When William Blake wandered through a bleak London in 1793, observing “in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe,” it was a comment on the privatization of public space. But like any great work of literature, Blake’s “London” is universal: those lines could also describe how the visages of today’s British art professionals have been contorted by a spate of recent afflictions. Yes, all is not well in Albion, where the business of art is getting ever more lugubrious. Last week, the Daily Telegraph ran a courageous exposé on the meddlings of “trapper” dealers, who are apparently a new phenomenon ruining the private secondary market for everyone, or at least those “lured by the prospect [of] a little-known work by a great painter” on the cheap.
Fortunately, “art experts” are on the task, facing the threat with the aplomb of a duty-bound guild. “Art experts are warning of the rapid spread of a new con-trick infecting the market, which involves cheaply produced works in the style of great artists being sold by dealers who dishonestly suggest they are genuine.” Frightening. And, in case you were wondering, the Telegraph notes that the term “trapper” was itself coined by Philip Mould, an art dealer who would never seed an insane trend piece to hype his BBC reality show about forgeries.
Further titters in the price-discriminating avant-garde threaten to soil the twin edifices of high-end art and tax evasion: a loophole uncovered by the Guardian reveals that the owners of 115,000 registered works of art are able to evade capital gains and inheritance tax if they provide “public access” to the works for at least 28 days per year. The twist, of course, is that the owners contacted by the paper were largely unaware of the scheme (or, in some cases, their presence on the public database), which had presumably been set up for them by an advisor. The report does note that “No one contacted by the Guardian refused access, although there were awkward obstacles.” Reached for comment, the Labour party’s shadow culture minister said she “would like the scheme to function better and is proposing that the number of days on which owners are obliged to allow access should be doubled to 56.” Awkward Obstacles would be a great name for a BBC comedy.
And, finally, there is no escape to seclusion: even the consolation of cyberspace is dissipating, with The Art Newspaper reporting on EU regulations threatening the sanctity of Britain’s online auction market with the barbaric specter of a return policy, which is presumably bad news for the thinning interest in Young Buyer’s-remorse Artists (YBA).
From June, when the new Consumer Contracts Regulations are due to come into force in the UK, auction sales will also be liable to a 14-day cooling off period, unless the auction qualifies as “public”, meaning the lots can be viewed in person. Under the new rules, virtual auctions are not considered public and so online buyers will have the right to cancel.
So, to recap: art dealers can be thieves and/or charlatans, collectors deprive the public eye and the public purse, and buying art online will soon be like buying anything else online. If it happened in the UK, it could happen anywhere.