Issue #162  7/10/2009
An American in Europe: a Very Rambling (Hopefully Interesting) Perspective On Photography, With Auction Tallies From London, Paris and a Report From Art Basel; Part One: London

By Alex Novak

As I have usually done for the last ten years, I spent part of May and June in Europe, attending the various London and French auctions, Art Basel, Bièvres' open air photo market, and gallery and museum exhibitions. I also spent much of the time visiting with photography dealers/galleries, collectors and my own artists. It is one of my primary buying trips. All-in-all, it does give me a good sense of the European photography marketplace and puts the American experience into perspective.

Despite some slowness in the market and several particularly poor and weak London auctions, there is a sense of getting by here. The French auctions did pretty decently, in fact better than expected. Art Basel lacked Americans (except for Brad Pitt, who bought a million-dollar painting, and Eli Broad, who advised him), but more than made up for it with Europeans. Europeans may be in worse shape than we are here in the U.S. economically (largely because of most of their governments' slowness to respond the financial crisis and the lack of a unified European effort of consequence), but they don't seem to let it affect their everyday living or decision-making. They tend to buy photography because they love it and not just for an investment, although they want good values.

My European buying trip this year started off in London, visiting with dealer friends and galleries. One of my first stops was Arnaud Delas' stand at the Harris Arcade, which is just past the Admiral Vernon arcade at 161-163 Portobello Road. The stand is just inside and is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Arnaud is a French transplant to the London scene, but he is a long-time friend. Afterwards, we went out to dinner at the nearby Osteria Basilico with Arnaud, his girlfriend and ephemera dealer Jane Orde, collector and friend Cecile Tailbot, and part-time dealer and friend Daniella Dangoor. This is an old Italian standard in the Portobello area that is quite good.

Arnaud, like a lot of small private photo dealers, continues to do ok, but complains of a lack of good material coming into the market. As a trend over the last ten-plus years, this lack of quality source material is certainly going to eventually have an impact on pricing of the remaining higher caliber vintage material. The few good pieces showing up are going for very competitive prices. Then they have quickly gone into institutional and major private collections, eliminating them from the market and making remaining quality pieces that much rarer.

Another long-time friend Michael Diemar and author Laura Noble showed their optimism and recently opened a new gallery in London at 66/67 Wells Street in the West End, which is an up-and-coming area for art galleries. It's also not far from the auction alley of New Bond Street. At the time of my visit the gallery was showing Jennie Gunhammar's large-scale color work (see accompanying story about the artist's recent passing).

Diemar and Noble have chosen to show very important, but often very difficult work at the gallery, from Gunhammar's documentation of her illness to fortress-like structures of Northern Ireland. It's a gallery for serious collectors and institutions. Their latest show is on surrealist Marcel Marien's photographic work from the 1970s-80s, which runs through July 25th. Marien was a friend and assistant to Rene Magritte. His own work is fairly rare and is a prime example of late surrealism.

The gallery also stocks and exhibits work from the whole canon of photography--from 19th-century masters to contemporary artists. Courses in photography and collecting are also available at the gallery. You can phone: +44 (0)207 636 5375. The gallery is usually closed on Sunday and Monday, but open the other days from 10 am-6 pm.

I had lunch with ex-pat Brad Feuerhelm of Ordinary Light at Patterson's on Mill Street. The prix-fixed meal wasn't bad. The talk turned to the photo market. Both Brad and I have noticed an uptick in interest in Asian ethnographic material.

I also stopped by Bernard Shapero Rare Books on 32 St. George Street to see Roland Belgrave, who runs Shapero's photography group. Shapero's has always focused on 19th-century and early 20th-century ethnographic photographs and albums, and is a popular stop-off for photography collectors of this material.

While I didn't get by Quaritch Books this trip, I did see its photography expert Lindsey Stewart at the Sotheby's auction (more on that later). It too is a good stop-off for the photography collector in London. Quaritch is located on 8 Lower John Street, Golden Square. While the company focuses on 19th-century photography, it has also branched out to 20th-century work. Last year I saw a very good vintage Bill Brandt show there, but at prices that frankly shocked me at times--and they were selling well here.

Americans (and Europeans) assume that the value of their respective currency is stable. It's not. The American dollar has eroded to nearly half its value in terms of European currency over the last ten years. Now that doesn't account for inflation--just currency exchange differences. What this means for Europeans (excluding Brits, whose pound sterling with its recent drop in value is now virtually at the same rate of exchange with the dollar as it was ten years ago) is that their currency can now buy nearly twice as much in dollars as it could then. As more and more European collectors and dealers are added to the competition for fewer and fewer quality pieces, the competition for the few rare photographs will tend to increase the value of those photos--at least in weaker dollars.

I expect that in the short term the dollar/euro exchange rate will remain fairly stable within a narrow range (the dollar may even go up briefly), although much longer term (2-5 years in the future) the dollar is expected to drop considerably, as this country's debt load adds to its currency exchange problems and potential inflation. That doesn't count the impact of a switching away from the dollar as the currency of choice as the standard for the world, as China, Russia and others have been suggesting.

What does all this mean? For one thing it means you should be careful about your currency purchases and their timing. I use several services for this, including Travelex Business Payments and Tempus. Never use your bank to wire funds in other currencies or you credit card if you can help it. That will cost you about 7% more with the inevitable bad exchange rate (it isn't the commission or lack of commission that usually gets you).

In this regard, Sotheby's tried a new scam on me in London: it was called dynamic currency conversion. It basically has a third-party (Fexco) change the pound sterling charges on your Sotheby's account into your currency of choice for your credit card when charging your purchases. Now this could actually be a reasonably good idea, because of the high rate of exchange on virtually all credit cards today (and going higher every time I check). As I noted above, such third party services could save you potentially more than 7% versus what your credit card charges you for currency conversion. Fexco, at least according to the Sotheby's cashier, even "guarantees" that your rate will be better than the rate through your credit card. Sounds good, but I actually tried it both ways before I put my charge through directly on my own credit card. Fexco was adding about 2-3% OVER my credit card's bad exchange rate. But try to prove that to get the guarantee. These kinds of currency exchanges can vary even within a few minutes, and you won't have your actual credit card's exchange rate to compare, only the "reference" exchange rate that Fexco gives you. Good luck on the guarantee. This new "service" appears only to benefit Sotheby's and Fexco. Too bad, because this could have been an excellent service all around. But at least Sotheby's London is still taking credit cards, unlike its NYC office.

More to the point on the effects of currency exchange on today's market. The dollar's drop in value against the euro and other currencies make for a more competitive international market. To put it another way, I recently sold back two Man Rays to a French dealer friend, who paid nearly the same in euro that he sold them to me six years before, yet I made a healthy profit on the sale. To Europe, we have been on sale for the last several years, and that doesn't look to change. More and more of my business--as other American photography dealers have also found--has been going to international clients. As the photo market grows internationally in general, Americans will be looking at ever increasingly expensive photography, art and other hard goods in the long term due to purely the drop in the value of the dollar against nearly every other currency in the world. Factor in inflation, which I think will eventually catch up to us--but again two to five years from now--and you have a lot of pressure on hard good prices, including photography.

On Facebook (please add me as a friend by searching Alex Novak+Chalfont) I have had a few conversations on economics. A few have challenged my more "optimistic" view of an inflationary cycle as opposed to a deflationary one. But I think I have the benefit of historical precedent. When countries print too much money, as ours is doing at the moment (and even the Brits and Europeans are doing too), inflation (and eventual recovery) is inevitably the result. That doesn't preclude a brief period of downward pricing pressure (especially on lower to mid-level easily available material), which you could and should take advantage of, but I wouldn't count on it much, especially for upper level material. We would have to have extremely serious economic consequences for this to happen in any kind of serious way. Bumps in the road are inevitable in this recovery, but I am much more confident that we will continue to recover--albeit very slowly--than not. Very long term (with burgeoning deficits) is another story entirely and the future depends on so many factors as to make me dizzy thinking about it.

Back to my trip: There were a couple of photography auctions and a photo book auction here in London, and I guess I have to talk about them, although, frankly, they were hardly worth a mention, considering the general lack of decent material in these auctions and the inevitable poor results.