Oliver Shuttleworth of Oliver Shuttleworth Fine Art.
Not everyone wants the publicity that usually accompanies a high-profile art sale at auction.
It’s widely known in the art world that the motivating factor behind any sale of property usually boils down to the so-called “3 Ds”: Death, Debt, and Divorce. However, there’s a fourth D that is just as important to art collectors, gallerists, and anyone involved in the trade: Discretion.
Discretion is the paramount concern for most art collectors — it’s the reason why many auction catalogues will disclose an artwork’s previous owner by the phrase, “private collection,” and nothing else. This anonymity is widely accepted across the cultural landscape, although new regulations in the UK and the EU, which were slated to go into effect in 2020, are shaking up the status quo.
These regulations, known as Fifth Money Laundering Directive (or 5MLD), are an effort to crack down on terrorism and other illegal activities that have traditionally been propped up by opaque financial systems.
In the UK, for example, it’s now obligatory for “art dealers to register with the government, officially verify client identities, and report any suspicious transactions—or face penalties including jail time,” as explained by Artnet. The deadline for UK art dealers to comply with these tightened regulations is June 10th, 2021.
It remains to be seen how these new laws will impact the art market, but it’s safe to assume that discretion will remain of the utmost importance to art sellers. It’s rare to seek the spotlight when staring down an acrimonious divorce, or worse — bankruptcy. Some sellers also just prefer to keep their business dealings private.
To accommodate these sellers, auction houses have been blurring the lines that have historically delineated the public realm of the auction house from the private realm of the gallery. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s now offer “private sales,” for example, elbowing into the territory once reserved for white cube gallerists and private dealers.
Enter the private dealer
The private dealer is an important — but elusive — fixture in the art world ecosystem. Rather than affiliate with any one gallery or auction house, private dealers generally have strong connections to both sectors, as well as the ability to move freely between them. Equipped with a dense rolodex of collectors and knowledgeable about their individual tastes, private dealers can transact direct sales on the secondary market, i.e. from one collector to another, while allowing both parties to remain anonymous.
Private dealers rarely operate on the primary market or work directly with artists, although there are some exceptions. At their best, they should have an encyclopedic knowledge of their area of specialty, and pay close attention to market metrics such as auction results. Paragons of confidentiality, private art dealers cater to the art world’s most discrete buyers and sellers.
In order to demystify this particular breed of art world personality, we reached out to London-based private dealer Oliver Shuttleworth. Oliver's background exemplifies the sterling art dealer pedigree — he rose through the ranks at Sotheby’s auction house before joining an established London gallery and, ultimately, striking out on his own in 2014.
While at Sotheby’s, Oliver was Director of the Impressionist & Modern Art department, as well as co-head of the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sales. He now specializes in buying and selling works from those genres on behalf of his clients, as well as post-war and contemporary art. Additionally, Oliver manages every aspect of his clients' collections: advising on proper lighting, shoring up questions regarding restitution and provenance, and making sure that whenever sought-after pieces become available, he's offered the work before anyone else.
We asked Oliver ten questions on the nature of his business and found his answers to be a fitting reflection of his own demeanor — direct and sophisticated, yet friendly and accessible. Here’s what we learned.
Oliver Shuttleworth of Oliver Shuttleworth Fine Art. Right: Oliver admiring a work by Robert Rauschenberg at Christie's.
AA: What are three things that every private art dealer should aspire to be, in your opinion?
OS: Trustworthy, competent, private.
AA: Why did you leave the auction world to become a private dealer?
OS: I loved my time at Sotheby’s, but there was a part of me that really wanted to explore the workings of the other side of the art trade. I felt dealing would be a better way to get to know clients better, as the frantic world of the auctions meant it was impossible to build collections for clients over time. The reactive nature of Sotheby’s could not be more different from the proactive world of Oliver Shuttleworth Fine Art.
AA: What are some benefits of selling a work through a private dealer rather than at auction?
OS: The margins tend to be thinner than at auction, which results in a happier buyer and seller. Ultimately, the seller is in charge of the sale process which many appreciate; there is a fixed price below which they really will not sell. Whilst an auction reserve should be as low as possible; a private, net return price should be reasonable, and it is the selling agent’s job to establish a realistic but satisfactory sale level.
AA: What types of clients do you work with? How do you vet your clients and their property?
OS: Most of my clients are hugely successful but with very limited time — I manage their collections primarily, and then, should I receive a wish-list, I find appropriate works to suit their taste and budget. I may get a trade seller not involved in my specialism asking for a particular painting — this is a fabulous part of my work as it involves a wonderful array of art trade professionals.
AA: Are there certain works by certain artists that you refuse to represent or deal?
OS: On the whole, anything outside of Impressionist, Modern and Post-War Art. However, I have been interested more and more in contemporary work in recent years since tastes have changed so rapidly. There are specific contemporary art dealers with whom I enjoy working.
AA: What should a collector do if they want to sell a piece privately ... how do they start? What documents do they need?
OS: They should find an art trade professional that they trust and ask for advice. Any decent art trade professional who is a member of a good society or trade body (SLAD, LAPADA, BADA in the UK) will be able to check on the correct documentation required.
AA: What is the typical commission a private dealer such as yourself takes?
OS: This varies on the value of the item, but it can range from 5% to 20%. Regarding whom pays: all details on payment should be 100% transparent at all times. Ensure that paperwork is produced for all costs and that there is always a sale contract signed by both parties.
AA: How important is a COA in your field? Is a signature and invoice from a gallery enough to consign a piece to you?
OS: Certificates or equivalent paperwork are vital, and I shall not accept anything without excellent provenance. I can apply for certificates for established works, but it is more important than ever to ensure you keep great records when buying works of art. An inventory database such as Artwork Archive is an excellent tool for organizing one’s collection.
AA: How long do you generally keep works on consignment for? What's a standard consignment length?
OS: This greatly depends on the work of art. A good picture will sell within six months. Any longer and I tend to find another route to sale.
AA: What is a common misconception about private dealers such as yourself that you would like to debunk?
OS: Private dealers work incredibly hard because we have to do so, the market demands it — the lazy, workshy, elitist is long gone!