Frieze finds its limits in battle against ‘fair fatigue’

Bruegel the Younger, Picasso and Basquiat were among the artists whose works changed hands for millions of pounds at Frieze, the annual art fair extravaganza centred on London’s Regents Park, which drew to a close on Sunday.

Sales at the five-day event, which attracts the world’s top dealers, gallery owners, artists and wealthy collectors, stayed firmly within expectations, with some describing trade as “muted”.

Highlights included the sale of an unknown work by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, which went for £6m. Rediscovered by the London dealer Johnny Van Haeften, “The Census at Bethlehem” was bought from the artist in 1611 by an English family which then held it for 400 years.

Other big sales included Pablo Picasso’s “Femme Assise au Chapeau”, sold by Acquavella Gallery for around $8m, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Harlem Paper”, which was on sale by Vedovi Gallery for an asking price of about $5m.

Many of the biggest sales took place at Frieze Masters, a fair for historical works launched last year alongside the larger Frieze London fair for contemporary art. But Frieze, for which the Financial Times acted as media partner, has also given rise to several satellite events established during the week.

Melanie Gerlis, art market editor at the Art Newspaper, said that with 10 art fairs and 10 auctions over the period, the market had found its limits. “People were not going to spend more than they intended to,” she said. “It wasn’t a dreadful year and it wasn’t a super-crazy year.”

Christie’s had the better performance among auction houses, with sales of £27.8m at its auction of postwar and contemporary art, against a pre-sale estimate of between £20.3m and £29.2m. Its auction of 55 large-scale works from the Saatchi Gallery sold out for £3m, including a record auction price for a work by Tracey Emin, the British artist, for “To Meet My Past”, a four-poster bed, which went for £481,000.

Lisa Schiff, a New-York based art adviser who bought works at Frieze on behalf of clients, said “fair fatigue” had become an issue in the market, with Frieze followed immediately by FIAC, a Paris art fair taking place this week. Other big events include Art Basel and Tefaf Maastricht.

While Mr Van Haeften said he was “delighted” with the interest shown in the Bruegel, he said the mood more generally among buyers and dealers was “probably a little muted, a little cautious”.

But some detected a more positive sentiment. David Roberts, a collector, said he had found competition among buyers for sought-after works and gallery owners “happy and comfortable” with the level of sales achieved. “I bought a few things from Frieze but there were two or three things I was trying to buy that went elsewhere.”

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