Last updated: January 10, 2014 8:47 pm

The Art Market: Japanese avant-garde in London

‘Tokumyou’ (1984) by Kazuo Shiraga

‘Tokumyou’ (1984) by Kazuo Shiraga, one of the top-selling Gutai artists, at London Art Fair next week

The London Art Fair, which opens in Islington on Wednesday, mainly focuses on modern British art but this year sees a few foreign exhibitors among its 128 booths. The Tokyo-based gallery Whitestone is bringing a number of examples from the Gutai School, the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim New York last year. Founded in the 1950s, the group was avant-garde, exploring new ways of making art as well as performance and interactive environments, but petered out in the 1970s.

“It used to be convenient to see Gutai as a poor relation of Abstract Expressionism but now we realise how innovative the artists were, and interest is widening,” says adviser Allan Schwartzman, who has been buying Gutai with the leading Dallas collector Howard Rachofsky. Among the artists Whitestone is bringing are Atsuko Tanaka, one of the original members of the group. The top result for a Gutai artist is now almost $4m, set for Kazuo Shiraga in New York last year; at the fair Whitestone is tagging its Shiraga at over $1m, while the Tanaka is above $500,000.

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More works from the estate of the modern art dealer Jan Krugier are coming up for sale next month at Sotheby’s London. This time it is his “private collection” going on the block, consigned by the estate, and consisting of 118 works on paper and two sculptures. One of these is an early version of Giacometti’s iconic “Walking Man”. The lifetime cast of “Homme traversant une place par un matin de soleil”, conceived in 1950, could fetch up to £5m, and the whole group, which is spread between the evening and day sales of Impressionist and Modern art on February 5 and 6, is expected to fetch more than £25m.

This isn’t the first sale from Krugier. Last autumn, another group of works from his collection flopped at Christie’s in New York, despite the firm’s heavy hyping. The 155 lots raised $113.7m (including fees) against a low pre-sale target of $171.5m – without fees. Dealers blamed the lacklustre performance on excessive estimates and the fact that much was “inventory” or not fresh to the market. However, the top lot, a Picasso of his children Claude and Paloma from 1950, did well, doubling its high estimate at $28.2m and going to one of China’s richest men, Wang Jianlin.

This new group is very different from the first, says Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art honcho Helena Newman. “It is on a more intimate scale and shows Krugier crossing boundaries in his collecting – from Goya and Ingres to Picasso and Seurat.” And while the evening session includes million-pound works by Cézanne and Degas, there are also more affordable lots in the day sale, such as a watercolour by Macke and a drawing by Delacroix, both in the £6,000-£8,000 range.

So can we expect a third Krugier sale? Newman is all coy, saying that it is likely that “further works will be sold – watch this space.”

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‘Series II, No I’ by Fang Lijun

‘Series II, No I’ (1991-1992) by Fang Lijun, from Johnson Chang’s collection at Hanart TZ in Hong Kong

Hanart TZ of Hong Kong, one of the most respected art galleries in Asia, celebrates its 30th anniversary this coming week with a flurry of events. These include a two-day symposium in the Hong Kong Arts Centre, gathering dozens of scholars to discuss the “Three Art Worlds in China”, and an exhibition of 100 of the most significant pieces from founder Johnson Chang’s collection. “They are among the best things I have come across and I haven’t the heart to sell them,” says Chang. “They include early calligraphy works from the socialist era, a major painting by Zhang Xiaogang, and projects for the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, dating from the 1950s.”

Chang, who is an academic and collector as well as a dealer, is now pondering the future of these pieces, and thinking of donating them to a Hong Kong institution such as M+. “I don’t want to run a museum myself – it’s hard enough running a gallery and dealing with artists!” he says.

His words take on extra meaning in view of recent articles all over the Chinese internet that claimed that his gallery had been sitting on works for 20 years. Two artists, Li Shan and Sun Liang, said they recovered their paintings only after initiating legal action.

The story goes back to 1993, when works by now-famous names such as Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, Xu Bing, Liu Ye, Feng Mengbo, Ding Yi as well as Li Shan and Sun Liang were shown at the first contemporary exhibition of Chinese artists at the Venice Biennale. On their return to China in 1994, the pieces were blocked at customs and Hanart offered to store them in Hong Kong. Noting that this was “beyond the call of duty”, Chang says that, “given the historical conditions of the time, we knew there was no real choice but to take on this burden to assist our colleagues in a difficult situation”.

While four crates were opened, inventoried and the works returned to the artists, says Chang, a fifth case containing seven works was overlooked – and only discovered last year, when he started preparations for the 30th anniversary. “I’m being faulted for having found and returned artworks that were thought lost,” he laments. Li Shan and Sun Liang have now retrieved their paintings, says Chang, who expresses his “deepest disappointment and chagrin at the unfounded accusations”.

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And finally: live maggots are being flown regularly to Qatar to supply one of the art works on display in Relics, the Damien Hirst exhibition that continues until January 22 in Doha. “A Thousand Years” (1990) is one of the artist’s most famous works, consisting of a rotting cow’s head, an Insect-O-Cutor and a mass of flies who live out their life within the two-part glass box. The maggots travel in the hold of the aircraft, a spokesperson for the Qatar Museum Authority assured me.

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

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