Last year I was invited to be part of a panel at the Art Business Conference in London to discuss how the art trade can best protect its clients. It turned out that what some of the panel wanted to suggest was that the art trade was largely unregulated and that if the trade did not do more to correct this soon, regulation would be imposed on it from outside. I begged to differ and here is why.
To begin with it is simply not true to say that the trade is unregulated. A recent study by the British Art Market Federation lists 167 laws and regulations currently in force and applicable to the UK art market. Many of these are of wide application such as the Consumer Contracts Regulation, copyright regulations, the export control act or money laundering regulations. But others deal very specifically with the art trade such as the Artist’s Resale Right regulations, the Dealing in Cultural Objects Act, the Auctions Bidding Agreements acts etc. The combination of all these laws and regulations provides a pretty comprehensive framework and the art trade certainly does not feel unregulated from the inside. Rather than calling for still more regulation I think that the critics need to begin by explaining what gap it is we need to fill. We need fewer allegations and more facts.
One fact which seems to me insufficiently recognised is that, taking account of the size of the UK economy, the British art trade is by far the most successful in the world. We have twice as much as trade as the rest of the EU put together, 4 times as much as France, 10 times as much as Germany. We have just under a quarter of world trade, not so far behind the USA which has just over one third and whose GDP is about 8 times the size of ours. This success is something we should celebrate and brings huge benefits to our country. It is good for British artists hoping to sell their work, good for employment – the trade employs about 60,000 directly and a further 60,000 indirectly, good for the exchequer in terms of the tax we pay and good for tourism, encouraging wealthy people to visit this country. It is worth asking ourselves therefore just why our trade has been so successful. I have no doubt that there are a number of contributory factors but I believe that a very important one is that, unlike some others, we are not a country which instinctively feels that more government involvement and more regulation is part of the answer. I am not trying to say that there can never be a place for more regulation. But I would urge caution in rushing to fix something which seems to me very far from broken.
I also feel that too many observers looking at the art trade from the outside allow themselves to get carried away by the enormous prices paid at auction for a small number of exceptional works. Here therefore is another fact. The top 1530 lots sold at auction in 2014 accounted for 48% of the value of sales, but less than 0.5% of the number of transactions. 91% of the lots sold at auction went for less than €50,000. Still a lot of money, but not the sort of figure that the press loves to write about.
Looking from the dealer perspective however, I do worry about the number of dealers in the UK who do not belong to any trade association. About 1,000 dealers belong to the three main trade associations, SLAD, BADA and LAPADA, leaving about 7,000 who do not. Of course some of these 7,000 are excellent dealers. But the point about buying from a dealer who belongs to a trade association is that you have an assurance that that dealer meets certain standards of competence and honesty and also have some means of redress if the purchase goes wrong and the dealer declines to settle the matter satisfactorily. If you buy from a dealer who does not belong and things go wrong you are left with the courts and that can be prohibitively expensive. We in SLAD are fairly strict about whom we accept as members but I would like to see more dealers joining one of the three associations. I would also like to find some way of getting it across to the wider public that they should be careful about buying from a dealer who does not belong to any of them.
I am also concerned about the rise of a new group of self-appointed intermediaries who attempt to sell objects they do not own and have no authority to sell. I know that many of our members are becoming more and more concerned about this phenomenon which seems to be on the increase but we are struggling at the moment to find an effective way of dealing with it. I can only urge members of the buying public to question the credentials of those they are dealing with and to check, if in doubt, whether they have the authority to sell what they are advertising.
And my final thought, just as important as regulation, is reputation. Regulations are essential but they are not always easy to enforce. But good dealers will themselves go to considerable lengths to establish and preserve their reputations, often going far beyond what the actual regulations require. Setting standards and helping to maintain reputations is also what the trade associations are all about, which is why I see them as playing such a crucial role in the art trade and would like to encourage all would be customers to keep them in mind when they are buying or selling art.
Christopher Battiscombe CMG is Director General of the Society of London Art Dealers