October 4, 2013 7:34 pm

The Art Market: Australian art gets thumbs-down

I Nyoman Masriadi’s ‘Fatman’©I Nyoman Masriadi

I Nyoman Masriadi’s ‘Fatman’ (2000) fetched $620,771 at Christie’s sale in Shanghai

While London’s Royal Academy has just unveiled its major retrospective of Australian art (until December 8) to rather mixed critical reviews, the market for Australian art is also seeing its ups and downs. Christie’s sale of Australian art in London last week was a bit of a flop, making just £3.8m, well short of the expected £6m, with some of the major pieces failing to find buyers. Even works off the market for decades – such as Russell Drysdale’s “Old Larsen” (1953), last auctioned in 1971 and from the Margaret Carnegie collection, fell flat and was bought in at £450,000 (est. £550,000-£650,000). Only 44 of the 75 lots found buyers.

The market for Australian art is small, worth about A$100m (about US$93m) a year at auction, and has “levelled off” at that value, says Mark Fraser, chairman of Bonhams Australia. The firm has scored successes with single-owner sales, notably the Grundy dispersal this summer which made A$19.2m. “Such collections still do well,” he says: “When there is an imperative to buy. But the run-of-the-mill is performing more poorly.”

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He says that three factors are dogging the market: the introduction of a resale royalty scheme (which levies 5 per cent on the resale of works of art over A$1,000, with no upper cap) and changes to pension fund rules, which have led some collectors to sell off their holdings. Finally, he says: “The market for Aboriginal art has really taken a huge hammering since export bars were introduced, because the biggest buyers were in the US and Europe.” He concludes: “Psychologically, people here are more reticent to get involved with art, because of this government tinkering. It’s unsettling – they wonder if there will be further regulation.”

. . .

Christie’s inaugural sale in Shanghai, held after we went to press last week, was more a brand-building curtainraiser than a high-octane dispersal. It was estimated at just US$16m-US$25.3m, small beer for the company, and comprised a mixed bag of wine, watches and jewellery as well as small offerings of European and Asian art.

But the point was to show what the auction house could do, and it threw the full force of its marketing and public relations machine behind the build-up to the sale, which attracted some 950 visitors. There was a festive, almost childlike spirit as the first lots came up and were hammered down to whoops and cheers: the room erupted in applause on each bid. The sale totalled $25m, with the top price of $2.9m being given for a ruby and diamond necklace. While prices for the wine and jewellery mainly remained within estimate, the art mainly did better, with I Nyoman Masriadi’s “Fatman” (2000) making $620,771, three times pre-sale expectations. Just one lot was bought in, a Morandi still life from 1963.

The significance of the auction goes beyond this smallish sale, of course, because Christie’s interests are also bound up in the Pinault luxury goods empire. There is an astonishing overlap between art and these products in China (and of course elsewhere), and this blurring even extends to museum shows. The private MOCA, for example, is currently holding a huge, and no doubt hugely expensive, Dior show, complete with a working atelier demonstrating how garments are made. And the charming Rockbund museum is displaying work by the finalists in the Hugo Boss prize. “Of course, there is not really an overlap between art and luxury goods,” Christie’s owner François Pinault told me just before the sale: “But it is a question of marketing, and marketing plays on it all the same.”

. . .

As the biggest art buyer in the world, Sheikha Al Mayassa Al-Thani, sister of the new Emir of Qatar, is always worth watching closely. Now she has founded a snazzy new culture website, called Qulture, which covers arts, style, living and sport (female weightlifters in the UAE, anybody?). The site is super-efficient, with smart graphics and lots of content, including a piece about the Damian Hirst show, Relics, opening next week in the huge Al-Riwaq gallery in Doha – inevitably, now covered in coloured spots.

This massive exhibition features a new 3,300lb shark in formaldehyde as well as his 1990 fly piece, “One Thousand Years”. Meanwhile a foetus is the inspiration for a shiny, black 15-foot high sculpture commissioned by Qatar and installed outside the not-yet-completed Sidra Medical Research Centre. What ordinary Qataris, who are not used to such challenging, and representational, art, will make of all this will be extremely interesting.

. . .

Art deco chairs

Art deco chairs from the Plaza Athénée in Paris, on offer at Artcurial

In Paris, the luxury hotel Plaza Athenée is closing for a major facelift and tipping a massive amount of furnishings into auction. Cushions, lamps, Art Deco mirrors, porcelain, tables, chairs, carpets, curtains, even the embroidered linen that the hotel kept especially for crowned heads: everything must go! The mass of material has been separated into 1,000 lots and prices are very come-hither – 24 Hermès plates for €600-€800, for example, or four Art Deco chairs for €500-€700. Viewing is open all weekend in the hotel before the auction at Artcurial next Monday and Tuesday.

. . .

Larry’s List is a newly launched website that offers information about 3,100 art collectors and what they buy, all compiled from internet sources, museum show catalogues and so on and available at a very reasonable $9.50 per pop. The collectors themselves – apart from a handful who are also investors in the start-up – are not consulted about being listed. I asked founder Magnus Resch about how his company identifies the more secretive ones, those not in publicly available resources. “It’s almost impossible to hide in today’s world, information will appear somewhere,” he said, adding that since the launch at the end of September, 40 collectors have already contacted the site to add information. The site still needs fine-tuning, though, as my search for Sheikha Al Mayassa initially qualified her as “Mr” and 163rd on the ranking, although now at least her title has been corrected.

. . .

And finally . . . Talking Galleries, a two-day symposium for small and midsize art galleries, being held in Barcelona on November 11 and 12, is now open for registration. As an open platform for art dealers, it offers panels, discussions and case studies on the challenges facing the sector as well as practical advice on legal and other issues. I must declare an interest, as I have been helping the organisers define the content. www.talkinggalleries.com.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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