With the U.K. Facing a Bleak Winter, Will London’s Rich Still Buy Art?
Frieze Week officially started on Monday but begins in earnest with the VIP opening of Frieze’s art fairs in Regents Park on Wednesday.
Frieze London, which generally showcases contemporary art, has more than 160 galleries in a rambling tent near Marylebone Road. Frieze Masters, a showcase for older art, has around 130 galleries in a more compact tent in the northeast part of the park, near the London Zoo.
Even before these tents open, dealers say, demand for million-pound paintings is stronger than ever.
“I’m amazed—well, not amazed but delighted—that the art market is as resilient as ever,” says Jonathan Green, chief executive officer of London’s Richard Green Gallery. “The super-wealthy, who are the buyers at the end of the day, have stayed wealthy; they haven’t been affected like the man on the street.”
It is certainly shaping up to be, Green says, “our winter of discontent. But the price of gas, the price of electricity, the shelves emptying—it’s not affecting the man who’s going to spend a million dollars on a painting.”
Dealers across the spectrum are in agreement: This week many British, some European, and even a clutch of American and Asian collectors are gearing up to spend serious money on serious art.
“My experience thus far is that there’s a pent-up demand for collectors to come see art again in the flesh,” says Stephen Friedman, whose gallery will be presenting a solo booth of Deborah Roberts at Frieze London. He’s got a second booth at Frieze Masters featuring work by the Japanese artist Jiro Takamatsu.
“Not all who come are spending money,” he continues. “But the lion’s share are.”
Lots of Demand
Frieze week includes a combination of gallery openings, dinners, satellite art fairs, and private parties, the likes of which London hasn’t experienced for the better part of two years.
And while the success of Art Basel in Switzerland last month served to reassure jittery dealers, that was a more singular endeavor. Basel isn’t exactly an arts and culture mecca.
This week, though, London’s entire culture industry is being put to the test. Early demand indicates that the city will pass with flying colors.
“To be honest, I have collectors complaining they’ve tried to reach out to galleries, and a lot of things are reserved or sold before we’ve opened,” says Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which is located in Somerset House and will open to VIPs on Thursday. “There’s a real engagement that reflects a lot of demand.”
El Glaoui says collectors are coming from around the world to visit her fair, including large groups from France and the U.S.
Dealers showing at Frieze say they anticipate the mix to be weighted more heavily toward a domestic audience.
“Especially in a pandemic year, one focuses quite a bit closer to home when looking at who will realistically turn up,” says Jacob Twyford, senior director at Waddington Custot gallery, which will be showing a booth of American photorealist artists dating to the 1960s. “But our VIP list also includes overseas people—Europeans in particular but also some Americans.”
Even though dealers theoretically have to state what artworks they’re bringing to the fair well in advance of the opening, there’s often room to improvise as galleries get closer to the date. If demand is looking weak, they might bring cheaper art that collectors can buy without deliberation.
Given the high price points of many artworks that will appear at the fair, dealers appear to be putting their money where their mouth is.
Green is taking what he describes as “very good stock of properly priced, very good paintings” priced from around £100,000 ($136,000) to £3 million.
Included is a 1930s-era painting of flowers by Winston Churchill, priced at £1.25 million, a sparkling 1899 landscape by Gustave Loiseau, priced at $780,000, and a 1905-07 still life by Edouard Vuillard, once owned by Henry Ford II, priced at $580,000.
“I haven’t brought any $5 million paintings because I’m not sure that’s where the market is right now,” Green says. “But in a fair: Up to $2 million, I think there’s a good market. That’s my take.”
Still, there are some lower-priced works, too.
Twyford’s booth of American photorealists, which include works by John Baeder, Richard Estes, and several others, offers prices from $30,000 to $450,000.
Twyford has already got commitments from collectors to buy “two or three things,” he says. “And they’re Europeans, not Americans, which is quite heartening, because it does feel like a slightly daring thing to be showing these in London, not Miami.” (The annual Art Basel Miami Beach art fair mostly showcases American artworks for U.S. collectors.) “It might be a calculation,” he continues, “that pays off.”
Even before the fair opens, Friedman’s booth at Frieze London is almost entirely spoken for. “With Deborah Roberts, there’s been an element of preselling,” he says—but only to museums.
Of the five works on offer, he says he has “commitments for two or three” institutions, “and another one or two are reserved until a curator can come see them.”
Before Covid, Friedman says, “there was a great deal of art world fatigue.” Now, he continues, it seems that “the button has been firmly reset.”
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