Tamara plus Degas plus database equals the hard sell for high art

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The Independent Online
The recession is over. Once again, art's smart to buy and to sell. John Windsor has been viewing a glitzy new gallery - well, Chris Evans and an It girl are going to the opening - where the owners tell you how to tell your Leighton from your Lanyon, your Ryland from your Richmond and how much you'll have to pay.

The launch party of London's trendiest new commercial gallery will be heaving with connoisseurs of fine art such as Tamara Beckwith and Tara Palmer Tomkinson, as well as regular ravers such as Lord and Lady Astor, the Earl of Hardwicke and Sir Evelyn and Lady de Rothschild.

Blains Fine Art gallery - or rather "art space" - in Mayfair, has cost pounds 1m. It is 5,000 square feet of glass and oak, lit by a lofty atrium. The architects, Brookes Stacey Randall, recently designed an apartment for Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys.

Harry Blains is 30 and his business partner, Charles Phillips, is 33. Mr Blains, a keen skier, used to deal in equities and financial derivatives. Mr Phillips used to market events, such as, well, glittering gallery openings. Mick Jagger and Kevin Costner were among his clients. Now, Blains, Phillips and their newly head-hunted staff are advising on art from Old Masters to YBAs.

The recession was the making of them. While traditional galleries were foundering under the ballast of unsold stock, Blains and Phillips spent five years networking buyers and sellers of art from a poky office a few doors from their glitzy new gallery in Bruton Street. It was all done by database, still is.

Having poached specialists from Christie's and Sotheby's, they are now surfing the new art boom, wooing newly-rich know-nothings with the promise of friendly advice in a non-intimidating atmosphere.

You will not find the word "dealer" in their slim, glossy brochure. Nor the word "investment". That, of course, is because Blain and Phillips are dealers prepared to advise on investment. Whisper it not, but this is what the new rich are after.

The company's trading formula is more like broking than traditional buy- and-sell dealing. You could say their transactions are in virtual art - they deal in artworks without owning them. Yes, Blains Fine Art does own "a few million pounds worth" of stock, but the main business is in matching buyers and sellers by computer, the art market's nearest equivalent to a dating agency.

The tongue-in-cheek trade jargon is "extended stock". Blains' discreet term for dealing in it is "private placement".

Harry Blains told me: "If someone is looking for a picture by Picasso in a particular period, we will know of four or five people who own one. We can see if they will release it".

Sell it, that is. Blains charges ten per cent per deal - instead of a mark-up of up to 100 per cent charged by dealers trying to shift artworks bought for stock.

If you are the sort who does not know that Picasso had periods, then what Mr Blains calls "the complete hold-your hand service" swings into action. "We can talk them through art history," he says: "It's all about looking after the client in the long term, all based on confidence. And because we carry little stock we can claim to be unbiased."

Blains Fine Art will give condition reports, advise on conservation and restoration, or venture into the saleroom jungle to bid on clients' behalf - a service that near-bankrupt dealers were reduced to, during the recession, and considered demeaning.

The new-style dealership, is of course, another skirmish in the continuing war between dealers and auctioneers. It was the auctioneers who, deserted by dealers during the recession, showered private buyers with canapes at private views, in an attempt to appear friendly.

Mr Blains said: "The auction houses have blurred the distinction between retailing and autioneering. There has to be a conflict of interest".

At tonight's bash, old and new money will be regaled with an exhibition "In the Eye of the Beholder", showing women portrayed by artists and sculptors during the past 200 years.

The exhibition has women by Burne-Jones, Degas, Giacometti, Klimt, Le Corbusier, Leighton, Matisse, Moore, Renoir and Warhol. Most are owned by private collectors. Most are for sale. So if Caprice, the Wonderbra woman, or Chris Evans fancy owning a James Praider bronze sculpture of a woman at pounds 2,500 or want to get in on the bottom rung of Degas by paying some $3m for a rather awful pastel of his of three dancers, then the appropriate telephone calls can be made. Or, better still, the would-be buyer can be led towards the corner of the gallery where the owner, champagne glass in hand, is sighing over his unwanted possession, perhaps for the last time. It's all about love, really.

Blains Limited, 23 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London W1X 7DA (0171-495 5050).