Issue Number: 96
Scott Reyburn takes the temperature of the feverish art market
The market for contemporary art is in the grip of global warming. In London in June the main auction houses sold an unprecedented £220 million worth of contemporary material, tripling last year’s total. Damien Hirst’s £9.6 million Lullaby Spring became the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction, reinforcing a reputation for high prices stoked by his £50 million, diamond-encrusted skull at the White Cube (although it failed to sell during his much-hyped June show).
The same month a locust swarm of 60,000 collectors, curators and dealers descended on Art Basel and spent an estimated £250 million on contemporary works. Demand was so intense that some exhibitors were restocking their stands daily.
With more of the world’s high net worth individuals regarding contemporary art as both a lucrative investment and a must-have luxury lifestyle accessory, where does that leave less affluent people who collect in more traditional areas? The mantra ‘buy what you like’ is very well, but what if the stuff you like is out of fashion and dropping in value?
Modern British is one of the few areas of the domestic art market that continues to grow, albeit at a more sedate pace than international contemporary. Cornwall’s popularity as a holiday spot, for instance, has boosted demand for post-war St Ives abstract painters such as Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Paul Feiler. Oil paintings by these artists now go for between £50,000 and £250,000.
But where is the wheel of Mod Brit collecting fashion going to turn? ‘Urban abstraction is going to be the next thing,’ says the influential London dealer Jonathan Clark, who will be one of the 56 exhibitors at the twentieth anniversary 20/21 British Art Fair. ‘People are getting fed up with the high prices they’re having to pay for St Ives artists. They’re going to start to look at neglected metropolitan painters who exhibited at galleries like Gimpel Fils and the Redfern during the 1950s and ’60s.’
This analysis seemed borne out by Sotheby’s July 13 Twentieth Century British Art auction, where bold, loft-friendly abstracts by Alan Davie, John Hoyland, Alan Reynolds and Sandra Blow were selling for multiple estimate prices in the £15,000-50,000 range.
Clearly, after years of appearing dated, 1960s and ’70s urban abstraction, rather like Brutalist architecture, is beginning to look cool again. At the moment these paintings are far less expensive than the St Ives equivalent, though prices are on the rise.
That said, the secondary market for artists such as Davie and Reynolds looks destined to remain an almost exclusively local British phenomenon. Wouldn’t an investment-conscious collector be far more sensible spending their money in the primary market on an emerging wunderkind from Latvia or Hunan Province who in five years’ time could have an international following?
This may well be the case. And to see what one of the top collections of emerging artists looks like, check out ‘An Archaeology’ at 176, the inaugural show of a new gallery in Chalk Farm that showcases the Zabludowicz collection of young artists. Built in the past decade by a wealthy London-based couple, this collection features rising art stars, from sought-after Vanessa Beecroft to newcomer Rachel Kneebone.
But how can collectors with modest budgets compete in a contemporary art market dominated by the super-rich? Cork Street dealer Robert Sandelson, who specialises in the secondary market for British artists such as Damien Hirst and Bridget Riley, thinks there are still opportunities for new collectors. ‘Just show your face, walk round the galleries, look. And visit Frieze Art Fair. That’s an ideal place to get a feel for the market, even if you don’t buy. The intimidation of the gallery is gone and if you spend a couple of thousand on a limited edition you’ll be put on a dealer’s mailing list.’
This is a view echoed by Frieze exhibitors, such as Gregor Muir, Director of the London branch of the Anglo-Swiss gallery Hauser and Wirth. ‘Frieze is an ideal place for a new collector in, say, the post-war sector to research the market and develop an eye for contemporary art. But be patient. It takes time to assess and access quality.’
Muir urges prospective collectors to spend as much time as possible looking, learning and building relationships with dealers. ‘We’re not just at the fair to sell. We’re at Frieze to show what we and our artists are trying to do. Dealers at fairs are far more open to the type of encounter that doesn’t happen in a gallery.’
Thankfully the contemporary market is such a dynamic place that new talent emerges all the time, and not all of it is on the waiting lists of Frieze exhibitors. This summer, for the first time, African contemporary art was centre stage at the Venice Biennale. Stars of the show were the monumental, mosaic-like hangings made out flattened bottle-top foil by El Anatsui, Nigeria’s most eminent and inventive sculptor.
El Anatsui is represented by London’s refreshingly unintimidating October Gallery, which has been quietly promoting art from Africa, Asia and the Americas for 25 years. The world’s museums are now literally queuing up to buy El Anatsui’s rich hangings (the Met, the Pompidou and the British Museum already own them). But the October Gallery still has, for less than £20,000, some of the artist’s early wood reliefs and his amazing Waste Paper Basket sculptures, magically fabricated out of discarded printers’ plates for obituaries.
This is just one gallery where major works by an important international artist can still be bought for a fraction of the price of a Damien Hirst – at least until the locust swarm arrives.