Jeffrey Archer sells all

Auctions - Peter Watson on how themed sales might save the art market from crashing

The art market is bracing itself for a crash. The traditional wisdom is that it takes about two to two-and-half years for the art market to head south after the stock markets lead the way. This is the time needed for the big bonuses to dry up at the investment banks, which hits the property market first and, once the collecting classes stop moving home, or redecorating, their appetite for art soon goes off the boil, too. This is the way it was in the 1970s, and again in the late 1980s: the stock market crash of October 1987 was followed by mayhem in the art market, beginning in May 1990. Sotheby's and Christie's laid off 30 per cent of their staff. Profits vanished. Some of the big investment banks haven't given bonuses for two years now, and this Christmas could be the crunch point, after which the art market will really begin to feel the pinch.

At the same time, the past few years have seen one quiet but notable innovation in the salesrooms which, although it won't prevent meltdown if meltdown comes, will at least brighten the gloom. This evolution has so far gone unremarked because the main auction houses have been embroiled in a juicy collusion scandal, which has seen Alfred Taubman, boss of Sotheby's, end up in jail.

The innovation is the rise of the theme sale. Traditionally, sales were organised along lines recognised by scholarship: old master pictures, impressionist paintings, English furniture, ceramics, silver. These categories continue to exist, but, more and more, sales are being organised that conform not to the traditional notions but to the way collectors think the way the world is divided up.

It began about six years ago with an auction that Christie's called, quite simply, the India sale. Hitherto, this material would have been sold separately, a few lots each in furniture, silver, oriental paintings, a few maps in a topography sale, old photographs in a photography sale, books of Mughal or colonial history in a books sale. It was hard work knowing what was coming up, where and when.

And this way of selling didn't really reflect the way collectors thought of the field they were collecting. People interested in Indian silver tend to be interested in things Indian rather than in silver exclusively. As a result, the India sale proved a great success and the approach has spread quickly. We now have the Africa sale, the Polar sale and the Titanic sale. Sotheby's has just announced the "country pursuits" sale and Christie's the Trafalgar sale. Instead of furniture sales, we now have sales on the chair, or the light. Instead of pop memorabilia or film sales, we have the James Bond sale.

The same approach has been introduced into the very heart of the auction business, with major artists. It started in 2000 with the Henry Moore sale, more than 200 lots devoted to this one man's output. The sale was such a success that, the following year, Christie's mounted the John Piper sale, and this year the Picasso sale. All were near sell-outs.

Two reasons account for this popularity, over and above the fact that they reflect the way many collectors think. Say you are interested in the work of John Piper. In the average sale of modern paintings, which is where Piper's work would traditionally have been sold, you would be lucky to find more than a handful of works by him. It just isn't worth the price of the rail or plane ticket, not to mention the hotel bill, to come to London. But when you have nearly 250 works on show, the equation changes.

Then there is the social side. In an auction such as the Titanic sale, for instance, or the Trafalgar sale, upcoming, the occasion becomes more than just a dry old piece of commerce. At the viewings ahead of the sale, there is the chance to meet other enthusiasts, to compare notes, make friends and perhaps even strike private deals.

There's little doubt that this approach has widened the art market. Graham Budd, who is organising Sotheby's country pursuits sale, says they see people at theme sales whom they don't see the rest of the year at regular auctions. Richard Lloyd, Christie's expert in modern painting, who took the Piper auction, says he looked down from the rostrum that day, "And I realised that all the people in the room were new to the salesrooms, whom we had never seen before. They were not novices - they knew all about Piper, and had come prepared with marked catalogues. But they were not aficionados of the auction circuit."

The possibilities are endless. How soon before we have the Great War sale? Or - why not? - the Jeffrey Archer sale.

This article first appeared in the 11 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Whatever happened to No Logo?