WEB Borwick SOFAA 4-7-17.jpg
BADA president Victoria Borwick addresses the SOFAA dinner on Friday, June 30.

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Madam chairman, members of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers, distinguished guests:

I am extremely honoured to have been asked to speak at the SOFAA dinner this year. I take the invitation extended to me as both a personal honour as well as an honour for BADA – the British Antique Dealers’ Association.

The members of our two associations have been inextricably linked for many decades, long before the foundation of SOFAA in 1973, and possibly even before BADA’s own beginnings in 1918.

For those of you who do not know me, in another life I was director of the Olympia antiques fairs for 11 years from 1990 to 2001. And what a wonderful experience it was to work in that industry in those heady days.

Seeing all the dealers at first hand provided me with an insight into their business operations and an understanding of this great industry. And what an industry it is. Rarely is it appreciated that our cultural industries are a significant contributor to our GDP with annual art market sales of more than £13bn.

1. Ivory and awareness of the art market in parliament

From my last two years in parliament I am conscious the trade needs to have a voice, especially on antique ivory, a key area where I have been working on the trade’s behalf.

No antique dealer, no auctioneer and, in fact, no-one wants to condone modern-day poaching, and it is vital that we separate our support of measures to combat poaching and slaughter with an appreciation of antique ivory, going back hundreds of years. 

During the recent general election campaign I have been called a murderer, elephant hunter and other terms I shall not grace this dinner with!

I fully understand the concerns of some that trading in objects containing ivory should not encourage demand in the Far East. But the respected TRAFFIC report did not find a link between the UK antiques trade and the trade in illegally poached ivory. 

You will be aware of some Chinese buyers wishing to buy ivory for export, but ivory export without a permit is not allowed and if the ivory is after 1947 it cannot even be sold without one. There certainly needs to be more education about the rules.

Uneven approach across Europe

The British Art Market Federation welcomed the previous Government’s approach to making the sale of all post-1947 ivory illegal. However, the new French rules actually continue to allow the sale of ivory items made as recently as the 1970s, despite the French measures being initially described as a "total" ban.

So we need to see more consistency across Europe.

Over the last two years two Parliamentary debates took place, one of them in response to a petition calling for a complete ban on all sales of ivory. 

I must confess I was disappointed at the extent to which so many MPs had such a limited understanding of the relationship between art and ivory and how many everyday objects contain ivory, not just musical instruments. 

There was also a lack of comprehension of the role of the dealers and auction houses on how the collections in our world-famous museums have been put together.

2. What dealers need from auctioneers

Dealers and auctioneers have in common a genuine and passionate interest in the ancient and beautiful objects of which they are fleetingly custodians. They also depend on one another to successfully acquire and sell those objects.

a) Buyer’s premium transparency

The relationship for SOFAA and BADA dealers is primarily one of providing a source of stock.  However, we know that dealers are not the only people who wish to buy at auction and for this reason we feel that the Advertising Standards Authority’s views on providing clearer details about the buyer’s premium were positive and helpful.

I know that BADA very much hopes that an increasing number of auction house online catalogues will take thesaleroom.com’s lead in providing more buyer’s premium information immediately adjacent to the estimate for each lot.

b) Seamless delivery service

BADA members also welcome the move taken by some auctioneers towards offering a complete buying package, one that takes care of shipping in a seamless system, from bidding right through to the gallery door.

c) Auctioneer warranty

There has been a reduction in the number of high-quality items for sale and this factor, combined with the internet, means dealers travel far less around the countryside viewing auctions and visiting other dealers. 

In this day and age it is far more convenient to view lots online. As a result, auctions that are willing to take account of these new buying patterns by offering a form of warranty to dealers are increasingly welcomed by BADA’s members.

3. Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill

I welcome the comments recently made by Joanna Van de Lande in ATG, that media bible we cannot live without.

When parliament was debating the UK’s accession to the Hague Convention [for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict] and its two (1954 and 1999) protocols, there was a zealous intent that we should be the first to sign up without any true understanding of what the implications could be. 

The trade needs clarity as to what cultural objects it can sell.  It is ridiculous to say there is not a list of countries that were supposed to be occupied over 50 years ago.  

One interpretation of the new UK law couched the definition of cultural property so widely it could have included low-value French jewellery brought to the UK from a Middle Eastern conflict zone by a fleeing refugee. There was the prospect of an auctioneer selling such an item only to find him or herself unwittingly in breach of the law – despite the item having no cultural connection to the refugee’s home country.

Potential difficulties

Following questioning on this point in the House, the Minister confirmed to me on the record that only a small group of objects - “works of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people” – would be covered by the Bill. 

While not removing all our concerns, this confirmation did mean that most dealers and auctioneers need not fear inadvertently breaking the law.  

That said, for antiquities sellers I can see there are potential difficulties with vexatious and spurious claims from overseas governments being lodged just prior to an auction. But reassurances have been received from the police that allegations must be shown to be based on evidence.

4. Dealers and auctioneers: common ground

There has always been a strong synergy between our activities and the need to work together has been exemplified many times.

There are a whole range of issues that we need to tackle and of course there is a healthy rivalry between auctioneers and antique dealers. But this is a time to work together to ensure that Brexit offers an opportunity for us to re-examine some of the legislation imposed on us by other EU countries; legislation that has not necessarily helped our art market as it competes with the rest of the world.

I may not be in parliament any longer but I am always happy to speak up for the arts and antiques trade. And I certainly have a great address book...