The Art Market: records by the book

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Records fell at auction in New York and London this week, with two sensational prices made in very different fields. In New York, Tuesday’s sale at Sotheby’s of the late Clarence Day’s small but very fine collection of antiquities was a “white glove” affair, meaning that every one of the 38 lots sold. Taking pride of place was a marble bust of Antinous, the beautiful youth beloved of Emperor Hadrian, whom Hadrian deified after his mysterious death in AD 130. Dating from AD 130-138, it was the only known classical representation of Antinous, apart from coins, to be identified by an inscription – “M. Lucius Flaccus (dedicated this) to the hero/god Antinous”. The bust’s $2m-$3m estimate was left in the dust when a European collector, during an 11-minute three-way bidding battle, was forced to pay $23.8m for the prize.

On the same day in London, a four-volume double-elephant folio of Audubon’s Birds of America also flew to great heights at Sotheby’s sale of printed books. It made £7.3m, a new record for a printed book at auction, trouncing the previous record set for a different copy of the same work: that one went to Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar in 2000, who paid $8.8m (£5.6m) at the time.

The rumour that has been running round the art market for months that Pace was setting up in London has finally been confirmed. Early in the new year the New York mega-dealer will open a temporary base in Soho, while looking for a permanent space. And heading up the operation is Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, currently advisor to Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova.

So how did Pace’s Arnold Glimcher manage to lure Dent-Brocklehurst away from the Russians? Both sides say they clicked during preparation of the Rothko show, held at The Garage this summer. “I got to know Arne and Marc [Glimcher] well and to respect them,” says Dent-Brocklehurst, while Marc says: “We were looking for someone who shared our vision but who also brought in an English and European sensibility.”

“It’s early days but I’m thinking about how to put together a programme for the London space,” says Dent-Brocklehurst, “both with Pace artists and looking at things I can do locally.” For the moment, however, she is in New York for the opening of Pace’s Keith Tyson show, 52 Variables.

So, is there a job advising Abramovich available? Rumours are that Steve Cohen’s long-term advisor, Sandy Heller, might be stepping in. Abramovich’s spokesman has refused to comment.

A new art financing service has been launched in New York by the aptly named James Hedges, a hedge-fund specialist and art aficionado. The personable, self-assured Hedges is an enthusiastic believer in the commoditisation of art and its place as an alternative asset class. His newly created firm, Montage Finance, will finance art purchases for collectors and dealers – from $500,000 up to $20m – at rates he claims are better those elsewhere in the market.

He also offers loans to collectors against their holdings, and says he has “a large, fresh base of capital to put to work”.

“No one is helping collectors and galleries as I want to,” he said during the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, describing his venture as a private bank for the art world. It can provide finance at interest rates of 12-14 per cent, based on 30-50 per cent of the value of the art.

Hedges says he has at least eight clients and has already made transactions involving works valued at about $750,000 up to approximately $4m.

We’ve heard of valuing works of art by the square inch (particularly in Japan and in India) but never of it being sold by weight – until now. On show in Miami last week were two piles of sunflower seeds by Ai Weiwei, whose installation of 100m of the hand-crafted and painted porcelains is at London’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall. At Miami, one pile weighed two tons and was priced at $670,000 per ton, on show with the Beijing and Lucerne dealer Urs Meile. The other, just half a ton, was with the Copenhagen dealer Jens Faurschou, priced at $435,000.

Why the difference in price? “The more you buy, the cheaper it is,” said Faurschou, adding that he also had four five-ton piles available but they were reserved for sale to museums – at a price he declined to reveal, except that it was lower per ton. I asked Tate what would happen to the seeds after its show ends on May 2; a spokesperson said they would be returned to the artist. “This must be one of the few Turbine Hall installations to be commercially viable,” commented a dealer who preferred to remain nameless, adding: “Do you get a mask as well?” referring to the porcelain dust that has caused Tate to cordon off the installation.

More seeds are for sale in Sotheby’s auction of calligraphy on December 16. Dubbed “Hurouf: The Art of the Word”, the 145-lot, $4m auction features mainly contemporary material but with a smattering of historic items, including three rice grains and one wheat grain inscribed with a Koranic surah: each measures just half a centimetre ($1,500-$2,000). Meanwhile, the deputy director of Sotheby’s Middle East Department, Dalya Islam, is understood to be leaving that position to relocate to her native Saudi Arabia but will continue in an “ambassadorial role”.

Sotheby’s last held a sale in Doha in March 2009, with disappointing results, so it is interesting that the firm has decided to try again there, particularly in view of the rumoured acquisition by the Qatar Investment Authority of Sotheby’s arch rival, Christie’s. Christie’s has firmly and repeatedly squelched speculation that it is in talks but all this prompts the intriguing question: what would happen to an auction house selling in the region if the investment arm of a major art buyer bought a rival firm?

Still on the subject of Qatar, persistent trade rumours have it that the Qatari royal family was the buyer of Warhol’s disaster painting “Men in Her Life” (1962), which sold for a hefty, over-estimate $63.4m at the Ségalot sale chez Phillips de Pury in New York last month. Ségalot, who took the winning bid, denies this, maintaining that it went to a US buyer.

The “must get out more” prize at Art Basel Miami Beach should go to the woman (unidentified, fortunately for her) in the audience at a panel devoted to public art in Jeddah, organised by Canvas magazine. At the end of the discussion she raised her hand and asked if there are any Middle Eastern artists known in the Western world. Little did she know that Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari and Nabil Nahas were all sitting right behind her. History does not relate what the stunned panel participants responded.

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

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