Some in the art world have expressed a fear that top buyers are losing interest in the aesthetic value of art, and Anthony McNerney, head of contemporary art at Bonhams, warned recently that art dealers were in danger of becoming “commodity brokers.”
“It is happening, unfortunately,” says Tania Buckrell Pos. “What I enjoy most is to take a new collector and help them define their aesthetic and purchase within a collecting strategy. And if that’s just about money, it’s no fun.”
A related development is the trend for “dressing” properties. This began in earnest in 2010 with The House of the Nobleman, a semi-commercial exhibition of art – including works by Poussin and Picasso – that was used to promote London’s Cornwall Terrace development during the Frieze art fair. It was repeated again last year and will appear again for the last time – to sell the final property in the terrace – this October. Most art critics frowned upon the event (although many of the works successfully sold) but according to Beth Dean, director of sales and marketing for the developers Oakmayne Bespoke, it had impact.
“People have seen how it’s worked and how it’s highlighted the development because off the back of both shows we’ve sold a house each time,” she says. Certainly, a number of other property developments in London, including Walpole Mayfair, have since used art exhibitions as a marketing tool for property sales.
The influence of “dress to sell” is also indicative of the increasing power of interior design. As a profession it has promoted itself from “decoration” to “design”, and practitioners at the top level are now responsible not only for selecting colour schemes and swatches, but also art and artifacts – in some cases a whole new lifestyle – for their clients.
Tarfa Salam is a London-based designer who has worked on interior schemes across the Middle East, many of which have involved the purchase of art. “As interiors have become purer and purer in lines, you can only bring atmosphere really in what you are sticking on your walls and what sculptures you’re bringing in,” she says.
“When an interior designer is, like I am at the moment, designing a big loft in Beirut, all I can do really is suggest art, otherwise I’m also terrified that the client might just go and choose his own art and muck up my beautiful design.” Salam sources most of her art works online, she says, although she has developed a relationship with particular dealers and gallerists in London and the Middle East.
“In Beirut I made them buy an enormous Iranian painting [by Khosrow Hassanzadeh] of Umm Kulthum. She is a diva in the Middle East, like Callas, so he’s used her like Andy Warhol used Marilyn,” she says. “I had to twist their arm because it was essential that I found an enormous painting for that wall.” The price of the painting was $43,000, negotiated down from $66,000.
Perhaps not surprisingly, art advisers are wary about interior designers extending their remit. “It’s very dangerous,” says Tania Buckrell Pos. “I don’t see how somebody can be an interior designer and an art adviser at the same time; they will not be making the right choices for their clients. It will be decoration that they are putting on the walls rather than something a lot deeper and more profound.”
For better or worse, depth and profundity are not always the primary concerns of the super-rich – indeed, an obsession with surface value is often what earned them their fortune. Most within this rarefied demographic share a passion for quality but if market trends continue (and, whatever anyone says, art and property hold no guarantees) there will be widening differences in attitudes towards ownership.
There will be many individuals who will deploy their riches with taste and imagination, who might even see themselves simply as the lucky custodians of some of the world’s most treasured art works and most sought-after architecture. But there will be an increasing number who will regard these possessions as mere objects, empty vessels for the accumulation and articulation of wealth.