Looking back over an incredibly challenging year, Lewis Smith, director of one of the world’s leading dealers in antique silver, gold boxes and objets de vertu, Koopman Rare Art, said he has never been more certain about the future of the company going forward. After joining the business exactly 40 years ago and becoming a director in 1993, Smith has steered Koopman through many challenging periods, never shying away from the need to work hard and always maintaining the passion for an industry he calls ‘a life choice”. His love for art and silver has not diminished at all and, looking ahead to what could be the most dynamic years yet for the establishment, he feels incredibly positive and upbeat.
The company, founded in 1952 by brothers Jacques and Eddy Koopman, has developed over the years to become renowned as leading experts within the silver trade. Based at the entrance to The London Silver Vaults in Chancery Lane, where it has been since 1969, the business is looking to relocate to Mayfair within the next six months. This change has been a move Smith has been considering for a long while. “We feel it will provide our clients with ease of access,” he says. “While Chancery Lane focuses purely on silver, Mayfair encompasses the works of art and unique finds for which we have become known for. If we can move successfully, it will bring clarity and a sense of a stronger identity to the company.”
While Smith acknowledges they have built a solid reputation and maintained good visibility within their current location, relocating to Mayfair is the next step he envisages in taking the business to the next level.
Running the company alongside Timo Koopman, who is continuing the family’s legacy, the duo have become renowned for their ability to source rare and unique objects. From the Lequesne Coffee Pot, made in 1738 by Paul De Lamerie, one of the greatest silversmiths of the 18th Century, to a Dutch silver-mounted Coconut Cup dating back to 1607, each piece is incredibly special regardless of the monetary value. “We have sold pieces for millions but it’s not about the money to make something notable,” continues Smith. “A great object can be £500. We are always chasing something which no one else has. Finding that little treasure that costs nothing because it isn’t recognised – that’s when you have the pleasure and reward in knowing your knowledge has proved successful in securing these one-off items.”
With this skill and expert eye giving Smith the prominence he has gained within the industry, he says it is the passion which defines a great dealer. “If we were clever businessmen, we would have chosen a different profession,” he laughs as he looks back over his last 45 years in the industry. “We would have been in banking or property or something, but we do this because we love it!”
Sitting in his study, surrounded by books on art as well as physical pieces of art, his love for his work goes beyond a career. “It’s a lifestyle and a life choice!” he continues. “The love of art is engrained in the culture and psyche of a great dealer. Wherever you are it is part of what you do.”
2020 has seen a rise in the online presence of Koopman Rare Art and Smith feels ardently in ensuring that the narratives behind each piece are not lost amongst the vast levels of content put out to potential clients each day. After setting up a regular newsletter through the first Covid-19 lockdown, alongside a dedicated YouTube channel to display items, Smith has decided to cut this back to avoid an information overload through the current lockdown period. “While we are expanding our online presence, through platforms such as Instagram and YouTube,” Smith explains, “We also don’t need to be part of the saturation.”
However, Smith also says how online auctions and fairs are on the rise and can’t be ignored. With events such as Art Basel and Frieze adapting to online formats this year, it is interesting to see how this shift will continue to develop going forward. “Passing the passion on to clients is key,” Smith maintains when considering the digital transition for dealers. “However, that is very hard to do online. Hence partnering with The Bruno Effect is something we are excited about as it will help us to develop that narrative in the best way possible.”
Looking across the industry as a whole, Smith is keen for the younger generation to emerge in carrying it into the future. One key part of the sector is restoration, which Smith says is a ‘huge worry’ for dealers going forward. “The working relationship with our restorers over the last 40 years has been crucial and has taught me so much,” he discloses. “However, it is unfortunately a dying trade. I don’t see many young restorers come knocking on my door like I used to, and it is critical the level of restoration is upheld in preserving the heritage of such precious items.”
Alongside this, he hopes younger dealers will also emerge over the coming years. Already witnessing the hard work of talent coming through the ranks, he hopes he can pass on some advice after over four decades in the business. “There are three main factors in being a successful dealer,” he says when admitting that the industry is not for the faint-hearted or those shy of working hard. “Number one: follow your passion. Number two: Make sure you learn as much as you can by working for other dealers and doing apprenticeships where necessary. And number three: Be prepared to work 24/7!”
The potential to succeed within the industry is huge, especially as it transitions in response to the new consumer generation coming through. “I see many dealers do what they do because they think it is easy pickings off the table,” Smith concludes. “However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to be constantly switched on and it is a spirit that is within you. The passion and love for what I do never diminish, and if it does then you really shouldn’t be in the business.”
With his obvious enthusiasm making Smith the recognised leading voice he has become today; it is heart-warming to see his zest as strong as ever. And, while it hasn’t been an easy journey for Smith, since finding his love for collecting as a 14-year-old visiting the Portobello Road market, his commitment to the industry has never waned. Looking ahead, the future remains immensely positive for Koopman Rare Art and, with Smith driving it forward, it will continue to adapt, expand and develop making it as relevant today as it was in its inception nearly 70 years ago.
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