Art as an asset class has been much in the news in the past week with the revelation that British Airways – beleaguered as it retires its 747 fleet in the wake of the pandemic – is to sell off work from its art collection.
Firstly, who knew that British Airways even had an art collection? Possibly the most famous public commercial investment in art in this country has been the British Rail Pension Fund, which spent generously on art, parting with £40 million (around 3 per cent of its holdings then) between 1974 and the 1990s for around 2400 museum quality works in what was a ground-breaking experiment at the time.
The investment was treated as a hedge against inflation, with the British Rail Pension Fund rivalling the Getty in reputation as a power investor in art.
Thanks to the experiment proving largely successful, many other businesses followed suit, with art becoming seen as a relatively less risky asset class once bonds and gilts took a serious knock in the crash of 2008.
Now BA is looking to offload a wealth of Young Brit art by names like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Anish Kapoor as it looks to build cash reserves. Not only is this a bold move and one that could have repercussions for BA if the sale does not go well, it could also prove a landmark in the long-term fortunes of the leading Young Brits.
With things in the market fast developing, it will be interesting to see whether BA chooses to expose the works in the harsh light of an open auction or look to go the private sale route. Either way, the leading auction houses will be looking to get in on the action, but they will be up against serious competition from increasingly savvy and powerful contemporary art dealers who have already snaffled some tasty prizes from under their noses.
Watch this space.
After all the philosophising about the future of auctions in recent weeks, it’s time to come back down to earth for a bit of fun. One of my favourite things about our world is the tendency of the extraordinary and bizarre to pop its head up every so often. I’m delighted to say that this has happened at least twice in the past week.
First up is the most expensive video game ever sold on the rostrum. A 1985 Super Mario Bros cartridge made just over £90,000. These cartridges would have been mass produced just 35 years ago, with most being played to death before being discarded as technology upgraded. The original buyer here knew what they were doing, and clearly never intended to play the game. This purchase was all about investment as its condition today can testify. Still in its original sealed container, complete with the original hangtab, this was collecting nerdery in its ultimate expression.
On the bizarre front, we have a vampire slaying kit, which comprises a pocket pistol, a carved ivory wolf in robes, a cobalt blue phial with unknown contents, a crucifix, miniature Bible and even shark teeth, among other esoteric contents, all fitted snugly into a small, gothic-style wooden box. Possibly dating to the mid/late 19th century, it carries hopes of £3000.
We’ve just had one of those “they said it couldn’t be done moments”. You know what I mean: manned flight, landing on the moon, Leicester City winning the FA Cup (ok, that still hasn’t happened, but they won the Premiership), a British player winning the Men’s tournament at Wimbledon…
In our world, the moment came on June 29 when Sotheby’s launched what was, to all intents and purposes, a TV gameshow format for selling the world’s top-end art. OK, so the most expensive piece at $73 million, a work by the late Francis Bacon, sold on the phone, but the $300 million plus result for the 74 lots on offer was final proof positive that internet sales are not just for the cheaper end of the market.
It may still be a while until they bring the hammer down on an internet bid of $50 million or more, but it can now only be a matter of time after the world’s leading art collectors showed themselves only too willing to take part in this ground-breaking experiment.
This doesn’t mean the end of the live sale in its entirety – too much history and excitement is tied up with that – but it does mean that auctions have entered a new era. It may have taken the pandemic to accelerate this process, but now we’ve seen it in all its glory, it’s here to stay.
It’s a bittersweet experience for people, like me, who have spent so many years performing to a live audience from the rostrum.
The Royal Family has to deal with a lot of reputation management issues these days, but for those who think this is a modern phenomenon, a fascinating item coming up for auction tells another tale.
In the early 19th century the French watch-making genius that was Abraham-Louis Breguet produced the Tourbillon Watch, a sumptuous gold timepiece that was at the cutting-edge of horological technology. Sought out by the crowned heads of Europe, Breguet had supplied the demands of Marie Antoinette and the Tsar, the King of Spain and even Napoleon.
Much taken by the Tourbillon, in 1808 King George III of Britain – a keen follower of sciences and horology – decided to buy it.
The problem was, England and France were at war and for the King to be seen trading with the French and sending what was the vast sum of 4,800 French Francs across the Channel would have been a public relations disaster.
The records tell us that Tourbillon reduced the risk of the watch being seized by only signing the carriage inside it. Exact details of how it was delivered discreetly into the Royal hands remain unclear – hardly surprising bearing in mind the circumstances – but after all the trouble Tourbillon and his associates took to fulfil the order, it transpires that the king never fully paid for the watch.
The final irony is that Sotheby’s have chosen July 14 as the date to put up the watch for sale. That’s Bastille Day, the event that marked the beginning of the French Revolution and the end of the monarchy across the water.