The Art Market: Jewels and jitters

Ever since New York’s Pace Gallery set up a temporary base in London in 2010, the art world has been agog to discover where its permanent space would be. Now the news is out – Pace is hiring a 9,000 sq ft gallery in the west wing of 6 Burlington Gardens from the Royal Academy, which will open just before the Frieze art fair in October.

Pace has a 15-year lease on the gallery, which will be renovated by architect Sir David Chipperfield as part of a “master plan” for the RA. Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the RA, says the income generated will “stabilise the economics of the plan”, describing it as “a public/private partnership”. With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the rest of the building will be renovated, starting in 2013, with the east wing turned into a lecture theatre. The first floor is being retained by the RA for exhibitions. The entire Burlington Gardens space was previously occupied by Christie’s-owned Haunch of Venison, during refurbishment of its gallery off Bond Street.

Pace is one of the world’s pre-eminent galleries, representing both living artists such as Bridget Riley and Chuck Close and lucrative estates including Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder. It will open the gallery with Rothko/ Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes, juxtaposing Rothko’s late black and grey paintings with photographs by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Marc Glimcher of Pace says that for the gallery, the RA “is a dream neighbour, this makes a great fit for us”. The new space brings Pace’s empire to seven, with one in Beijing, two in London and four in New York.

This is my last column before the summer, and seems a good time to look back over an eventful six months in the art market. With the global economy in disarray and financial markets jittery, the art market seems to have sailed along, unaffected by the chaos all around it.

At auction, because the impressionist and modern sector is suffering from a continuing depletion of inventory, prime and fresh-to-market works of art are snapped up – and if they come from a good collection, then the sky’s the limit. This was the case for a Henry Moore sculpture from the Hubertus Wald collection, which made an eye-popping £21m in London in February. A new world record at auction was set in New York in May when Munch’s “The Scream” (1895) sold for a massive $119.9m. It was not bought by Qatar, although the buyer remains unknown for the moment.

Christie’s also sold ‘Le Rose du Bleu’ by Yves Klein (1960) for £23.6m

As for contemporary art, the top end has been strong. Christie’s pulled off its highest-grossing ever sale of postwar and contemporary art on May 8 in New York, making $388.5m. This week it set another record, for the biggest sale of contemporary art in Europe, racking up £133m and piling on the records, for Basquiat (£12.9m), Klein (£23.6m), Broodthaers (£433,250), Milhazes (£937,250) and Altmejd (£217,250). The result sharply surpassed Sotheby’s £69.3m session the night before, which performed within expectations but with no stellar material.

The trade has coined the word “Fairtigue” to describe the exhaustion brought on by the relentless succession of major art fairs this spring. Frieze slotted a new event into the already crowded fair calendar, after the Armory Show and the New York sales and before Art Hong Kong and Art Basel. Now that the dust has settled – it can take months before dealers can really assess the impact of an art fair – the verdict seems to be that Frieze successfully pulled off its inaugural New York fair, with a great tent and excellent organisation, even if sales were patchy. Results of the Hong Kong fair were even more patchy, and dire for some. Sales at Art Basel, however, were very strong, confirming its position as the top dog of modern and contemporary art fairs.

To read the headlines, it seems all is well in the art market. Not so. The very top end is doing well, fuelled by the mega-wealthy whose fortunes have not been dented by the financial crisis. A handful of artists, targeted by rich collectors and increasingly for investment, are also doing very well. Look at the saleroom catalogues or at the big booths at fairs – the same names are everywhere. But further down the scale, the picture is very different. Smaller galleries are being squeezed – quietly, a number have closed.

The market is picky, and supply will continue to be the crucial factor going into the last round of sales next month and then on into the autumn.

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

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