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Technology expands possibilities for art, but it must do so within the law

When you buy and sell art, it’s important to remember that although an artwork itself may change hands, the rights to reproduce it or exploit it commercially through copying it remain with the artist and their heirs right up to seventy years after they have died.

Likewise, just because you have bought a photograph doesn’t mean that you can set up a business selling copies of it if the photographer’s rights are still active.

I was reminded of this by news of an attempt to sell an NFT (Non Fungible Token) of a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing coming unstuck recently.

Basquiat, a prodigy mentored by Andy Warhol, succumbed to heroin addiction at the tender age of 27 in the late 1980s. Today, he is just about the hottest artist on the market, with top works selling in the tens of millions of dollars. Understandably, his estate guards his rights jealously and took exception to a digital version (in NFT format) of one of his drawings being offered for sale without permission.

As well as the question of copyright, the sale raised a slightly more obscure but no less important issue: that of moral rights. This is because the seller, who also owned the original drawing, offered the winning bidder of the NFT the option of destroying the original drawing. It is thought that the destruction of the original would vest more value in the NFT. However, while someone may acquire a work of art, it is not in their gift to damage or wilfully destroy it, or to exploit it in any other way that might damage the artist’s reputation while the artist’s rights remain active.

This is the area of artist’s rights that is often overlooked yet has just as valid a call on control of artworks as copyright.

Technology may make all sorts of new things possible, but it does not remove longstanding rights to allow them to happen.

Why auctions are the ultimate green trading platform

To be fair, it was a mangled wreck, yet someone decided to pay nine times its lower estimate of £10,000 to secure it at auction. Why?

The remains of the 1960 Jaguar XK150 S.38 Drophead Coupe look ready for no more than the scrapheap, but a mixture of faith and hope – and possibly a little charity – mean that it will now rise again to wow petrolheads in what must be the ultimate recycling exercise.

This vintage Jag was a very limited edition originally: just 69 of the right-hand drive models were made. It also played a massive role in the development of sports cars; quite an eyeful on its own terms, it also proved to be the stepping stone to the iconic E-Type, arguably the most important British sports car of the 1960s.

This model has been with the vendor since 1969, and they remained the proud owner until it had a serious argument with a tree in 1996, since when it has languished in its current state.

Now though, someone with enough vision and money to make the difference has snapped it up at auction with a view to restoring it to its former glory. I just hope that they film the entire process as they could make a mint out of the rights.

When fully restored, it is thought that it might be worth up to £250,000, so the new owner will have a chance of getting their money back and more if they ever decide to sell.

There has been a lot of talk about antiques being green as they are recycled through the secondhand market at auction or via dealers. But I can’t think of any better illustration of that argument than this XK150.

Where dram become dream – why Islay is a collector’s paradise

News that the late great Tommy Cooper’s trademark fez is up for auction with an estimate of £3,000 reminds me of my favourite joke of his: “I’m on a whisky diet; I’ve lost three days already.”

And if the fez is as closely associated with Cooper as the large corona cigar is with Churchill, then nowhere in Scotland – the spiritual home of whisky in more ways than one – is the single malt more closely associated than the island of Islay.

Its various forms include Bowmore (named after the island’s capital), the oily, peaty Lagavulin and Ardbeg, sublime Caol Ila and perhaps the smoothest of all single malts, Bunnahabhain. Port Ellen, Laphroaig and Bruichladdich are other leading brands.

Between them they are thought to provide Islay with one of the highest value exports per capital of any community in the world. With around 3,000 inhabitants and a whisky export industry worth close to £300 million a year, that figure comes out at around £100,000 a head. That beats the leading country per capita export value (Liechtenstein) of around $100,000.

No surprise, then, that dedication to the ‘water of life’ is so strong and widespread, not just on the island itself but among wealthy collectors.

Now there is news that the most extensive and complete collection from Islay is going under the hammer as part of Fèis Ìle, the annual festival of music and malt, on May 24.

The consignment comes from Pat’s Whisky Collection, the largest private collection of whisky ever to come to auction. Those Pat has selected from his 9,000 “bottle library” includes the legendary single cask 1982 Port Ellen, of which only 220 bottles are thought to exist, and a limited issue Bowmore 25-year-old, produced in only 100 bottles.

It’s a collector’s dream.


Why size isn’t everything when it comes to art

The fine art market is home to a concept known as “wall power”. This advocates a notion of the-bigger-the-better, particularly when it comes to contemporary art. Partially this is because a larger work of art on your wall – or a larger sculpture in your hallway or garden – is likely to have a bigger impact. However, wall power can have its drawbacks at auction. In order for substantially sized paintings or sculpture to do well (assuming they’re any good, of course), an auction house must be able to attract buyers not just with enough money to raise the level of bidding, but also with homes and gardens large enough to accommodate such purchases to scale.

So works like these can also be status symbols, because they tell everyone that the buyer is of sufficient means both to buy the work at a significant price and also must have a big enough wall to hang it on.

Never underestimate status as a strong driver of demand when it comes to buying art among the wealthy.

Fortunately, not all art is priced by the inch. In fact, some of the world’s most expensive pieces are very small indeed. The world’s rarest and most desirable stamp, for instance, the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, has been valued at around $15 million for auction in New York soon,  while Leonardo da Vinci’s beautiful signed drawing of the head of a bear is expected to fetch up to £12 million at auction this summer. However, for my money, the most desirable work per inch sold at auction must be an ancient carving known as the Guennol Lioness. Around 5,000 years old and from Mesopotamia, the limestone sculpture has a remarkably modern Art Deco air about it. Its chiselled features stand out strongly along it 8cm high frame. When it came to auction in 2007, it sold for $57.2 million.