Frieze Masters Angles for New Collectors with Precious Antiquities—and Pacific Island Fish Hooks
Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk has been a prominent face around the art fair circuit this year, as preparations for his 2017 edition of the quinquennial exhibition kick into top gear. In London on Thursday, Szymczyk wasn’t spotted scoping emerging talent at Frieze London’s Focus section but rather a 14th-century B.C. Egyptian cosmetic spoon at Sycomore Ancient Art’s stand at Frieze Masters.
Antiquity dealers aren’t what the masses have come to expect from Frieze, which is most known as a stage for knighting the next generation of blue–chip art stars. But this year, director Victoria Siddall has a surprise in store for visitors to Masters. Collections, a new section of eight booths curated by Sir Norman Rosenthal—whose illustrious CV includes shows such as “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” in 1997, “Monet in the 20th Century” in 1999, and “Aztecs” in 2002—highlights pieces that fall mostly outside the realm of fine art proper, each conceived as a stepping off point for a museum exhibition.
“People are really attracted by the idea,” says Sycomore’s Anna Zielinski of the new section. “A lot of people came who are interesting crossovers—people who are not in the antiquities business at all, people who are collecting or dealing contemporary art.” Indeed, this was precisely the point in Siddall’s conception of the fair’s new addition: bring in collectors of other categories who may venture out into the art market, and expose art collectors to new things that might whet their appetites for acquisition.
Alongside the bijou cosmetic spoon (price: €300,000), Sycomore shows a wide selection of ancient Egyptian sculpture, all made from wood. “It’s really the first time someone is showing only ancient Egyptian wooden sculptures,” says Zielinski. “It took quite some time to bring together all the different pieces. We had some in our stock, but it’s really rare to see something like this.” The star of the booth is an exceedingly rare piece, High Ranking Official Standing on a Base in a Striding Position (circa 2550–2500 B.C.). Its price was undisclosed, though Zielinski did hint, “I had one viewer who pointed to that sculpture and said ‘Oh, it’s like a Giacometti.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s one-tenth the price.’” (Other pieces on view can be had for as little as €15,000.)
Just across the aisle, Bazaart shows a selection of Renaissance Italian majolica. “For a ceramic dealer, it’s always good to show in a different context. It is a very narrow field,” said Camille Leprince, circulating the stand. “There are maybe a dozen dealers in the world. Business can be very quick because we can look at things and know what it is immediately. But it’s very nice to show this kind of work to people who are not accustomed to seeing things like it.”
The booth is split into three main threads. One wall features “the best ceramic painters from Urbino,” according to Leprince, including one plaque priced at £280,000, which recreates a drawing by Raphael. Another features a “princely credenza” replete with both decorative and functional objects. “It’s a show-off display that would have been in a palazzo,” says Leprince. “What’s fascinating is that these are the original colors. When you look at an Old Master painting, you can never see the color as it was when it was created. With these, because they were fired, it never changes,” he adds. Notably, though he says “all the pieces are museum quality,” there are no vitrines in sight. It’s a feature across Collections that creates a distinct level of intimacy with these ancient objects and was the result of Sir Rosenthal’s influence, according to several dealers.
Tribal art also gets its due in Collections, courtesy of Bernard de Grunne, who shows eight wood sculptures from the Dayak tribe, meant to protect villages from evil spirits. The pieces on view range from the 13th–19th centuries in age and from £50,000–100,000 in price. De Grunne says Sir Rosenthal spotted the presentation at this past March’s TEFAF in Maastricht and was quick to ask him to participate at Frieze Masters. “Between Victoria’s wonderful idea, Norman’s savoir-faire, and my great skill at acquiring interesting things, it’s not bad at all,” a humble de Grunne says of the presentation. “You have 3,000 years of tradition of sculpting in wood from this tribe. And this is the first time that anyone has shown eight of these statues in any kind of fair or any museum for that matter,” adds the dealer.
Perhaps the greatest highlight of collections, however, is German dealer Daniel Blau’s presentation of fish hooks from the Pacific Islands. “He’s been collecting them for the last 25 or 30 years,” said the gallery’s Gita Cooper-van Ingen of the dealer’s obsession with the objects. All told, around 150 fish hooks are presented in two vitrines, most of which are from the 18th and 19th centuries. “The cutoff point is when metal was introduced to the islands, which massively changed the production and tradition of these as survival tools,” explains Cooper-van Ingen. “The fishermen made them themselves, and each corresponds to a different type of fish and a technique of how to catch that fish.”
One particularly interesting piece was retrofitted from an ivory toothbrush whose handle-turned lure reads “Made in England.” For the keen collector, it’s all or nothing here, however; Blau will only sell the collection intact. “It took 30 years to put together, it would be a shame to take it all apart now,” Cooper-van Ingen remarks. Appropriately for Collections’ long–term goals, Blau, who traditionally deals in photography, also shows works by David Bailey on the booth’s walls. “We wanted to highlight the variation between what a dealer might collect personally and what he deals in,” says Cooper-van Ingen. The contrast is a welcome one in an ever-more-homogenous art fair landscape, and one that will, ideally, continue to trickle down to everything from private collections to major exhibitions in the years to come.