Last updated: May 12, 2012 1:15 am

Price limits? An abstract concept

The Art Market: contemporary art records shattered; Ropac expands in Paris; Frieze New York post-mortem
Gerhard Richter's 'Abstraktes Bild (798­3)' (1993)

Stratospheric: Gerhard Richter's 'Abstraktes Bild (798­3)' (1993), which sold for $21.8m

Phenomenal. There is no other way to describe Christie’s stratospheric sale of postwar and contemporary art on Tuesday this week, which saw records tumble and a new price high set for any contemporary work of art at auction, as well as the highest total ever for a sale of contemporary art. “The results show there is no limit to the top of the market,” said prominent adviser Allan Schwartzman. “There was a huge concentration of great material on offer – it was extraordinary.”

An indication of just how deep and strong the upper echelons of this market are was that at least six bidders frantically chased the top lot of the sale, Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961) from the starting price of $24m up to at least $60m. Three were still slugging it out past $70m, with a private collector finally winning the prize through the firm’s international head, Brett Gorvy, for a staggering $86.9m, shattering the previous record of $72.8m set in 2007.

The Rothko, in tip-top condition, was one of 13 works from the estate of an American collector, David Pincus, and had been off the market since the 1960s. “To have such a concentration of Abstract Expressionist material in one sale was extraordinary,” said dealer Andrew Fabricant, asking: “Who knows when this will happen again?”

Apart from the Rothko, 13 new auction records were set, including $23m for a Jackson Pollock, $21.8m for a Gerhard Richter and $18m for an Alexander Calder. The sale totalled $388.5m, above its higher estimate of $329.9m, and buyers came, according to Christie’s, from the US, Europe and Asia. The firm did not break them down geographically: “A lot of our buyers live in airplanes,” said Gorvy.

. . .

Gigantism seems to be an infectious disease in the art market. While London boasts larger and larger galleries (Hauser & Wirth, Blain|Southern, White Cube, etc), Paris is also getting a vast new space, thanks to the Salzburg dealer Thaddaeus Ropac. He has found a 1900 former heating systems factory in Pantin, in the east of Paris, and is renovating its eight buildings to make exhibition halls, a performance centre, a library/archive, a viewing room and artists’ studios. The whole site covers 4,700 sq m, not far short of White Cube’s 5,400 sq m gallery in Bermondsey, south London.

The Pantin project is costing some $10m, says Ropac, who already has two spaces in Salzburg and one in Paris. “Artists today always have big visions,” he says. “I want to use this to allow them to do what they want to do.”

Joseph Beuys' 1969 performance of Iphigenia©Abisag Tullmann

Joseph Beuys' 1969 performance of Iphigenia

He launches Ropac Paris Pantin on October 15 with two shows, one a selling show by Anselm Kiefer called The Unborn (prices €400,000-€800,000), the other a partly commercial exhibition of Joseph Beuys curated by Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary at London’s Royal Academy. The Beuys show, which has vitrines at €500,000-€1m, will reference his 1969 performance in Frankfurt of Iphigenia, when the artist appeared on stage in a fur coat with a white horse and cymbals. Then, in February, Rosenthal will curate a show of painting from the 1980s until the present.

The project is another indication of how the Parisian contemporary art scene is gaining in importance, says Ropac, pointing to the recently opened extension of the Palais de Tokyo and the museum currently being designed by Frank Gehry for LVMH owner Bernard Arnault.

. . .

The highly respected art dealer Michael Findlay has seen it all since he started his career in New York in the 1960s. He had a gallery in SoHo before becoming head of Impressionist and Modern painting at Christie’s; since 2000 he has been with Acquavella Galleries. Now he has penned The Value of Art, which distils his vast experience and disabused opinions into three sections: the commercial, social and “human” values of art.

His book is dotted with amusing anecdotes and a cynical take on what motivates many people to buy art: “In my experience, the show-off paintings are often in the dining room opposite the seated guests,” he writes. As for investing in art, he takes a sideswipe at most analytics, pointing out that auction data only covers “a fraction” of the market and says: “I have little faith in crystal balls disguised as charts.”

Most important, he wants people to look more than a few seconds at a work of art – and half of that at the label. “Try looking at a painting for one hour ... why not? How long did it take the artist to make it?” he proposes. Then, perhaps, the following scenario could be avoided: “One collector said, ‘Can you believe it: I only paid six million for that Warhol two years ago, and yesterday I turned down 10!’ After a statement like that,” says Findlay, “it would seem churlish to inquire: ‘What exactly do you like about it?’”

At the New York Public Library on May 23, Findlay will be discussing the book with Véronique Chagnon-Burke, director of studies at Christie’s Education.

. . .

Now that Frieze New York has ended, the post-mortem can begin. The tent was a huge success, the lighting excellent and footfall strong, with 45,000 visitors, dispelling fears that New Yorkers wouldn’t go to Randall’s Island. As for sales, it is always hard to judge immediately, but the picture seems mixed. While many dealers reported doing well, there were others who said going was “tough” with too many people “just looking” over the weekend.

. . .

Meanwhile, as the art crowd heads for Art Hong Kong this week, Art Basel has announced details of its “new Hong Kong show” for next year. It is being renamed Art Basel, stays in the same place in May, and keeps the same director, Magnus Renfrew. He explains that all three fairs, which include the Miami Beach edition, will be called simply Art Basel in future. Confusing? Not at all, says Renfrew: “We are sending a message that all the events have equal stature, there’s not one sun and two satellites.”

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

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Upcoming fairs

Fresh Paint Contemporary Art Fair, May 15-19, The New High School, Shoshana Persits Street, Tel Aviv, www.freshpaint.co.il

The main players in the Israeli art scene are set to attend Fresh Paint Contemporary Art Fair, but the country’s largest annual art event also takes pride in being a launch pad for up-and-coming, unrepresented artists.

MadridFoto, May 17-20, Ifema – Parque Ferial Juan Carlos I, Feria de Madrid, 28042, Madrid, madridfoto.es

This international photography fair is still in its infancy but has swiftly established itself in the art fair calendar. The emphasis is on contemporary work and innovative techniques, but vintage gems will also go on show.

Arte BA, May 18-22, La Rural, Blue and Green Pavilions, 2704 Sarmiento Avenue, Buenos Aires, www.arteba.org

Arte BA is one of South America’s most important and best-attended contemporary art fairs. The ambience is pitched to be as much fiesta as fair.

Affordable Art Fair Melbourne, May 24-27, Royal Exhibition Building Carlton, Melbourne, affordableartfair.com.au

Talks, printmaking demonstrations and live entertainment combine with bargain prices to foster an inclusive environment for both first-time and seasoned collectors.

Roma Contemporary Art, May 25-27, Macro Testaccio, Piazzo Orazio Giustiniani, www.romacontemporary.it

Near the banks of the Tiber, an old slaughterhouse plays host to established and emerging artists. Open-air exhibitions are devoted to large-scale installations, sculptures, video projections and performances.

Loop – The Video Art Fair, May 31-June 2, Hotel Catalonia Ramblas, Pelayo 28, Barcelona, www.loop-barcelona.com

This fair is small, selective and devoted exclusively to video art. The emphasis is very much on premieres, of which 23 are set for Loop’s 10th edition. This year a new section focuses on Latin American artists.

PHotoEspaña, June 6 to July 22, Madrid, www.phedigital.com

The 15th International Festival of Photography and Visual Arts is a bumper affair: 74 exhibitions sprawl across 68 venues, involving 280 artists of 44 nationalities. The leviathan of European photography festivals.

Art Basel, June 14-17, Halls 1 & 2 of Messe Basel, Messeplatz, 4005, Basel, Switzerland, www.artbasel.com

Now in its 43rd year, Art Basel – the mother of all art fairs – is not shy of its renown. “The Olympics of the art world”, as it has been described, plays host to nearly 300 galleries from five continents, displaying modern masters alongside the new generation of emerging stars.

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