Under the hammer: Old Masters, old luggage Credit: Sina Schuldt/dpa/Alamy Live News

Fine art versus luxury goods

The auction houses’ love expensive brands


This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Hermès’ “Kelly” bag, Cartier diamond tiaras, Louis Vuitton anything. Going onto the websites of Christie’s or Sotheby’s one could be forgiven for thinking that these global art businesses sold mostly jewellery, sports memorabilia, handbags, and the odd painting.

It’s handbags one week, a sporting hero’s footwear the next, a musical megastar’s rather fascinating detritus (see Freddie Mercury, Elton John), followed by Picasso, Italian baroque paintings and Regency silver-gilt — all oddly coexisting in a sort of quasi-department store approach to luxury sales, using the auction method of determining who wins the right to buy: the highest offer wins.

Auction houses offering modern luxury goods alongside old master paintings and sculpture is not new: James Christie held sales of Matthew Boulton’s luxury, gilded, metal-mounted Blue John vases and candelabras in 1770 and 1771. Those sales were not especially successful, yet the process says much about the history of the art market and how we think of art and its relationship with luxury goods today.

Little distinction is made between great art and luxury objects found in boutiques

At a recent talk, Sotheby’s UK Chairman, Harry Dalmeny, proclaimed that the management of Sotheby’s seems constantly to shift its emphasis from luxury goods to art and back again. Currently, the focus is very much on luxury goods, promoted as the gateway drug for new, younger, funkier clients that the whole art market badly needs.

Sebastian Fahey, Sotheby’s managing director of global fine art recently noted a 200 per cent increase in luxury sales since 2020 at Sotheby’s:

“There is clearly huge potential for further growth, and we continue to invest in this area of the business. But this growth is not, and will never be, at the expense of the fine art sales at the core of our business that define our brand and our DNA. The new collectors we’re attracting in our luxury sales are already migrating into fine art.”

After Chanel, Chardin? After Louis Vuitton, Vigée Le Brun?

Many people who have worked in auction houses, myself included, join on the back of an art history degree, usually with a deep desire to work close to a dizzying range of art, in return for a meagre salary. As a way to see a huge range of works of art, from Giambologna to Giacometti, Boulle to Balthus, antiquities to “wet paint” art, it cannot be bettered.

But the auction houses are pushing hard in the direction of the Bond Street retailers: luxury brands dominate — Gucci, Dior, Chanel, YSL, Chopard, Rolex, Tiffany — and this filters through into the marketing of art: Turner, Reynolds, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, Rothko et al and the first-name only club — Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, probably soon to be joined by the seventeenth-century artist du jour Artemisia Gentileschi (at the National Gallery, she is referred to simply as “Artemisia”).

For most of the twentieth and twenty-first century, art has been expensive, sometimes very expensive, but it has always been perceived as part of a long tradition of art history reaching back to Vasari’s Lives of 1550.

Now it seems art — certainly historic art of the type found in most major museums — is struggling to find favour with buyers and so is marketed alongside more desirable luxury objects. Little distinction is made between examples of great art suitable for a museum, and luxury objects found in expensive boutiques on Bond Street.

The divide and convergence between art and luxury has been an ongoing question

There was a time (in the 1990s) when traditional art galleries filled the shops up and down Bond Street. They have been replaced by fashion and jewellery shops; and so it is with the auction houses.

The management consultants who advise on the finances of the auction houses realised long ago that selling expensive watches, jewellery, basketball memorabilia and handbags in Mayfair and Manhattan was good business.

Indeed, these luxury categories realise a greater net profit margin than other traditional art categories, and avert the tiresome real art world issues of handling physically large pieces of furniture, or tackling difficult attribution matters in sculpture (is this definitely by Giambologna?) and old master paintings.

The divide and convergence between art and luxury has been an ongoing question for the major auction houses. James Christie in the 1770s pondered whether his company would be a luxury goods business selling modern trinkets or sell old-fashioned objects from aristocratic houses.

At the time, the modern luxury goods business was foundering but the fashion for aristocratic paintings and objects was solid — and so it continued to be until the late 20th century. Now it seems everything coming up for sale at Christie’s and Sotheby’s is a luxury object.

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