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What is 'Decorative Art'

In this context, definitely not to be confused with 'the Decorative Arts'. We use the phrase more as a generic term to describe a particular art market sub-sector in the way that 'Modern British' is used as a catch all term for 20th Century British painting. 

It is tempting to view 'Decorative' as a pejorative term, implying one-dimensional or shallow - art that only has ornamental value. In this area of the art market that couldn't be further from the truth. 

Most interior designers and decorators in my experience have a very good eye when it comes to choosing art. Where they are often hamstrung by clients is budget. A wealthy homemaker is often more likely to spend more on the soft furnishings and wall paper in a room than on the art.

This of course doesn't mean that they want no art at all, merely that they want the look of quality and wealth while not paying the market rate. 

Surprisingly in today's art market this is possible and the seasoned decorator with the experience and the right rolodex knows where to source for just such a client.

It is not news I'm sure, that the art market is fixated on a value-name ratio that can sometimes be blind to the quality or subject of a work of art. Mostly with good reason the established 'names' make good money. They have a proven track record for consistency in quality and are recognised on the secondary market for such. However even the masters had off-days and the break up of deceased artists studios have released much unfinished and inferior work, never intended for show, on to a voracious market. 

This is the slightly preachy, curmudgeonly old dealer part but if, as with the vast majority of us, one can't afford the very best of a well known artist's work, then why would you buy a third or fourth rate example? perhaps to feel part of a club, to participate in some form of institutionalised autograph hunt?

I suggest that the art market offers an alternative. There are thousands of painters - specifically, as it is our area of dealing, those working in the twentieth century - whose star has yet to rise, whose work you won't find appearing at the principle auction houses. In most cases this lack of market recognition is pure chance. Over the last decades I have seen many a dead artist plucked from market obscurity and declared the new game in town by this or that elite dealer. 

When trawling the British and Continental markets at the level of a few thousand pounds and well under, I often come across long forgotten painters of evident talent that have yet to be picked up in this way. In fact I've found dealing at a level so far down the 'name' ladder deeply liberating. When trawling a small country auction or a village antique shop in South Sweden I can only make a judgement on image alone. It allows me to buy a genuinely good painting for all the reasons one should - quality, subject matter, and sheer visual response. 

I still have memories viewing auctions, standing before an inferior or hopelessly minor work by a major artist. If it was just within reach financially I would try to convince myself that it wasn't really so terrible and surely the gallery would benefit by holding a work by this great man or woman in stock?

In these chaotic times I believe the roll of a dealer is as important as ever. We are and have always been, a filtration process. For some decades now the internet has brought the mass market to our art world. This has, as we know, been a double edged sword. A global market has opened up before us with all the opportunity that entails. It has also brought the tidal wave of choice to our traditional client base. In the 1990s we grumbled about a competitor opening up in the next street, now a new gallery in Buenos Aires represents as much of a threat. In a world where choice is practically infinite the dealer's eye and experience counts for even more. I have been shown enough ebay-worthy fakes by friends and clients who brandish a smart certificate of authenticity at me excitedly to know that it is the Wild West out there. My advice is always to find a gallery, a dealer or (I can't believe I'm writing this) an Auctioneer, that you like and trust and start a dialogue. As you can tell from this ramble we enjoy talking about art and are always looking to share knowledge and advice. You'll discover soon enough what a friendly business it is.

To return finally to the interior designer and her client with the tight budget. What the market at this level can offer is the 'look', wall after wall covered in genuinely well painted, quality art works. All from a period that complements the designer's scheme and for a price that can be some decimal points cheaper than these artists' more famous contemporaries. This is what 'Decorative Art' is all about.

© Matthew Hall 2020