London’s Legendary Fine Art Dealer Agnew’s Saved By Eleventh-hour Investors

A last-minute purchase by a group of investors has put 197-year-old art dealership, Agnew’s, back in the saddle.

Anthony Crichton-Stuart © Agnew's

A year ago, London’s old master dealer Agnew’s announced it would stop trading after the 2013 edition of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht. But thanks to interest at the last minute from a group of investors and an eventual acquisition, confirmed today, the 197-year-old company is back in the saddle after a year in operational limbo.

Anthony Crichton-Stuart, the former head of Christie’s Old Master Paintings department in New York, will lead the operation. “There are great names in this business, and Agnew’s is one of the very best,” he told artnet News this morning. “Simply put, we felt that it was a name that should not be allowed to disappear.”

Agnew’s was created in 1817 in Manchester. It has been in London since 1860, dealing in paintings by the likes of Raphael, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, Rubens, and El Greco. The company has placed works in some of the world’s most prestigious museum collections. Most famously, it sold Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus to the National Gallery in London, in 1906.

Yet by the time the closure was announced last year, the company—which had always remained in the hands of the same family—had long been in decline. Agnew’s had sold its purpose-built gallery on Old Bond Street to the Italian fashion brand Etro in 2008 for a reported £25m, and moved to a smaller venue and Albermarle Street. This wasn’t enough. Writing in the Financial Times in February of last year, Georgina Adam cited a loss of £1.8m and failed negotiations with prospective buyers.

“We are not in a happy place,” chairman Julian Agnew told Adam at the time. “We are neither big like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the ‘supermarkets’ of the art world, nor small enough. We were undercapitalised for today’s art prices.”

It turned out that TEFAF had a surprise in store for Agnew and the 20 other family shareholders. It was there that a conversation began that led to the acquisition of the holding company Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd by investors led by American entrepreneur and collector Cliff Schorer. It is the first time that Schorer, who serves as board president at the Worcester Art Museum in Boston, has invested in an art business, Crichton-Stuart confided.

The purchase also includes Agnew’s library, its rich photographic archive, and artworks currently in stock—although Crichton-Stuart declined to reveal any highlights. “We didn’t buy Agnew’s for the stock,” he told artnet News.

His plan, he says, is to “contemporify old master painting.” The strategy could involve exhibiting historical works alongside contemporary art. However, detailed information on the forthcoming program is yet to be announced.

The company currently operates from temporary premises on 13 Old Bond Street. Crichton-Stuart said he hoped the new gallery—at a yet undisclosed Mayfair location—will be open its doors “ideally April-May.”

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