The art market: Lots to think about

It was a Lowry week in London, with 30 works coming under the hammer at Bonhams, Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales of modern British art. The highlight, at Christie’s, was 14 works collected by Lord Forte, which included a rare view of London: L. S. Lowry, a Manchester-born artist, is far better known for his industrial scenes peopled with scurrying figures. Although no favourite with the British art establishment (Tate refuses to exhibit its seven Lowrys), the artist nevertheless has a loyal following, mainly in the UK. Fears that too many were on the market in one go proved unfounded, although the works did not soar. The highest price was achieved for “Piccadilly Circus” (1960), an on-estimate £5.6m which matched the record set for “The Football Match” (1949) earlier this year.

“But,” said art dealer Ivor Braka, “another work, ‘Fun Fair at Daisy Nook’, was the masterpiece of the group. With Lowry, the Lancashire fairground theme is more typical, it’s what the true collectors want.” This fetched an over-estimate £3.4m. All the Forte Lowrys sold, bar one.

Overall the modern British sales were patchy, however, with many casualties, from Sutherland and Spencer to Moore and Chadwick. Dealers blamed over-optimistic expectations and a thin market.

“If the estimates are too high, the works will crash and burn,” said London dealers Offer Waterman after watching three Edward Burras fail at Sotheby’s and two at Christie’s. Christie’s raised £23.6m (thanks to the Lowrys) and Sotheby’s £8.5m

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There was a surreal feel about Sotheby’s sale this week of a work by the non-existent artist Nat Tate. The work made an over-estimate £7,250, going to an unidentified bidder on the phone. Christie’s cataloguing spoke about Tate’s work, and his suicide, as if he had actually lived. Only at the end of the entry did it reveal Tate to be an invention of author William Boyd, who created Nat Tate (the name is a combination of National Gallery and Tate). Boyd was present at the sale, saying afterwards he was “delighted and overwhelmed”. The proceeds go to the little-known Artist’s General Benevolent Fund (which does exist, and helps sick and ageing artists).

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It is a parade of shame: photographs of 6,000 pieces, found in the storage containers of the art handlers of the Parisian saleroom Drouot and believed stolen, have been put on the internet by the French police. The scandal, which led to the ending of the porters’ cosy 150-year monopoly, came after a number of handlers and four auctioneers were investigated for handling stolen goods and corruption: the investigations continue. So far the French police have carried out 147 raids on various handlers and seized a huge volume of objects. Now they are appealing for anyone to get in touch if they recognise anything on the site ( Drouot, which seems to have done more hand-wringing than taking action (despite being slammed in a ministry of justice report), rapidly put out a statement pointing out that the objects were not found in Drouot itself and bleats that it is just another “victim” in this lamentable affair.

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New York’s PAD (Pavilion of Art and Design), which was held in the Armory last week for the first time, was well received and commercially successful, but a massive spat has broken out between the French organiser Patrick Perrin and his partner in the venture, the long-established US-based specialist Sanford Smith. Smith has announced that he will not be working with Perrin next year, and exploded his bombshell – he has the Armory booked for the next five years and will hold a new art and design fair, on exactly PAD’s dates. Ouch!

Perrin then circulated a petition to exhibitors asking them to sign up to his fair – and most did. Re-ouch!

“Perrin has the high-level dealers, but Sanford has the venue,” noted a dealer. “I think they will have to kiss and make up.” No doubt an inducement for PAD exhibitors was not to lose their places in the other PAD fairs, in Paris and London.

This wasn’t the only talking-point at the fair. One of the exhibitors, Willy Huybrechts, didn’t figure in the catalogue or on the fair map; even the fair’s press service was initially unsure who he was. According to PAD, this was because the stand was a last-minute addition. One view I’ve heard is that Huybrechts’ participation was kept quiet to prevent a high-profile rival who specialises in the same field from pulling out.

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Saturday is the last chance to see the Abu Dhabi art fair, which is being held for the first time on Saadiyat Island, the location for a number of planned mega-museums. Discussions among dealers centred on the recent news that construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has been delayed, without a new delivery date forthcoming; many wondered if the fair will continue next year. Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong was nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the fair has improved in quality and got off to a good start, attracting collectors from the whole region: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, along with representatives of Britain’s Victoria and Albert and British Museums.

Meanwhile rival Art Dubai, slated for March 21-24 next year, has announced that it is organising a new design fair. Design Days Dubai will be run by Cyril Zammit and will be held in downtown Dubai under the shadow of the towering Burj Khalifa. Some 25 exhibitors are expected, ranging from established ones such as Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Nilufar and Priveekollektie, to emerging ones and some regional galleries, notably the Beirut-based Smogallery and Carwan.

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

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