Winter Catalogue 2021..."Collecting, it's just a thing"

September 10, 2021

Winter Catalogue 2021...

A couple of months after our “new” bookkeeper started with us some twenty-five years ago, she took me aside to say she was getting to grips with the VAT works of art special scheme, exports, wages and PAYE, but she still had some outstanding concerns.

She said she was used to managing stock and profit margins, but was struggling to understand how, when and why we made our purchases, why the cost prices varied so wildly, what were our seasonal stock levels, target margins and when did we anticipate selling the pieces?

We had already been in business for nearly twenty years, yet I found almost all her questions unanswerable. The fact is that we never know when we are going to find things, it is difficult to anticipate what we may pay for them and we really have no idea when we may sell them. (It is not a perfect business model!) Worse still we always feel that we know what we could sell immediately, but invariably such pieces are a considerable challenge to source.  

We specialise in works that generally have little material value, that were made for function, fun, memory or love. They are often unique, sometimes a bit scruffy and frequently a little quirky or whimsical. Largely they were created by anonymous makers, artists or artisans who paid little heed to the vagaries of style or fashion and liked to do things their way. Yet somehow the best examples are timeless, still command attention and make you smile.

The late Andras Kalman, modern art dealer and Founder of the Crane Kalman Folk Art Gallery and the Museum of British Folk Art, said that to understand naïve and primitive art: “You do not need to know Art History. The immediacy, the joy, the unpretentiousness of these images gives us the gift and pleasure akin to a new-born child. You either respond to these images or stay blank. C’est tout!”. Kalman and his friend, the late Christopher Bibby, (founder of the Rutland Gallery and a pioneering specialist in British Naïve Art), shared a passionate interest in naïve, primitive and folk art and together helped to raise its profile in 1970's Britain. Thanks to a few intrepid individuals and artists such as Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood,  Alfred Wallis had become known and appreciated, as had George Smart the Tailor of Frant, and some of the more significant C19th primitive livestock painters like John Miles of Northleach, Thomas Weaver, John Boultbee and the armless John Vine. It was otherwise a school of art with no big names, no common style, no standards of “good, better, best” and no established marketplace.

Kalman and Bibby were aware of and inspired by the growing interest in and demand for “Folk Art” in the USA and when Kalman opened his Folk Art Gallery in Sloane Street, he travelled to the States to source pieces which he exhibited alongside British and European works. They were also exciting times for us as young dealers with a taste for folk and primitive art, similarly inspired by American Folk Art and Jim Ede’s sensitively curated collection at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. But there was no established market.

So here we were, alongside two innovative and energetic art dealers, with a passion and experience in other fields of the art market, (Bibby had a background in traditional British and old master paintings), all with individually selected and curated inventories of naïve and folk art. We were fortified only with an instinct, and the hope that we would find clients who shared our passion for these works and had the imagination, eye, trust and foresight to buy them. The rest as they say ………… is history.

Collecting contemporary art by unknown or emerging artists demands the same kind of feelings, passion and confidence, as buying British and European naïve and folk art required in the 1970s and early 80s, (just as we were getting started). However, the upside was that there were still things to be found, some gloriously untouched and previously undiscovered works, ready to be presented to and appreciated by an astonished public, some of whom thankfully threw themselves into this new world with unbridled enthusiasm.

The great thing about this breed of collector is that they know what they love when they see it and frequently have the appetite and courage to jump in. Sadly, one of these pioneer folk art collectors died several years ago. He started off buying L.S. Lowry and was gradually drawn to historic naïve, primitive and folk art (primarily British but also some European and American examples). He bought from us, Christopher Bibby at The Rutland Gallery, Crane Kallman Folk Art Gallery, Jellineck and Sampson, A&E Foster and the occasional piece from eminent non-specialist dealers, who happened to have something that took his fancy.

He always bought through the trade and built relationships. A wonderful man, with an engaging warmth, an infectious enthusiasm and the means to build a collection of his choosing. His wife recently passed away and the decision was made to sell the family home. After identifying the pieces they could not bear to part with, the surviving family kindly gave us the opportunity to tender for the rest of the collection. Following in their father’s footsteps, by deciding to offer the pieces to someone who had been involved in the building of the collection, rather than putting them under an auctioneer’s hammer…what joy!

So it is with some regret, but great memories, that we see this innovative pioneer collection being broken up and separated. However, such is the way of these things and we embrace the pleasure and honour of re-offering pieces that passed through our hands and those of respected colleagues thirty-five or forty years ago. Some are featured in reference books, including my book “Folk Art” from 1999, and many feel like part of the history of Robert Young Antiques and the overall development and growth of interest in British and European Folk Art.

As I mentioned at the outset of these unstructured ramblings, we never know when we are going to find things, nor when they will find us …………… and certainly not of this quality, or in this quantity. The pieces are as fresh and exciting now as they were when we originally sourced them and several of them will be included in our forthcoming Winter Catalogue #60, alongside pieces from other collections and recent acquisitions.

Hopefully they will soon find new homes, with enthusiastic and appreciative owners. Collecting…….its just a thing……….  


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