Art Market

What Sold at Frieze London and Frieze Masters Online

Benjamin Sutton
Oct 12, 2020 5:17PM

Claudia Martínez Garay, Huk Pacha, Iskay Pacha, Kimsa Pacha, 2020. © Claudia Martínez Garay. Courtesy of the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam and New York.

The first virtual editions of the Frieze London and Frieze Masters fairs opened last week at a moment of exceptional chaos, even by 2020 standards. COVID-19 case numbers are rising globally faster than ever; many regions, including the United Kingdom, are experiencing huge surges; and in the final stretch of a grim reelection campaign, the president of the United States was undergoing treatment after contracting the virus. Against this bleak backdrop, the Frieze fairs managed to provide something unexpected: a microcosmic sense of normalcy.

Five months since Frieze’s first online-only fair, dealers, collectors, curators, and the fair organizers themselves seem to have synthesized a viable hybrid formula. In addition to a plethora of official and ancillary in-person programming in London, Frieze made crucial improvements to its virtual fair portal. Users exploring Frieze London and Frieze Masters’s 259 booths online can do so in a variety of sequences, apply various filters and search terms, chat directly with dealers while they’re in booths, and save and “like” works they want to revisit. Dealers have likewise embraced strategies that marry the conventions of in-person fairs—many have even installed the contents of their virtual booths inside their physical galleries—with the possibilities facilitated by the online format, like switching over their presentations entirely midway through the fair.

De Wain Valentine
Portal Violet, 1969
Almine Rech
Vaughn Spann
Laurel Canyon (Saguaro), 2020
Almine Rech

“Initially a lot of galleries were using their booths at online fairs the same way they would at a real fair, and now they’re adapting and seeing this is actually a different way of showing art,” said Victoria Siddall, the global director of Frieze Fairs. “On both the collectors’ side and the gallerists’ side, there’s been enormous progress in people’s openness and their savviness to looking at art and buying art online.”

That savviness is translating to sales for exhibitors, several of whom reported doing as much business virtually this year as they had in years past inside the big tents in Regent’s Park.

Marcus Jahmal
Red or Blue, 2020
Almine Rech

Rita Ackermann, Mama, Rear, 2020. Photo by Jon Etter. © Rita Ackermann. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

“Overall, Frieze Viewing Room is as successful as its physical iteration would be,” said Nadia Gerazouni, a director at The Breeder, whose booth features a strong contingent of painters including Joy Labinjo and Chioma Ebinama—both concurrently showing at the gallery’s Athens headquarters. “The audience over the last six months since fairs have turned virtual has quickly adjusted to this new reality. They are getting more and more comfortable with buying online and also in discovering new artists through these platforms.”

Rita Targui, the director of Singapore’s STPI, also noted that the virtual fair provides dealers with a trove of data. “The platform was beneficial in terms of the crucial back-end analytics of viewership count, duration, and geographic reach, enabling us to have better insights into the user and client behavior,” she said.

One area where dealers said virtual fairs still lag behind the in-person experience, however, is in helping them connect with new curator and collector contacts. While Frieze’s in-booth chat function may go some way to facilitate such encounters, it’s not quite as seamless as striking up a conversation with a dealer in front of a work.

“While it is still more challenging to engage new clients online than in person at physical art fairs where there are constant opportunities to connect with new audiences, we did make valuable connections with several new contacts in regions across the globe including Israel, Canada, Turkey, and the Philippines,” said Almine Rech, whose namesake gallery is showing in both Frieze London and Frieze Masters. “This online edition of Frieze seemed to mark the relative progress our industry has made in adapting to online formats and the fact that collectors are becoming more accustomed to navigating virtual fairs.”

Jack Whitten, Russian Speedway, 1971. © Jack Whitten Estate. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy of the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

Like nearly every corner of the art market, over the past six months, fairs, their participants, and attendees have had to get very comfortable with showing, selling, and buying art online. Improvements to online interfaces implemented by Frieze and its rival fair franchise Art Basel have been accompanied by a growing willingness among collectors to buy art online.

“Before the pandemic there was a feeling that there was definitely a price cap on the kind of work that could be sold online, and that just seems to have gone out of the window—this is how we’re going to sell work, so we’re going to figure it out,” said fair director Siddall.

McArthur Binion
Modern:Ancient:Brown, 2020
Lehmann Maupin
Anj Smith
False Steward, 2019-2020
Hauser & Wirth

Gallerists and collectors were busy figuring things out from the moment Frieze opened to VIPs on Wednesday. Dealers made a slew of six- and seven-figure sales right from the get-go:

  • Hauser & Wirth reported making more than $10 million in sales during the first day of the VIP preview, including a new Mark Bradford painting, Q7 (2020), which sold for $3.5 million, and a shimmering Jack Whitten composition from 1971, Russian Speedway, that sold for $2.5 million (just shy of the auction record for Whitten’s work, $2.6 million, set in March 2019 at Sotheby’s). The gallery also sold a fresh George Condo painting for $1.85 million, a new Rashid Johnson painting for $850,000, a Günther Förg painting from 1989 for €350,000 ($414,000), a new Rita Ackermann canvas for $350,000, an Isa Genzken sculpture from 2018 for €250,000 ($296,000), and a recent ceramic work by Simone Leigh for $250,000.
  • Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac sold a double portrait by Alex Katz, Vincent and Vivien (2016), to a collector in France for $650,000, and a mixed-media work by Imi Knoebel, Prinz Igor in C (2005), for €190,000 ($225,000).

Alex Katz, Vincent and Vivien, 2016. © Alex Katz. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London/Paris/Salzburg.

Ha Chong-hyun
Conjunction 20-53, 2020
Tina Kim Gallery
Loie Hollowell
Boob Wheel in blue and yellow, 2020
Neo Rauch
Der Zerhacker, 2020
David Zwirner

“Sales for us are the same to pre-COVID, however more expensive works tend to sell to collectors already familiar with an artists’ work,” said Grimm owner Jorg Grimm, adding: “Personal interaction with a work is (and will always remain) key.”

To that end, many galleries have sought to make the contents of their booths available for in-person visits. Some dealers with spaces in London, such as Thaddaeus Ropac and Timothy Taylor, have installed the works featured in their digital booths in their local brick-and-mortar galleries to complement the fair’s programming on the ground.

Arjan Martins, installation view of Sem título (Untitled), 2020. Courtesy of A Gentil Carioca.

“Frieze Week brought a resurgence of energy and buzz to a previously very flat London,” said Tarka Russell, a director at Timothy Taylor. “We felt this energy physically—with tours and patron groups coming through the gallery to see our intended fair booth of Kiki Smith works, which we exhibited in our space—as well as online, via both Frieze’s platform and the gallery’s own viewing room.” The strategy seemed to be working, with the gallery selling multiple pieces by Smith during the first day of Frieze’s VIP preview for prices ranging from $18,000 to $25,000.

Colnaghi, a gallery specializing in Old Masters and antiquities, saw similar success with its online presentation focusing on representations of dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, and nightmares throughout history. “The impressive reach provided by the Frieze platform has resulted in visits to our exhibition at Colnaghi’s London gallery at 26 Bury Street,” said Colnaghi CEOs Victoria Golembiovskaya and Jorge Coll, adding that they made sales to U.K. collectors in the opening days of Frieze Masters, and seen “strong interest from global institutions.”

In the absence of a British pied-à-terre, artist-founded gallery A Gentil Carioca took a creative approach to showing the contents of its virtual booth in person—by displaying the works in the bustling intersection outside the gallery’s space in Rio de Janeiro’s Saara district. “In Brazil and in many other countries, people still cannot visit art fairs, museums, galleries, and cultural points due to the pandemic,” said gallery co-director and co-founder Márcio Botner. “So our idea is to bring art to people, color the streets, and spread this spirit of union.”

Arjan Martins, installation view of Sem título (Untitled), 2020. Courtesy of A Gentil Carioca

Beyond the six- and seven-figure sales reported by mega-galleries, there were plenty of sales happening on Frieze’s online portal at lower price points:

  • Lisson Gallery sold at least six of Laure Prouvost’s new painting diptychs, priced at €35,000 ($41,000) apiece.
  • Galerie Max Hetzler sold two paintings by André Butzer for €40,000 and €85,000 ($47,000 and $100,000), Giulia Andreani’s large painting Résidente (Allégorie de la musique) (2019) for €30,000 ($35,000), and new paintings by Jeremy Demester and Raphaela Simon for €20,000 ($24,000) and €14,000 ($17,000), respectively.
Marinella Senatore
Forms of Protest by oppressed minorities re-emerge from the past, 2019
Richard Saltoun
Marinella Senatore
Protest songs have helped to shape history, 2019
Richard Saltoun
  • Richard Saltoun Gallery sold works by Everlyn Nicodemus, Renate Bertlmann, and Marinella Senatore for prices ranging from £10,000 to £50,000 ($13,000 to $65,000).
  • Copenhagen-based gallery Christian Andersen sold two new paintings by Julia Haller for €9,000 and €5,500 ($11,000 and $7,000).
  • London gallery Union Pacific sold four works by Koak for prices ranging from £1,600 to £6,200 ($2,000 to $8,000), six paintings by Ulala Imai for prices between $1,000 and $2,200, and two delightful paintings of skiing snowmen by Jan Kiefer for £3,500 ($4,500) apiece.
  • Bogotá-based gallery Instituto de Visión sold five works on paper by Abel Rodríguez for prices ranging from $5,000 to $5,500.

With Frieze London and Frieze Masters continuing online through October 16th, there are sure to be plenty more sales as collectors who saved or “liked” eye-catching works early on come back to close the deal. The next major test of the art market’s willingness to keep trading big-ticket works online will come in the latter half of the month, as Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s hold major virtual auctions. After that, and following in the footsteps of 1-54’s partly in-person edition in London last week (and continuing on Artsy through October 22nd), Art Cologne is set to test dealers and collectors’ willingness to return to a full-scale physical fair in November.

“Our audience is figuring out how this works in the same way that the galleries are,” Siddall said. “This just wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in the situation we’re in with COVID, because it wouldn’t have needed to. But it’s been hugely accelerated in terms of how people have embraced this.”

Lisa Yuskavage
Red Photo Shoot, 2020
David Zwirner

Claudia Martínez Garay, detail of Huk Pacha, Iskay Pacha, Kimsa Pacha, 2020. © Claudia Martínez Garay. Courtesy of the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam and New York.

While the future of in-person fairs remains uncertain, for now, the market seems to have reached a new level of comfort doing business via virtual fair booths. Whether this will be enough to buoy an industry so severely impacted by the pandemic, however, remains to be seen—galleries’ sales dropped 36 percent on average in the first half of 2020, and a third of galleries downsized their staffs in that period, according to a report by economist Clare McAndrew.

Ultimately, a hybrid model of in-person and online sales may be the only way for fairs and their participants to regain their footing. “Since everyone assumes this is all temporary, everyone goes along with the flow for now, it shouldn’t last long into 2021,” Grimm predicted. “Work needs to be seen in person.”

Benjamin Sutton