One of the biggest players in the UK fine art and antiques industry has unveiled a new international business that promises to break down ‘artificial’ barriers to benefit clients as they bring their property to market.
Stephan Ludwig, former CEO of both The Fine Art Auction Group Ltd and, latterly, the antiques and fine art division of the Stanley Gibbons group, has launched Forum Auctions.
Forum Auctions will operate out of London, Rome, Milan and New York in partnership with Philobiblon, the Contemporary art, books and works on paper specialists, bringing aboard some of the most respected specialists on the international scene.
Technology, Client Focused Service and Key Industry Specialists Blend to Form Modern Collecting Experience
Whilst initially focused on books, manuscripts, prints and photographs, Forum is planning to expand into a number of other ‘online friendly’ auction specialisations such as wine, watches, jewellery and numismatics.
Ludwig is positioning the firm as an agency, operating a flexible trading platform that has the capacity to opt seemlessly for the best route to market for each individual client, whether that is via live auction, private treaty sale or other.
This reflects my opinion about how the market has continued to evolve in the Internet generation. Our model removes artificial barriers, for which there is no longer any rationale, to become a flexible trading platform
Adapting the Traditional Model to the Digital World Without Reinventing the Wheel
The challenge of adapting traditional business models to today’s needs is one of the great debating points within the global art market. Others, including Christie’s and Sotheby’s, are trying to adapt existing operations to achieve this, which is taking time, but Ludwig decided to accelerate the process by starting from scratch.
He and his team have established Forum Auctions “in response to what we feel, and many longstanding clients have described to us, are a number of shortcomings in the quality of service and market focus offered by generalist auction houses to collectors of books, and works on paper more broadly,” he says.
Where Collectors Meet, In Person and Online
Billed as a forum “where collectors meet”, what this means is that they have developed a system that tailors the technology to the individual in a “user-experience-led auctioneering platform”, while “respecting the importance that collectors attach to the physical ‘bricks and mortar’ auction experience”.
Forum’s auctions will include landmark traditional ‘physical’ sales, alongside both timed and fixed price internet events. Bidders will always be able to view each and every lot in person.
“This reflects my opinion about how the market has continued to evolve in the Internet generation. Our model removes artificial barriers, for which there is no longer any rationale, to become a flexible trading platform,” says Ludwig.
The technology is central to client service but secondary to what matters to collectors: specialist expertise and the ability to attract the right pieces for sale.
“We have looked carefully at how the different aspects of the industry work via the web and selected disciplines that work well under that umbrella,” says Ludwig.
“Forum Auctions” technology-led trading platform is being built by an external team of programmers and systems designers who have a strong and established track record of producing e-commerce solutions. We are not reinventing the wheel – our objective is to deliver an intuitive and rewarding ‘shopper’ experience, and to do this we are working with people who are simply the best in their field when it comes to technology, collecting disciplines and client service.”
He has also hired the best talent he has come across in 15 years of running leading auction houses and dealerships in the sector and promises “detailed presentation of curated single-owner collections with carefully prepared, well-researched and comprehensively illustrated catalogues”.
He has also put his money where his mouth is, handing 25% of the company to the founding staff.
“We operate in a ‘trust’ industry that relies heavily on the reputation and experience of product specialists and client service, particularly for collectors,” says Ludwig. “I am delighted by the confidence that our staff, who have all left well-established jobs to join me in this exciting new venture, are placing in the potential of this new business.”
Forum Auction’s Specialists
They include Rupert Powell, formerly deputy chairman at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury, who joins Forum in July 2016 as deputy chairman and international head of the books and manuscripts department, which already comprises a strong team of specialists including Dido Arthur, Justin Philips and Max Hasler. Alexander Hayter, the highly respected picture and print specialist, is another win from Dreweatts & Bloomsbury, and joins Forum as International Head of Contemporary Art. Further appointments are expected in the coming weeks.
“The Forum business model embodies my view on the future of our market,” says Rupert Powell. “I am thrilled to be joining Stephan and his team of like-minded specialists. Client service is the key differentiator in our industry and our new venture holds this ethos ahead of all else. It is my objective to make Forum the go-to auction destination for the discerning book collector, both in Europe and the USA.”
Forums’ partner Philobiblon reflects the Ludwig approach to the market, operating not just an antiquarian bookshop, but also an art gallery and now auction house. Joint partner Filippo Rotundo said: “I am very pleased to be participating in Stephan’s new business. Philobiblon Galleries, established 15 years ago, has moved towards a very focused service model with an emphasis on introducing the most selective collectors to the works of their dreams. Having worked with Stephan for a number of years, I appreciate his ability to build and develop a business, and agree with his philosophy. Philobiblon Galleries’ Italian and New York principal gallery business will continue to run independently of the FA auction business and promises to provide a pipeline of varied and interesting fresh auction material.”
About Forum Auction’s First Sales
Forum Auction’s first sales will take place at Rotundo’s Philobiblon Galleries in Rome with contemporary art and antiquarian book auctions on June 8 and 22 respectively. The inaugural London sale will take place over two days during the week commencing July 11 and will feature private collections across several categories.
Autumn calendar highlights include the £1m library of a Continental collector, as well as the firm’s inaugural London sale of Important Modern and Contemporary Prints. The Forum team will be showcasing selected material from both the June Rome and July London sales in the Olympia suite on the ground floor of the Olympia Hilton hotel, 380 Kensington High Street, W14 8NL from 12-8 on May 26 and 10-6 on May 27. The event is just a short walk from the London International Antiquarian Book Fair, which will be taking place at Olympia at the same time.
“We are not reinventing the wheel – our objective is to deliver an intuitive and rewarding ‘shopper’ experience, and to do this we are working with people who are simply the best in their field when it comes to technology, collecting disciplines and client service.”
About Forum Auctions Founder, Stephan Ludwig
Stephan Ludwig himself is a rarity: someone who has made a successful transition from the world of international corporate finance to running a major fine art and antiques auction business.
His early career, from the mid 1980s, included managing director roles for Credit Suisse (Credit Trading) and Nomura International (Capital Markets & Derivatives), and he remains a shareholder in Link Financial, which he helped found in 2000 and of which he was previously a non-executive director. He was also non-executive director of Hereford Hospitals Trust from 2000-2008, including a stint as deputy chairman.
A founder shareholder of The Fine Art Auction Group Ltd in 2000, he oversaw its development from a disparate collection of small UK regional auction houses into a UK ‘top 5’ business trading under the ‘Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions’ brand.
He then took executive control of the group shortly before the so-called credit crunch in 2008, initiating a restructuring programme, closing unprofitable locations, rebranding the remaining operations under Dreweatts & Bloomsbury, after acquiring London-based Bloomsbury Auctions in 2010. This created the biggest UK specialist fine art and antiques auctions firm after Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams.
In 2012 Ludwig negotiated the sale of the business to AIM-listed Noble Investments (UK) PLC. The deal provided for a ‘cashing out’ of two institutional investors and a paper sale for himself and the remaining ‘founder’ and staff shareholders. The business hit all of its performance hurdles over a 3 year earn-out and delivered an impressive 6 times return for the fourth round shareholders who invested in 2008.
In 2013 the Stanley Gibbons Group PLC unexpectedly acquired Noble, and Ludwig was a key member of the management team that shepherded the transaction to completion, becoming CEO of the antiques and fine art division that was created as a result. He left the Stanley Gibbons Group in September 2015 following the satisfaction of his post-acquisition obligations.