The art market: Cool winds blowing

Behind the sale of Constable’s “The Lock” (1824) at Christie’s on July 3 there is a massive row in what is already a famously fractious family. The painting is being sold by Baroness Carmen “Tita” Thyssen, against fierce opposition from her stepdaughter, Francesca von Habsburg. Carmen Thyssen, a former Miss Spain, is the widow of the great collector Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the last of his five wives. Her collection – which includes the Constable – hangs in a specially created wing of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. This houses most of the baron’s huge art collection, which was bought by the Spanish government in 1993 for £300m but which is reportedly worth some £600m.

“The crisis affects us all – I need cash,” Thyssen told the Spanish daily El País this week. The Constable is estimated at £20m-£25m, which, if made, would be one of the highest prices ever paid for a British picture.

Thyssen had already threatened to sell “The Lock” along with other works of art last year, provoking von Habsburg to call her stepmother “isolated from reality” in a letter to the press. According to Christie’s, no more works will be sold in the foreseeable future. However, El País says that other sales have been made privately, notably a Childe Hassam that previously hung in the Thyssens’ Lugano residence, Villa Favorita.

The family has fought over money and the ownership of art for two generations; recently Carmen Thyssen’s son Borja took her to court, claiming two paintings, including a Goya, were his. The case has just been shelved by a Madrid court.

Yaakov Israel’s ‘Winter Pool, Kibbutz Gevim’ (2008)

Photography specialist Zelda Cheatle is back in business, having just opened the Margaret Street Gallery in London’s Fitzrovia, a couple of minutes from the newly refurbished Photographers’ Gallery. Cheatle is working in collaboration with collector-turned-gallerist Deborah Goldman, and the space will focus on contemporary work. It will alternate well-known names, such as its inaugural Eve Arnold show, with “complete unknowns”; it currently features portraits by Yaakov Israel priced from £1,250 to £3,500. Cheatle had a gallery before moving to the Tosca photography fund in 2005, an association that ended in disappointment. The fund has been partly liquidated but, says Cheatle: “Investors have yet to see all their money back.”

Still in London, the coming week sees the first summer art fairs throw open their doors. At Olympia the long-established International Fine Art and Antiques Fair is re-inventing itself after a disastrous collaboration with the Florida organiser David Lester in 2010. Now, says director Chris Gallon, the fair, which opens on Thursday, is returning to its original calling as a trade event. “Of the 200 dealers covering all aspects of art and antiques, 30 are new and 40 are returning,” he says. “They are bringing masses of fresh new stock at a broad price range – from £100 to £1m. This is very much a fair where even the trade can make discoveries, and for consumers, my message is, ‘Buy where the trade buys!’” And at Earls Court, the Latin American art fair Pinta holds its third edition from Friday, and is adding a section on design from Mexico to the mix, as well as bringing in Spanish and Portuguese artists.

In the run-up to the opening of a spectacular new building for Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley museum in September, British pop artist Peter Blake is “doing” Norway. He is creating a giant frieze for a warehouse in Tjuvholmen, the docklands where the new, Renzo Piano-designed edifice is sited. The frieze, “Icons for Norway”, covers 1,200 sq m and is being unveiled on Thursday. It will remain there for six months, after which the warehouse will be demolished as part of an urban renewal plan that is bringing a number of art galleries to the area. At the same time, the gallery Stopler + Friends, which is already sited in Tjuvholmen, is holding a selling show of “The Oslo Suite”, a series of Blake prints and three collages based on Norwegian themes.

The spring auction season in Hong Kong was watched with more than usual interest this year against the backdrop of fears that mainland Chinese were faltering in their art buying. Indeed, the market is cooler: in the equivalent week last year, Christie’s racked up US$515m in sales of art, jewellery and wine; this time, its total was a little over US$352m. The Asian contemporary art sale made US$46.7m, over its top pre-sale estimate, with 91 per cent sold by lot. Its top lot was for Chinese favourite Sanyu, whose “Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase” almost doubled expectations at US$6.1m. The equivalent sale made US$63.4m in 2011 – a jump of 68 per cent over the previous year. Trees can’t grow as high as the sky, says a Chinese proverb.

Other auction houses held sales in Hong Kong in the same week, with Bonhams doing well with snuff bottles from the Bloch collection. These raised US$5.4m, with all the lots sold. Interest in the abstract artists Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-Chun remained red-hot: Bonhams’ sale of 15 works by both artists almost doubled its pre-sale estimate, making US$18m. And Ravenal, the main Taiwanese auction house, also did well with the same names, achieving US$2.8m for a Chu from 1960 and $1.6m for a Zao from 1984.

Last month’s sales of Russian art also showed some cooling. Sotheby’s May 28 session made £10m, with an anaemic sell-through rate of 65.8 per cent; last year the equivalent sale totalled more than £14m. Christie’s on the same day made £8.3m – down from the £10m it earned in 2011. Specialist auctioneer MacDougall’s had an even tougher time, only selling 44 per cent of its Important Russian Art sale, garnering £9.3m. But William MacDougall was upbeat. “It was not our strongest week but, none the less, it was reasonable; works on paper did well and we achieved three world records,” he said.

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

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