The Art Market: Asian joust

Which city, Singapore or Hong Kong, will become the hub of the Asian art market? Until now, Hong Kong seemed to be a slam-dunk with its Art HK fair, which is going into its fourth edition in May with an exhibitor roster that now includes many of the western world’s top dealers. But last week Singapore unveiled a counter-attack with Art Stage Singapore, a new fair featuring 120 exhibitors, with a line-up that was mainly Asian but with a number of westerners including Perrotin, Michael Schultz and Marlborough.

By most accounts the fair was a success. While Hong Kong focuses on Chinese artists or international brand names, Singapore emphasised south-east Asian artists, and a number of major collectors in the region, among them the Poddars from India and Indonesians Deddy Kusama and Oei Hong Dijen, had lent works from their collections for an exhibition in the Singapore Art Museum.

The young French dealer Edouard Malingue, who has recently opened in Hong Kong, was exhibiting a number of Picassos. including “Study for Two Nudes” (1906), but did not sell any at the fair: “It will take time to become known here, I will return,” he said. However, Perrotin sold well including works by Murakami, newcomer Jin Meyerson and KAWS.

Singapore’s success seems certain to cast a cloud over the other regional fair, ShContemporary, which recently lost its director Colin Chinnery. Art sales in mainland China are taxed at 33 per cent, while there is no tax in Hong Kong and Singapore. Shanghai may now be facing a struggle to stay afloat.

Today sees the world’s first virtual art fair go live. The VIP art fair (the initials stand for View In Private) starts at 8am New York time – access is free to those who have received invitations, or costs $100 for visitors on the first two days, and $20 for the remaining week. The site is easy to use and definition is excellent; a box gives price ranges for the works, as in “$5,000-$10,000” or “over $1m”; you can filter works by price, which you certainly can’t do in a real world fair – however not all the works were priced during my “visit” before it opened.

A clever feature is that while viewing one work you can see a couple more either side, and you can see if someone is present at the gallery and chat (via messaging) in real time. The big question is, of course, whether the event will work, for sales and for new contacts for dealers. That will only be answered some weeks down the line. The fair closes next Sunday.

London’s Royal Academy has just opened its major show of modern British sculpture; meanwhile, just up the road, Gimpel Fils is holding a selling show of British sculptors. “We thought this was a good moment to bring together contemporary artists and some older ones, whose estates we represent in some cases,” says René Gimpel. The exhibition is curated by Alice Correia and ranges from essential figures such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (“Vertical Form 1”, 1962, left, is priced at £160,000) to the young Glaswegian duo littlewhitehead, whose work recently figured in the Saatchi British Art Nowshow. Gimpel is showing a white-faced, head-and-shoulders bust “The Philanthropist” (2010) priced at £3,500.

The Berlin-based British artist Tino Sehgal is famed for taking conceptual art to a new level. He makes “constructed situations” in which actors interact with the public, but part of his practice was always to refuse any trace of the work – no photography, catalogue or wall labels, and no payment in anything but cash or wire transfer. There is no invoice when someone buys his work: witnesses to the sale have to remember the contract.

Despite these constraints his works, in editions of four, can sell at prices over $100,000. Last year, when Paris’s Centre Pompidou bought a copy of “The Situation” (2007), a piece involving six actors, the purchase was sealed in an “oral meeting” with a representative of the Marian Goodman gallery, which represents Sehgal (in keeping with his principles, the gallery website has a blank against Sehgal’s name). But payment was not made in cash as French law forbids cash transactions over a certain level.

Critics claim that Sehgal is betraying his artistic principles now that his work is selling at high prices. But Agnes Fierobe of the Goodman gallery explains that there is still no written trace of the bill, as it was sent by email, and the Centre Pompidou “enters the works’ title, year, medium into [the] electronic database, and gives it an inventory number”. She adds: “authorisation to install the work is not handed over to the museum, this is done by authorised former players of a given specific work; the museum has the right to show the work whenever it wants, of course.”

Inevitably, when a work of art fetches a huge price, similar ones come on the market. Last year Christie’s sold a single sculpture by Matisse for $48.8m, setting a new record for the artist. The monumental cast of a woman’s back, “Back IV” (conceived 1930, cast 1978), was one of a series of four sculptures Matisse executed over a long period, between 1908 and 1931. They were cast in an edition of 12, and nine complete sets are in museums including London’s Tate and Fort Worth’s Kimbell. However, the Kimbell set was actually on loan from the charitable Burnett Foundation, which is now withdrawing the bronzes and putting them up for private sale at an undisclosed price through Sotheby’s. The foundation, which has over $200m in assets, said in its 2009 tax return that its main activity is loaning art to museums and public parks, but spokesman Neils Agather said that the Matisse sculptures have such a huge potential value that there is no longer any justification for owning them. To soften the blow, Burnett is giving two other works of art to the Kimbell: Henry Moore’s “Figure in Shelter” and Fernand Léger’s “La Fleur qui Marche”, both of which have been on loan to the institution for the last 21 years.

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

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