Today, in the higher end decorative arts market, it is not about what an auctioneer can offer (or demand), but how can dealers present a better alternative. The auction method as practiced by the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly works quite well in the fine arts. However, when the profit margins are squeezed and demand is suspect, they run for the hills. Good decorative arts are now open to all, as these firms are unable to sustain the market.
The divide between fine and decorative arts has never been so wide. With the exception of some sculpture (i.e. Giacometti) the decorative arts, and particularly furniture, has become an anathema for most auctioneers to handle. Painting and fine art have advantages of mobility, name recognition, and taste considerations. Furniture strives for all of these qualities but plainly lacks consistency in these areas. However, decorative arts have characteristics that fine arts can never have, and that is an advantage that is both misunderstood and sorely lacking in their image. Function, craftsmanship, and historical interpretation are values that must be explained, interpreted, and appreciated. Furniture and the decorative arts have those elements, yet their visual traits lack a universal recognition.
Perhaps the decorative arts will always be relegated to a second tier of acceptance. Their day in the sun in the last half of the 20th Century was perhaps overdone with excessive decorating and a different way of life for today’s billionaire of the moment. For a price, instant gratification and trophy items are easier to obtain and don’t necessarily require knowledge and understanding of the object. Most auctioneers don’t have the motivation to teach but are focused on the deal and structuring it to their benefit. Dealers will always have this advantage of imparting knowledge, if they are to survive.
The decorative arts market is now officially open to anyone, dealer or auctioneer, who can offer the right individualized service to a client, be it a sale, purchase, or consignment. Competition for selling now at an auction or selling for a price or through consignment to a dealer now bears thoughtful comparison. In a market no one can control (the duopoly does a good job “trying” to control fine art) furniture and the decorative arts have been evolving into a game of survival of the fittest. As auctioneers act as the only and last resort to sell or liquidate, dealers have an opportunity for innovation with an alternative approach. Risk can be substituted with a measured, unhurried, and calculated way.
This new opportunity for dealers is fraught with similar issues and problems not to dissimilar to what the auctions have been trying to overcome. However, the big difference is the methods. In today’s market the one shot auction process is a real roll of the dice; the dealer however can keep his cards closer to his chest.