sotheby’s away from just holding auctions into the territory that has traditionally been held by dealers. Last month in New York Sotheby’s opened a retail wine store, plus internet outlet, with prices ranging from below $14 a bottle to $40,000. It also operates salons in New York, London and Hong Kong selling diamonds and jewellery. These subsidiaries are a way of meeting the needs of what Sotheby’s chief executive Bill Ruprecht sees as “the 95 per cent of potential clients who go away from an auction disappointed. We have a great deal of intellectual capital, and collective knowledge of who is buying and who is selling.”

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have greatly reduced the number of auctions they hold, concentrating on more profitable high-value lots. This frees up space in their rooms, and this month in Manhattan Sotheby’s is holding its most ambitious exhibition to date, “Divine Comedy”, a display of 80 paintings from Brueghel to Francis Bacon, which aims to demonstrate the comedic side of art: many paintings are for sale.

As well as opening up South Kensington, Christie’s is also exploiting its grand rooms in St James’s, holding this autumn an exhibition of art from Kazakhstan, a country as yet more celebrated for its economic potential than for culture. On a smaller scale at Sotheby’s Bond Street during the summer there was a show of works by graduates from the Design Academy in Eindhoven.

Sotheby’s is holding its fifth annual selling show of monumental sculptures at Chatsworth House, including works by Barry Flanagan, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Chillida, while during the summer contemporary design priced at £10,000-£200,000 was on offer at Sudeley Castle.

Dealers in these sectors can only gawp at such costly marketing exercises. More controversially – from the dealers’ point of view – the auction houses have used their financial muscle to infiltrate the trade directly by acquiring leading galleries: Christie’s bought contemporary art specialists Haunch of Venison, while Sotheby’s took over Old Master trader Robert Noortman. Rival dealers feel the contacts and wealth of the salerooms give the galleries they own an unfair advantage in securing stock and earmarking potential buyers.

Moving from wholesale to retail is just part of the growth plan of the international auction houses. They now use their contacts with the global rich to offer luxury real estate, advice on personal and corporate collecting, and tax-friendly expertise on how best to sell works of art: in the first half of the year Sotheby’s brought in over $200m, one-tenth of its turnover, through private sales, often working with clients who also buy and sell at auction.

As wealthy individuals weigh up the return from owning art so the initiatives by the auction houses are in tune with the zeitgeist, leaving dealers competing over any juicy scraps from the feast. The relationship is healthily parasitic – dealers still buy and, increasingly, sell much of their stock through the salerooms, and there was no shortage of galleries keen to nestle inside Christie’s South Kensington for a print fair riposte to Frieze.

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