What Sold at Frieze London
Installation view of Barbara Hepworth’s River Form, 1965 (1973). Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy of Mark Blower/Frieze.
If the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and United States Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh weighed on EXPO Chicago last week, political tensions were checked at the door for this year’s Frieze London, its 16th edition.
The fair coincided with the annual conference of the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, but Brexit worries and the loss of thousands of City banking jobs to Frankfurt, Dublin, and Paris hardly dented the buying within Frieze’s tents.
If anything, said Thaddaeus Ropac, Brexit could be a slight boost to the art market, especially for dealers like him, with locations throughout Europe. He said many of his clients are moving from London, but it hasn’t had a negative impact on their art buying.
“Quite the opposite—all the people who are getting new houses in Paris now need to get new art for their houses,” Ropac joked.
In all seriousness, Ropac said, he is hopeful that Brexit will also present an opportunity for the U.K. to become a less-regulated art market, more along the lines of the U.S., which has no import duties on art and no artist resale royalty. He recently made this point to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who visited his Salzburg gallery, along with a number of other heads of state, during a Brexit meeting in September.
He said he was “amazed” that Prime Minister May appeared to be aware of the U.K. art market’s dominant position in Europe. The U.K. currently accounts for 60% of European art sales by value, according to arts economist Clare McAndrew.
“London has a huge chance to make its position even stronger, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised the Prime Minister was much aware of it,” Ropac said. The opposite approach—closing the borders with Europe, would present significant challenges for his gallery, which also has two locations in Paris.
Antony Gormley, FRONT, 2016. © Antony Gormley. Photo by Stephen White, London 2018. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg.
“If they start to close the borders, [it would] mean if we want to view a painting in London, we would have to deposit the VAT,” Ropac said, something that could seriously slow his business.
Ropac sold his usual mix of older, more historic gallery favorites and new work by big names, such as Robert Longo’s Untitled (Forever; Hydrangea, Beethoven’s Love Letter #9) (2018), which sold for $800,000. Tom Sachs, who was opening a “Swiss Passport Office” at the gallery, had Luggage (Rimowa) (2016), a cardboard, epoxy resin, and fiberglass tape sculpture sold for $160,000. Antony Gormley’s 675 kilogram cast iron sculpture FRONT (2016) sold for £350,000, and Georg Baselitz’s oil painting Schwarzes Pferd (Black Horse) (1986) sold for €800,000.
Ropac’s point about collectors in a decorating mindset was also well-taken. Much of the art at Frieze London and Frieze Masters seemed destined for bankers’ freshly painted white walls. The fair was dominated by a preponderance of paintings, drawings, a few sculptures and wall hangings, and other apartment-ready décor (much to the chagrin of Belgian collector Alain Servais, who lamented the lack of new media and more experimental work). One woman strolling through the Focus section, typically the site of edgier works by younger galleries, pointed to a large blue painting and noted how nice it would look in her bathroom. Her companion responded with something about feng shui.
Tom Sachs, Luggage (Rimowa), 2016. © Tom Sachs. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg.
Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled 1974 (2015). Courtesy of Galerie Sultana.
At Kate MacGarry’s booth in the main galleries section, five works by Rana Begum sold, mostly on the first day, and mainly to new international collectors. The sales included No. 794 (2018) for £40,000 and No. 800 L Fold (2018) for £28,000. A cluster of white marble sculptures, No. 842 Floats (2018) also sold for an undisclosed price.
MacGarry said Frieze seemed to her a more transactional place than in prior years; now in its 16th edition, the fair had gone through a full lifecycle.
“It went through a phase of attracting the general public in London, I think maybe now the general public has been a few times, and it’s settled back down into really being a fair, a trade fair” she said. “I think it might have just settled down into being back to business somehow—less celebrities, less emphasis on all that.”
It’s hard to blame galleries for wanting to make a few bucks at a fair and curating their booths accordingly. After all, fairs are expensive to do, with costs rising on average 15% in 2017 from the year prior; they also account for a growing share of dealers’ business, up five percentage points to 46% in 2017, according to UBS and Art Basel’s The Art Market | 2018. Guillaume Sultana of Paris’s Galerie Sultana said that, ultimately you have to come to Frieze with sales in mind.
“It’s a fair, like any other art fair, it’s commercial in the end,” he said (Sultana’s own satellite fair, Paris Internationale, will take place on October 16-21, concurrently with FIAC). He brought three artists’ work to Frieze this year, including pieces by the trailblazing queer photographer Walter Pfeiffer, whose images of the male nude shocked the Zurich art world in the 1970s and influenced the likes of Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller.
Justin Fitzpatrick, Blue Daisy: Whitman, 2018. Courtesy of Galerie Sultana.
Ahmed Morsi, The Loving Horse, 1996. Courtesy of Gypsum Gallery.
One work by Pfeiffer, Untitled 1974 (2015) sold for €9,000, the fourth of an edition of five. Justin Fitzpatrick’s Blue Daisy: Whitman, (2018) also sold for between €7,000 and €8,000. Sultana said those sales were enough to make Frieze profitable, since booths in the Focus section can go for under £7,000 and he had also received a grant from the French government through the Centre national des arts plastiques (CNAP), which helped cover some of the costs.
Sultana praised the fair for the emphasis it still places on programming and performances despite having become “a big machine,” in recent years. This programming, he said, combined with the fact that several of the artists on his roster were appearing or had recently appeared in major British institutions—Jesse Darling at the Tate Britain and the Glasgow International festival, Paul Maheke solo show at Chisenhale and performances at the Tate, Pfeiffer in a group show at the Barbican, Pia Camil at Nottingham Contemporary—brought more adventurous collectors by the booth.
“I think collectors and institutions, and especially in this section, they are really prospective—they want to see something new and emerging,” he said.
Installation view of Gypsum Gallery’s booth at Frieze London 2018. Courtesy of Gypsum Gallery.
The booth of Cairo’s Gypsum Gallery bucked Frieze’s trend toward more decorative art, featuring a politically charged installation by New York-based artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme of dark grey bricks and dried flora from the sites of now-demolished Palestinian villages. Aleya Hamza, the gallery’s founder, said the work, priced at $16,000, had not sold as of Friday. She had, however, sold two works by early Egyptian Surrealist and poet Ahmed Morsi. Both of the works were untitled etchings from 1996: one in black and white for $5,500, part of an edition of two, and a unique sepia version for $6,000. Hamza said that these sales and other less immediately tangible benefits of doing Frieze still make it pay off for her gallery.
“In the last three years, doing Frieze has raised the profile of the gallery significantly, and that’s why it’s okay for me to come here. Even if we don’t sell immediately, it has repercussions in the long-run or even in the medium-run,” Hamza said, noting that the bulk of Gypsum’s revenue came from sales to public collections and museums, rather than from private collectors.
“I’d love to branch out to collectors,” she added, noting that she doesn’t make a blanket distinction between selling to private collectors and public institutions. “Sometimes the private collectors are shakers and movers and they can be sitting on boards or major supports of the artist, so they can contribute to their careers.”
Installation view of Tatiana Trouvé’s The Shaman, 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.
A handful of dealers showed riskier, institutionally oriented booths, such as the show-stopping Tatiana Trouvé work presented by Kamel Mennour near one of the fair’s entrances. A massive bronze uprooted tree trunk gently spilling water from some of the roots, the sculpture, The Shaman (2018) sold with an asking price of €650,000, said director Claudia Milic.
Milic said she was pleased the installation, which Trouvé had originally hoped to do at two different biennales but couldn’t due to technical and financial concerns, finally found a home at Frieze, whose directors and engineers helped make the 30-ton sculpture possible. Milic said it was just as well that the sculpture had ended up here.
“[At] an art fair like this, you get so many visitors,” she said. “The work is to be seen not just by professional collectors but by the general public.”
“I think sometimes you have to go crazy,” added Milic, of the decision to bring the Trouvé. “Yes, this is a commercial place [...] but sometimes art takes it all. Sometimes art should be our first preoccupation.”
Trouvé was one of many female artists featured at Frieze Masters and Frieze London; the latter devoted a special curated section, “Social Work,” to women whose art through the 1980s and 1990s challenged social conventions and who often worked outside of the commercial market. At “Social Work,” one of Helen Chadwick’s “Wreaths to Pleasure” works (1992–93) sold from Richard Saltoun’s booth for £36,000, and four editions from the “In the Kitchen” (1977) series also sold, each priced at £15,000. Loop my Loop (1991), a photograph of intestine-like tubes intertwined with blonde hair, remains on reserve for a major European museum, Saltoun said.
A shared booth by New York’s ACA Galleries and Weiss Berlin sold one of Faith Ringgold’s famous “Storyquilt” works, Marlon Riggs: Tongues Untied (1994), for a price in the range of $300,000 to $400,000 to an Asian collector; Berlin dealer Kirsten Weiss said another quilt had also sold but declined to provide details. Ringgold’s works have sold for upwards of $600,000 privately, her dealers said.
At Frieze Masters—the smaller of the two fairs and devoted to art made before 2000—another high-investment, horticulturally themed spectacle also led to a big payoff. Dickinson, a gallery with locations in London and New York, recreated British sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s garden at the Tate St. Ives with the help of dozens of fake and real plants, which Dickinson managing director Emma Ward said would be donated to charity after the fair. The feature piece, River Form (conceived in 1965 and cast in 1973), sold the first day of the fair to an undisclosed buyer for “upwards of several million” pounds, according to Ward, which made it one of the bigger-ticket sales at the fair but still, as Ward noted, a relative bargain compared to fellow British sculptor Henry Moore.
Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
There was also a notable breakthrough this week for female artists in the secondary market, where their work normally sells for a fraction of that of their male peers. The sale of Jenny Saville’s painting Propped (1992) for £9.5 million ($12.4 million) at Sotheby’s made her the most expensive living female artist.
Aside from the Saville—and a stunt by the anonymous street artist Banksy in which his work Girl With Balloon (2006) shredded itself just after it sold—the secondary market in London had a relatively staid week. A survey of a group of art market professionals released just ahead of Frieze showed a 24% drop in art market confidence in the first half of 2018, despite a jump in contemporary auction sales of 27% over the same period. The report, by London-based art market intelligence firm ArtTactic, was still an overall positive reading, but the roughly one hundred respondents cited “increasing economic and political uncertainty” as a looming threat to sentiment. Then again, many of the major volatile geopolitical and economic questions have been stewing for some time.
“Although these factors have been known for some time, I believe U.K. and European respondents are increasingly concerned about Brexit and the lack of any clarity of what might happen,” with a Brexit deadline approaching, said Anders Petterson, founder of ArtTactic. “Also the escalation in the trade war between U.S. and China is starting to show signs of impacting the Chinese economy in recent weeks.”
Similar drops in confidence have been followed by a slump in the art market, usually with a six- to 12-month lag, said Petterson. But not everyone agrees doom is on the horizon. As in the political arena, “market experts are divided in their opinions,” Petterson said.