The Art Market: go figurative

The art market is certainly continuing to ignore the prevailing economic gloom. This week Christie’s reported record-breaking sales in 2012 of $6.27bn. They are the highest in the firm’s history and indeed the highest in art market history, and grew by 10 per cent compared with 2011. Private treaty sales accounted for a socking $1bn, an increase of 26 per cent over the previous year.

The bumper figures were driven by contemporary art, which represented $1.6bn, an increase of 34 per cent over the previous year. This bested the second-highest grossing category, impressionist and modern art, which came in at just under $1bn and was 14 per cent up on 2011. However, totals for Asia and the Middle East fell – with Hong Kong sales dropping by 16 per cent ($716m) and Dubai sales by a whopping 42 per cent, although this was also due to fewer sales being held.

Sotheby’s notched up auction sales in 2012 of just over $4.4bn. To this figure must be added private treaty sales of $695m made during the first three-quarters of 2012 – as a public company, Sotheby’s cannot release audited figures until March. So its sales total of $5.1bn in 2012 will increase, but probably not enough to upend the existing line-up.

Suzy MacMurray’s 'Feast' (2011)

It was curtains up for the art fair season with a jam-packed vernissage on Tuesday for Art London (ends tomorrow). Now in its 25th year, the fair has lost some keynote dealers, notably Richard Green, James Hyman and Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, and according to exhibitor Peter Osborne of Osborne Samuel, the event’s focus on modern British art is declining. “The market for modern British is not as dynamic as it was in 2007,” he says. “And the fair is changing focus, becoming more contemporary, with lower price points. It is no longer a place for the £100,000 work – £10,000 is nearer the mark,” At the opening he sold five photographs by Tim Flach in the £5,000-£15,000 range but more expensive works on his stand did not immediately find buyers.

Among newcomers to the fair was Gina Agnew, seventh-generation member of the Agnews art dealing dynasty. She opened her own gallery last year and was showing sculpture by the bassoonist-turned-artist Suzy MacMurray, who works with everyday materials – cling film, feathers, fishhooks, garden hosing – to create sculpture. A wall-based piece, “Feast”, (2011), was priced at £10,000 while “Siren” (2011), a whiplash with fish hooks, was garnering interest at £12,000 and a number of drawings by MacMurray found buyers. Vigo Gallery, run by Toby Clarke, did well at the opening, selling two Oliver Marsdens, a Keith Coventry, a Kadar Brook and a Biggs and Collings. “We’ve already covered our costs,” he says.

Michael Werner gallery in Mayfair, which has just inaugurated a show by James Lee Byars, is extending on to the ground floor of its Upper Brook Street premises. “There is a wonderful old Victorian winter garden at the back of the building, with a 25ft glass ceiling and Grade I listed woodwork,” says Gordon VeneKlasen. Werner opened in London last October, one of a spate of leading New York galleries to install in the British capital. At the time the ground floor of the building was rented to a hedge fund (apt that it was in a winter garden!) but now the gallery has acquired the ground floor, increasing its area by about a half again.

The James Lee Byars show, which continues until March 18, features works dating from the 1960s, when the artist lived in Japan, as well as “The Angel”, a 1989 sculpture formed of 125 handblown glass globes. Some of the Byars sculptures will be shown in the winter garden before it is refurbished.

In New York, art galleries in the districts stricken by superstorm Sandy are gradually reopening, and despite gloomy prognoses that many would not return, there have been no reported definitive closures so far. Meanwhile, the second edition of Metro Show, an art fair in Chelsea, opens on Thursday. It features just 25 exhibitors with a somewhat bizarre mix of specialities, from outsider and folk art to furniture, Americana and contemporary prints.

In a show of solidarity the fair is teaming up with the Editions|Artists Book fair, which was originally scheduled for November last year but cancelled because of the superstorm. Boasting 52 dealers in prints, multiples and artists’ books, it will run right next door alongside Metro on the same dates.

The energy-rich “-stans” – Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, are gradually moving into the art market. There is one Azeri art gallery in London, and now two Uzbek women are opening an art space in Dubai, which will show artists from across Central Asia.

Called Alif Gallery, the project is the brainchild of Dubai-based art adviser Natalya Andakulova and London-based curator Gayane Umerova. Umerova is a specialist of art from the region and curated the Sixth Tashkent Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2011.

“We will be showing artists from the region, including Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Uzbeks and Kazaks,” says Umerova. “On the whole this art is figurative, not very conceptual: it is influenced by the Silk Road and the various currents that came through the region.” The opening show, from January 30, is of the leading Uzbek artist Timur D’Vatz, with prices in the region of $20,000.

The online art site has had to change its name to The problem came from its “.sy” ending – which is the domain suffix for Syria. This was acquired in 2009 when the company was started up, before the conflicts in Syria escalated and before US sanctions were imposed. But after disruption to its service – a 36-hour “service outage” – the firm changed its name, stating: “We did not want a domain that could be construed in any way as supporting the Syrian government.” The transition has been painless – if you enter the old name, the new one pops up automatically.

The buyer of the Guyanin sculpture mentioned and illustrated last week is the leading Mayfair dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi, who points out it dates from the 13th, not the 18th century. Mea culpa. Eskenazi also remarks that the sculpture is almost identical to, and possibly by the same hand, as a wooden sculpture of a Bodhisattva he sold to the Ashmolean museum in 1982.

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

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