Andrew Clayton-Payne's London showroom is not as you would expect to find an art gallery. Located on Old Bond Street, tucked between Etro and Montblanc in the same block as Ferragamo, Prada, Maxmara and Bottega Veneta, it has no shopfront; just a little plaque and a doorbell. Once inside, there's a narrow staircase and a rackety lift to convey you to his second-floor premises. Another door, another doorbell, and here you are, but still this doesn't feel like a gallery. Nothing hangs from the brass picture rails that run along the top of its four walls, painted something classy and neutral in keeping with the venerable age of the room, Farrow & Ball's Stony Ground, or perhaps Bone, I'd hazard, though this is not the kind of painting I am here to discuss.
In fact, there is very little to distract the eye from the perfect proportions of the room, with its elegant Georgian boiserie and intricately moulded ceiling: only a desk, a picture stand and a stack of canvases in one corner. Tantalisingly, only their backs are visible. It feels a world away from the glitz of, say, Tiffany across the street, though as Holly Golightly observes in Breakfast at Tiffany's, there's a calm about the space: "The quietness, the proud look. Nothing very bad could happen to you there". Except in Clayton-Payne's showroom you might succumb to the charms of a painting and leave with your wallet several thousand pounds lighter.
In another corner, also resting against the panelling, its face to the wall, is a Gainsborough watercolour landscape that Clayton-Payne has sold that morning for "about three-quarter's of a million pounds" to an American museum. As the 40-something former head of Christie's British and watercolours department puts it, his is a company that "buys and sells discreetly, where the emphasis is on the acquisition of museum-quality British and European watercolours, paintings and drawings". Though his clients are principally private individuals, they also include New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Britain and Oxford's Ashmolean Museum.
A YouGov survey by Barclays Wealth, the bank's wealth-management division, found that 10 per cent of those in receipt of big City bonuses paid this year (and, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, in 2006 more than 4,000 individuals received payments of over 1m) intended to invest in fine and decorative arts. But how? Auctions can be intimidating, especially for the inexperienced or unwary, what with the drama, the adrenaline brought on by bidding, the vertiginous hammer prices and the publicity they attract. In contrast, Clayton-Payne is one of a burgeoning breed of art dealer whose watchword is discretion – so much so that they eschew what the trade calls "glass on the street"; a gallery with a shop window.
"The lack of publicity is very important for a lot of people," he says. As is the assurance of quality and lack of pressure to make instant decisions. The reason there is nothing on the walls is because he prefers to show clients only what he thinks they will be interested in. "There's no point in showing them a Constable if they are interested in Turner." (Clayton-Payne sold both Constable's Fen Lane to the Tate and Turner's exceptional Dover Castle to a private collector in the US). There is also no urgency to make a decision: it took one buyer six months from first expressing an interest to actually buying a work. "If someone puts a reserve on something, it's usually because they are selling another work, or a house or a flat, and want to use some of that money for the painting," he says. "Collectors don't tend to see their collections as stationary. Their tastes may change quite rapidly". A reserve, he explains, is not a deposit and requires no financial outlay, it's simply an expression of intent, which in this unusually honourable and gentlemanly world means Clayton-Payne won't show the work to anyone else, in order to give the buyer time to come up with the money.
Clayton-Payne is far from alone among gallerists in choosing to keep a low profile. Two floors up in the same building, you will find Rupert Wace Ancient Art, one of the world's pre-eminent dealers in Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities. Despite its lofty location, rooftop views and rarefied status – Wace has handled private sales of antiquities from the British Rail Pension Fund, and to the British Museum, the Louvre, the Met and the Staatliche Museum in Munich, among others – prices here start unexpectedly low. An ancient Egyptian amulet might cost as little as £120, though at the other end of the scale there is a remarkable Roman bronze helmet mask that has just been sold to a European collector for £160,000. As well as busts of pharaohs and Greek gods, a fragment of a mummy's head and a vitrine full of tiny Gallo-Romano bronze fibulas (brooches) depicting stylised animals, there are exquisite pieces of Greek, Roman and Egyptian gold jewellery (eminently wearable and priced from £1,200), an intriguing Merovingian spherical crystal pendant encased in bands of silver and a Bactrian bronze jar shaped like a female torso and made to keep kohl eye make-up in, all of which seem strikingly modern. For as Wace says "The current trend for collecting antiquities is very much inspired by their aesthetic affinity with contemporary taste. Many of the 20th century masters were influenced by such objects, artists such as Brancusi and Picasso, Jacob Epstein collected antiquities, and its not uncommon for today's buyers also to collect or deal in modern art, or even be artists themselves. And interior decorator's" he adds "are also sensitive to their visual and cultural significance."
Wace, whose interest in archaeology goes back to his childhood and a field near his school where he used to find Roman coins and fragments of pottery, cultivates a wider public by exhibiting at art fairs. – Grosvenor House in London, Basel Ancient Art, the Winter Antique Show in New York and the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht – and has a much more informative website than many "hidden" galleries, detailing works on offer. That said, "Unless, it was someone I knew, and I really believed that they knew what they were looking at, I would never encourage anyone to buy off the website" he says. "If it were a standard type of object, and a collector who knew exactly what to expect, that would be fine – they could always return it if they didn't like it. But these things are so individualistic, I would always prefer for someone to have had a piece in their hand".
It's a similar attitude to the one taken by Francesca Galloway, whose handsome first floor Dover Street gallery above the restaurant Chez Gerard, sells Indian and Islamic art and Asian and European textiles. "The essence of art dealing is finding the material and finding the clients" she says. "That's it. You can do it from a garage, basically. If you have the Mona Lisa, and you know who's prepared to pay for it, you don't need premises."
The works on show in her tranquil exhibition space when I visited ranged from exquisite Mughal miniatures (about £5,000 to £500,000) to erotic 16th century ivories from Orissa (£20,000 to £30,000), by way of a richly decorated howdah, or elephant saddle, circa 1760 (£75,000); and a lacily carved sandstone screen from Agra (£45,000 to £50,000). But her next show will feature 20th Century textiles, including pieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, Dagobert Peche of the Weiner Werkstatte, Marion Dorn, Lucienne Day and an extraordinary panel depicting a camp cherubic sailor by the French painter Raoul Dufy. She, too, sells to museums – London's Victoria & Albert Musuem and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts among them – and a number of serious international collectors, but though she is far too discreet to be specific, one senses her client base is as eclectic as her taste (she's also dealt in haute couture and Iznik tiles in the past).
"There's a new breed of English collector who has an interest in India because of having travelled there" Galloway explains. "And then there are collectors of, say, contemporary art, who have seen that Indian work is actually still quite cheap – you can buy a very good painting for £20,000, which means people can buy at the top of this market, whereas in others they wouldn't be able to afford the really good examples. And then there's the Indian market itself, which I'd like to develop more".
For although among London's 'hidden' art galleries there are dealers in all sorts of genres – old master paintings (Whitfield Fine Art on New Bond Street, above Tiffany and David Morris), old master drawings (Day & Faber at 173 New Bond Street), Italian old masters (Moretti at no 43) jewellery (Humphrey Butler on the third floor of 58 Jermyn Street) and Oriental art (Ben Jannsens, further along at 91c), to name a few – there does seem to be a particular vogue for Asian art.
Rossi & Rossi, in the attic of 13 Old Bond Street, has traditionally specialised in Himalayan art and early Chinese textiles but recently diversified into contemporary Tibetan art, specifically the work of 17 artists, the star of whom is Gonkar Gyasto, classically trained in the 'golden rules' and iconometry of Buddhist art, but contentious, even politically charged, when it comes to iconography. It's an area Fabio Rossi, who runs the gallery with his mother, Anna Maria, calls a 'microniche' inasmuch as it is one likely to appeal only "to specialist collectors used to consulting specialist dealers", though I'd surmise that Lhasa-born, London-based Gyatso's work might appeal to a wide range of collectors. The gallery exhibits regularly in London and New York, and has clients not just across Europe and the US, but in emerging markets such as China, Hong Kong and Taipei. Rossi therefore sees no need for a shopfront. "Collectors these days tend to do a lot of research in advance on the internet, through magazines and word of mouth," he says. Buying this kind of work is not an impulsive purchase, so it's not about passing trade on the street. But our address in London, between the two big auction houses and close to the good hotels, is important."
It's a view echoed by John Eskanazi, another dealer in Indian, Tibetan and south-east Asian art, who has recently given up his Old Bond Street gallery to work from home and have more time for scholarly and curatorial work (he co-curated the 'Chola:Sacred Bronzes of Southern India' exhibition at the Royal Academy last winter). "When it comes to art, London has the largest concentration of very, very professional people anywhere. It is a wonderful milieu, not only of dealers, but scholars, museums and everybody else associated with art: conservators, restorers, photographers, packers, shippers," he says.
Though for all that, he fears that conventional art galleries – those with shopfronts and walls hung with paintings – "are slowly dying. People have less time to wander around." He suspects, too, that the ever-expanding big international art fairs have to some extent obviated the need for them. "People feel less in awe at fairs" he says. "It's easier to step into a stand than go into a gallery. There are no calls, no appointments, no running around the city. In two or three hours you can see everybody. It's all very easy. And of course, auctions are very important from that point of view."
Certainly the frenzied week of sales in London in June, when Sotheby's and Christie's sold over £243.4m worth of Impressionist and modern art in just three days, setting new records for the sales of works by Matisse and Rodin, prove London's art market is booming. (In the previous round of such sales in February, Sotheby's reported that 11 per cent of its buyers had never previously bought through the saleroom.) But auctions aren't for everyone. You may end up paying more than the piece is really worth (quite apart from the hefty premiums). Even if the auction houses don't disclose the names of the buyers, all the lot details and prices paid are published while, as a vendor, you may not achieve a sale at all if a piece doesn't reach its reserve.
As Clayton-Payne says, "If I don't manage to sell something, at least the whole world hasn't seen it. It hasn't been on public display, or on artnet.com (the international website on which many galleries post images and details of works they are currently selling). It will just have been offered to perhaps a handful of likely buyers, and if they've all said no, then the owner can do something else with it. It won't have been 'burnt' (tarnished by overexposure)." And this is yet another reason why the discreet world of the hidden art gallery is so appealing.