Big Numbers Mask Low Volumes

BY Melanie Gerlis / Jun 11 2017 / 16:01 PM

Confidence is up after a dismal 2016 with buyers paying over-the-odds, but emphasis is still on safe works with art historical heft, increasingly by female artists, reports Melanie Gerlis

Big Numbers Mask Low Volumes
Fahrelnissa Zeid. Towards a Sky. 1953. Sold for £992,750/$1,271,216 (est. £550,000-650,000) at Sotheby’s London on 25 April.

The international art market is breathing a sigh of relief as 2017 has started with an energy and enthusiasm that was markedly absent the previous year. Eight-digit auction sales and jam-packed art fairs have set the tone, keeping confidence high for the second half of the year.

“The year has got off to a really good start, there is strong demand for good quality works,” says Melanie Clore, co-founder of the high-end art advisory business Clore Wyndham.

Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the London market proved unfounded as the major league auctions in March brought in considerably more than the previous year—though the related fall in value of the UK currency clearly contributed to international appetite. Sotheby’s hosted London’s highest-value auction ever, selling £195m (including fees) of Impressionist and Modern art on 1 March. The top lot was Gustav Klimt’s Bauerngarten (Blumengarten) (1907), which went for £48m. Christie’s was hardly a poor relation: its contemporary auction on 7 March produced the most unexpected result of the season when a work by the Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Beautyful Ones (2012) sold for a record £2.5m (estimate: £400,000-£600,000).

Gustav Klimt Bauerngarten Blumengarten

Gustav Klimt. Bauerngarten (Blumengarten). 1907. Oil on canvas.
110 x 110 cm.
 Sold Sotheby’s London, 1 March 2017, for £47,971,250

Crosby looks like the exception that proves the rule, however, as behind the big numbers, the art market has consolidated into a smaller field with a more measured and predictable pattern. “There isn’t much good news from anywhere right now; people aren’t feeling particularly buoyant so there is more selectivity,” says Michael Jeha, Managing Director and Deputy Chairman, Christie’s, Middle East. As a result, he says, “The focus is on more curated auctions, prioritising a high percentage of sales over high volumes.”

Now, serious collectors are, well, more serious. General economic malaise and political uncertainty has seen a flight to safety, to the benefit of the Modern—and sometimes even the beleaguered Old Masters—markets.

Female artists, often under-appreciated in their time, are benefitting from a taste for rediscovery. Agnes Martin, Georgia O’Keefe and Carmen Herrera (now 101) are among the artists who have gained institutional and market appreciation these past few years.

Regionally-focused sales reflect the same trend. At Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Turkey auction in London on 25 April, the highest price paid was for the Turkish avant-garde female artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, who died in 1991, and whose monumental Towards a Sky (1953) sold for £992,750 (estimate: £550,000-£650,000). Zeid’s solo exhibition opens at London’s Tate Modern on 13 June (until 8 October), a significant boost to the artist’s international appeal.

Monir Farmanfarmaian Triangle Of Hope

Monir Farmanfarmaian. Triangle Of Hope. 2007. Reverse-glass painting, mirror, plaster and felt tip pen on wood in aluminium frame. 110 by 110cm. Sold Sotheby’s London 25 April 2017 for £137,500 (est. £100,000-120,000)

When it comes to living artists, still an emerging area of interest in the Middle East, it is the older artists, also with some institutional heft behind them, who have been stealing the limelight. At the same Sotheby’s auction, Triangle of Hope (2007) by the Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian sold for £137,500 (estimate: £100,000-£120,000). Farmanfarmaian, now in her 90s, had a retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2015.

Developing demand outside of the traditionally strong regions remains a priority for the art market’s major players as buying from areas such as Continental Europe has cooled. Big name dealers brought major works to this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong (23-25 March) and were rewarded with buying from across the continent. China’s affluent middle-classes proved key, helping the elsewhere-sluggish $50,000 to $1m market. Works bought included a slow-moving flip chart by the British artist Ryan GanderOn slow obliteration, or The game begins (2017), around £90,000 from Lisson Gallery—and a 2016 ceramic tile collage by the African-American artist Rashid Johnson for $175,000 from Hauser & Wirth.

Lower-value sales were also healthy at the well-received Art Dubai fair in March, directed for the first time by Myrna Ayad. London’s contemporary art gallery Vigo sold works by the 86-year-old Sudanese artist Ibahim El-Salahi, including Untitled (1964), which went for £22,000 to a Dubai private collector. “There are only a few big collectors [in the Middle East] and people are not yet fully used to buying art, but the market is seriously developing,” says Toby Clarke, director of Vigo.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby The Beautyful Ones

 Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Beautyful Ones (2012)

Nonetheless, with volumes falling globally, art sales are increasingly concentrated in the three market hubs of London, New York and Hong Kong. In May, Christie’s said that it was moving one of its two-yearly Middle East auctions in Dubai to London from October. Sotheby’s, which opened an office and showroom in the city’s International Financial Centre in March, does not have plans to host auctions there. “It’s more about having a beautiful space for exhibitions,” says Ashkan Baghestani, the auction house’s deputy director, Contemporary and Modern Arab and Iranian art.

For now, hopes are high that international buyers will continue to support the more-focused auctions and exhibitions, and strategies are in place to source supply. “There is clearly an increasing number of people globally—including from the Middle East and Asia—who are willing to pay a premium for high quality works. It’s a case of satisfying that demand,” Clore says.