The art market: Fall-out from the volcano

As aeroplanes start flying again, the art trade is counting the cost of the fall-out from the Icelandic volcano, which caused cancelled deals, exhibitions and auctions. According to the leading art shippers Gander and White, “business ground to a halt”. Even with the resumption of flights, things will take a long time to get back to normal; the firm’s managing director Oliver Howell told me: “All the flights are full and the airlines are not accepting freight until further notice. I don’t see any change soon; the backlog is huge.” He said he knew of dealers who had lost sales because they could not get works of art to prospective clients.

Mallett’s managing director Giles Hutchinson Smith – stranded earlier this week in Geneva – said there had been a “sharply decreased footfall” in its London gallery this week. Also in London, Sadie Coles has postponed a Sam Durant exhibition to April 28, while in Switzerland the watch auctioneer Patrizzi has postponed its April 25 watch sale to May 7, as many of its timepieces were blocked in Hong Kong.

As for the auction houses, Sotheby’s, showing highlights of its May New York sales in London, said it had “made arrangements” for them to return to the US, while Christie’s claimed the problems had had “no impact on our sales in any of our locations across the globe”. It added that it had had “contingency plans in place”, although a spokesman refused to reveal what they were.

Turkish buyers were out in force for London’s Islamic art sales week and paid some huge prices to buy back pieces of their heritage. Turkey’s economy is dynamic and new museums are being built; members of Turkey’s leading families, the Koçs and Sabancis, collect both for themselves and for the museums they have founded and finance. At Sotheby’s, an early 16th-century Ottoman inlaid box, estimated at £500,000-£700,000, soared to almost £2.4m, and later in the same sale a rare Iznik tile, showing heart-like shapes on a vivid green background and dating from 1560-1570, made a stunning £229,250 (est £20,000-£30,000). It went to the London-based dealer Simon Ray, whose clients include Omer Koç. But Sotheby’s sale of contemporary Turkish art, while throwing up some good prices, was “selective”, as auction-house speak puts it, with only 66.7 per cent sold by lot.

One of the biggest mysteries of the current art market is the ownership of a group of Rothkos that previously belonged to financier J Ezra Merkin. Merkin – who is accused of a $2.4bn fraud as part of the Madoff Ponzi scheme – sold his artworks last year, including Rothkos and Giacomettis, for $310m in a deal brokered by PaceWildenstein for a tidy $11m fee.

Now the Rothkos have gone on show in Moscow at the Garage, the contemporary space founded by Dasha Zhukova, partner of the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. From this it is a hop, skip and a jump to concluding that the mystery buyer is none other than the Chelsea football club owner himself, who in the past has bought high-priced artworks including Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” for £17.2m and Bacon’s “Triptych” for £43m in 2008. However, Abramovich has repeatedly affirmed that neither he, nor any entity he controls, owns the Rothkos. Whoever they belong to, the show is a chance to see 13 works, including studies for all three of Rothko’s famous mural projects: the Seagram murals, the Holyoke Center at Harvard University and the Rothko Chapel at the University of St Thomas in Houston.

On Thursday, London’s Original Print Fair will return to the Royal Academy for its 25th anniversary – making it, since the demise of Grosvenor House, the longest-running art fair in the capital. This edition is the biggest ever, with 67 dealers spread across the whole of the RA’s main galleries. But, says fair director Helen Rosslyn, the air travel stoppage has also thrown up problems. “It’s really ironic; I got the whole space for the first time this year and I went all out to bring in new US exhibitors,” she says. “And an additional headache is the de-installation of the Van Gogh show, which has been delayed as the couriers were also held up. This means we will have very little time to get the fair installed.”

Still, the four US exhibitors found a way around the problem – they grouped their art in one shipment that was flown to Madrid and then trucked on to London. There will be a broad range of prices at the fair, with Alan Cristea, for example, showing work by Opie, Hamilton, Caufield and others from £750 to £20,000. The Original Print Fair ends on May 3.

For even softer prices, the Embankment galleries at Somerset House are hosting Pick Me Up, London’s first ever graphic art and design fair, with designers and illustrators showing their own work. Here you can grab a bold image for as little as £45, such as “Boxergirl” by Juju Delivery, an edition of 100 giclée prints. It, too, runs until May 3.

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

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.