The Art Market: first nations fire warning shots

Selling pre-Columbian and tribal art in Paris is becoming quite a problem, with the source nations increasingly doing what they can to disrupt auctions. Sotheby’s sale of the Barbier-Mueller collection in Paris last month was an example: first Peru, then Guatemala, Mexico and Costa Rica stridently objected, on the basis that some of the works on offer had been illegally exported.

Hampered by high estimates as well as the controversy, the sale raked in a disappointing €10.3m, falling far short of the pre-sale high estimate of €20m. Only half the lots found buyers, and it would have been much worse had it not been for Greek financier and Sotheby’s advisory board member Dimitri Mavrommatis, who spent about €4m on some of the top lots.

More controversy swirled around the sale at Drouot in Paris of colourful masks from the American Hopi Indians. Actor Robert Redford weighed in, calling for the auction to be cancelled because the works are sacred to the tribe. But a last-minute legal challenge failed and the 70 masks, dating from the late 19th century and early 20th century, went ahead, topping expectations with a total of €900,000, with 90 per cent of the material sold. The top lot, “Crow Mother”, sold for almost €200,000, well above its upper estimate of €50,000, easily topping the previous record in this field, for a Hopi statuette that made $107,000 (€81,000) at Christie’s New York in 2008.

Other recent sales in France have gone off without incident. A sale of 19 Kachina dolls collected by French publisher Yves Berger, for example, made a modest €145,000 at Eve Auctions, while a sale of pre-Columbian art by the suburban Castor-Hara raised €368,750 last week. Perhaps the source nations are reserving their firepower – with some effect – for the most high-profile dispersals.

Just a couple of months after closing the London branch of Russia’s Regina Gallery, contemporary art dealer Vladimir Ovcharenko is also shutting Moscow’s not-for-profit art space in the Red October Chocolate Factory. The factory, on the Moskva river and with views of the Kremlin, was closed down in 2007 – depriving Moscovites of the aroma of chocolate – and the building was redeveloped with homes and an art space. The Red October gallery was initially used for exhibitions such as Gagosian’s For What You Are About to Receive (2008), which brought in about $300m worth of art by the super-gallerist’s top “brands”, including Jeff Koons, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra and Richard Prince. However, the results seem to have been unconvincing; the initiative was not repeated and last year Ovcharenko took on the space as a non-commercial project. It hosted shows such as Homemade Russia with the conceptual artist Vladimir Arkhipov, as well as one by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. The last show will be Dog’s Life, which closes on May 15. On May 23, Vladey, an auction house founded by Ovcharenko, will hold a sale there of about 50 works of Russian contemporary art, including paintings, sculptures and photographs. “An auction house is an important tool for developing the market for contemporary art here,” says Ovcharenko, who intends to hold a sale every season.

Farhad Moshiri’s ‘Secret Garden’ (2009)

Has the auction market in the Middle East bounced back? Two sales were held recently in the Gulf. The first was Christie’s smallest ever sale in Dubai, on April 16. The estimate of up to $5.5m was topped with a total of $6.4m (presale estimates don’t include premiums but results do). The top lot was Farhad Moshiri’s “Secret Garden” (2009), which beat its $300,000-$500,000 estimate to make $987,750. The result puts Christie’s sales in the region back on an upward trend, and bettered the $5.8m it netted in October last year.

Apparently juicier was Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art – both international and Middle Eastern – held in Doha on April 22. This fetched $15.2m, towards the top end of expectations, and set the highest total for an auction of contemporary art in the region. The sell-through rate, at 89.1 per cent, was good, and nine new artist records were made, including $1.5m for the Egyptian Chant Avedissian’s 120-part “Icons of the Nile” (1991-2010), which went to a Middle Eastern collector.

However, a closer look reveals that most of the top lots had irrevocable bids on them, meaning they were effectively presold. This was the case for Avedissian’s work, a Damien Hirst medicine cabinet, which just made its low estimate at $485,000, and the highest priced work in the sale, Donald Judd’s “Untitled (Bernstein 90-01)” (1990), which sold for $3.5m. This was bought by a US dealer, as was Julie Mehrethu’s “Rising Down” (2008), at just over $3m. Apparently only two of the top 10 lots went to local buyers: one wonders about the logic of going so far to sell if most of the main works end up back at the home base.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Punch Bag’ (1983)

The major auction houses are increasing the frequency of their private selling exhibitions, and are steadily raising their ambitions in this field – certainly as far as values are concerned. Next week, Sotheby’s S2 space is holding a show of Jean-Michel Basquiat with prices ranging from under $50,000 to a punchy $10m. The works, which span most of the artist’s career, from 1979 to 1987, come from “private collections”, says Sotheby’s.

The Basquiat market is thriving and was worth $141.2m in 2012, according to art data site Artprice, and three new records were set in that year alone, culminating in the $26.4m made at Christie’s New York in November. That work, “Untitled” (1981) comes from the period 1979-1983, which is considered his most desirable. Also prized are paintings with gesticulating central figures, and Sotheby’s show features some of these works, such as “Punch Bag” (1983).

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

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