The Art Market: California dreaming

Sales of tribal art in Paris closed the auction season there, with Christie’s making €6m on December 11 and Sotheby’s doing a little better with €7.2m. At Christie’s, the sell-through rate was 70 per cent, but the higher-estimated lots failed to shine: a Nkundu reliquary from the Congo fell short of its €3m upper estimate, making €2.7m (pre-sale estimates don’t include premium; results do). It was nevertheless the top price given this year for a piece in the tribal art category. And a brooding Fang head from Gabon, with a prestigious provenance (it had belonged to Félix Fénéon and Charles Ratton and was exhibited in African Negro Art at MoMA, New York, in 1935) made just €385,000, well under its €500,000 upper target. However small, modestly estimated pieces with old provenances did very well, and a lovely ivory otter from Alaska made €70,300 – three times its estimate.

Nlo Byeri Fang head from Gabon

Sotheby’s sale on December 12 had a slightly better sell-through rate of 72 per cent. Its cover lot, a glaring ancestor figure from a sacred flute (Papua New Guinea), whistled up almost three times its estimate, €1.4m, going to a French collector in the room. Again, small pieces with solid provenances were highly sought-after, particularly a group acquired between 1906 and 1914 by a young Belgian collector in Congo, Emile Lejeune. Many went well over estimate – for example, a three-inch ivory whistle made 10 times expectations at €34,350.

Until about four years ago, the Saudi Arabian art scene was very private, and the conservative, highly religious state was certainly a no-go area for showing anything controversial. But more recently there have been initiatives such as Edge of Arabia, which gave a higher profile to Saudi artists, and the kingdom organised its first pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

The main hub for contemporary art is Jeddah on the Red Sea, which is more liberal than the capital Riyadh. It has some art galleries – including the well-regarded Athr – but they mainly show Saudi artists. Now the Damascus, Beirut and Dubai dealer and auctioneer Ayyam is setting up an outpost in the city.

“There is a long-standing tradition of art in the town,” says founder Hisham Samawi. “We noticed great talent coming out of the country, we want to nurture that, as well as showing artists from elsewhere.” Asked about the issue of censorship, he says: “Of course we are going to be respectful but we do want to push the envelope a little.”

The gallery will hold six shows a year, and it will also provide a platform for young, unrepresented artists. The gallery opens in Jeddah on February 6, and Ayyam is also opening a London outpost – in New Bond Street – in January.

Ayyam is present in Beirut and Damascus, and I asked Samawi – who is Syrian-born – what the situation is in those cities. “We have stopped shows in Damascus and converted the gallery into studios, but basically we are trying to help the artists leave, to go to Dubai or Cairo. It’s not safe for them there,” he says. “As for Beirut, the gallery is still functioning but there is such a cloud of uncertainty in the region, it’s difficult to plan ahead.”

19th-century Alaskan ivory otter

New York’s Armory Show has just released its exhibitor list for its 2013 edition, which will take place on March 7-10. The fair lost two key figures this year, founder Paul Morris and managing director Michael Hall, who has moved to Hauser & Wirth. So now managing director Noah Horowitz is in sole charge and he will be grappling with the perceived challenge from Frieze New York, which set up shop in May last year on Randall’s Island. But the list is strong, and includes David Zwirner, Lisson, Victoria Miro and Eigen+Art, as well as Eva Presenhuber, the South African Goodman Gallery and Rodolphe Janssen from Brussels. Horowitz is continuing his plan to trim the number of booths, and is expecting a final total of about 210 exhibitors.

The Californian art scene is getting stronger and stronger, with new galleries opening, mainly in Los Angeles (artists all want to show there, apparently; maybe it’s something to do with the magic of Hollywood). Pacific Standard Time, a sprawl of exhibitions across southern California last year, certainly raised interest as well. Now the local auction house Lama (Los Angeles Modern Auctions), which started as a design house 10 years ago, is benefiting from the upsurge.

According to founder Peter Loughrey, he is shifting to selling more art than design, and is being successful with Californian artists such as Frederick Hammersley, Karl Benjamin and De Wain Valentine. This October Lama set records for all three, all bought by collectors outside the state. A modernist painting by Hammersley made $87,500 and a sculpture by Valentine made $81,250, both doubling their previous prices. “Things are going so well that we just added four full-time positions on our staff,” says Loughrey.

Danful Yang’s ‘Packing Me Softly’ (2012)

Small but with a larger-than-life personality, the Hong Kong socialite and dealer Pearl Lam is a committed promoter of design. This month she is holding her first design exhibition in her recently opened Pedder Building gallery in Hong Kong. “There was never a hierarchy of fine art and decorative art in China, as in the west,” Lam told me in Miami Beach this month. “And because labour has always been cheap there. But just because they are made by hand, they should not be restricted by western perceptions.” Her show is titled Return to Basics – The Cross-Fertilisation of Design and features three designers: the French creator André Dubreuil, the Chinese Danful Yang and XYZ Design. The offerings range from a smart glass table to wall ceramics arranged in patterns, as well as a wacky chair dating from 2007 which combines Chinese and western rococo styles.

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

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