The Art Market: Baku the future

As part of its continual push to develop new markets, Christie’s last week organised its first exhibition in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, flying in specialists and its London chairman Viscount Linley, along with works of art and a group of dealers and collectors.

The oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea is undergoing rapid transformation. Luxury goods shops and five-star hotels have sprung up (the group stayed in the newly opened Four Seasons), while a spectacular cultural centre designed by Zaha Hadid is nearing completion.

On this first foray, Christie’s worked with two local non-profit organisations: the Heydar Aliyev Foundation (which is building the cultural centre) and contemporary art space Yarat. Both have links with the family of the late President Aliyev: his son Ilham Aliyev, the current president, is married to Mehriban Aliyeva, who heads the foundation; meanwhile Aliyev’s niece Aida Mahmudova is behind Yarat.

Christie’s had brought a small taster of its upcoming Dubai, London and New York sales, ranging from Hadieh Shafie’s “11580 Pages” (2012) estimated at $10,000-$15,000 to a $5m-$7m Picasso – “Femme au chien” (1962). The highlight was a glamorous black-tie dinner in the hotel’s glittering white-marble-and-gold ballroom. In his welcome speech, Lord Linley promised: “We will be back again, but bigger and better.”

Shortly before donning her dark blue gown for the party, Mahmudova – who herself makes art – unveiled a Yarat exhibition of local artists in a fashionably half-wrecked building of raw concrete. The works ranged from a sculpture made from brooms by Ali Hasanov to hyperrealist paintings of vegetables and bottles by Farid Rasulov. Mahmudova has also started a commercial art gallery called Yaz in Baku’s old town, showing some of the same artists.

This is a truly nascent art scene, but the will to develop it is there. As the British ambassador Peter Bateman said: “The country was isolated for so long under the Soviet Union, but now has clear aspirations to enjoy the good things of life, including western art and culture.”

Lawsuits sometimes give a fascinating glimpse of what is going on in the normally secretive art world. In the New York State Supreme court this week, Revlon boss and billionaire investor Ron Perelman – who is no stranger to lawsuits – accused gallerist Larry Gagosian of breach of contract, unjust enrichment and, among various other ills, of making him lose millions over a Koons sculpture entitled “Popeye”.

In the complaint, Perelman’s art fund MAFG said it had bought “Popeye” for $4m in 2010, with five instalments of $800,000 due as production advanced. Perelman had agreed not to resell the work before the planned completion date in December this year; but what he didn’t know, court papers said, was that Gagosian had secretly agreed to pay 70 per cent of any resale price to Koons – or 80 per cent, once it was completed. “Given Gagosian’s role as Koons’ representative and the foremost dealer in Koons’ work, such restrictions effectively crippled plaintiffs’ ability to resell ‘Popeye’ at its fair market value,” said the complaint. Gagosian almost immediately shot off a countersuit, claiming that Perelman had made him lose millions, after he allegedly failed to pay for various unidentified art purchases – including an “unfinished sculpture”. Adding spice to the tale of the warring billionaires is the fact that they were previously friends and even business partners in a restaurant. According to his spokesperson, the cosmetics mogul has paid for his art purchases; at press time, neither party had sent comments for publication.

Still in New York, L&M Arts, the partnership between Swiss-born dealer Dominique Lévy and former Goldman Sachs trader Robert Mnuchin, has broken up. Lévy, who started Christie’s private sales unit in 2000, founded L&M Arts with Mnuchin in 2005. Both bought sharp business flair to the venture, as well as producing acclaimed exhibitions – but now Lévy has left, and will be opening her own gallery in New York’s Upper East Side early next year, although they will continue to run their Los Angeles gallery together. “There comes a time in any partnership when you grow apart,” Lévy said. Her first show will be historical, confronting two artists, like the Calder/Tanguy show in 2010. Mnuchin, meanwhile, says: “We’ve had a terrific relationship and we part as friends.”

This column may have to be rebaptised “Art Business”, according to speakers at the “International Art Industry Forum” held this week in Vienna during the city’s art fair.

The speakers – who included investor Sergey Skaterschikov, one of two Russians who have bought the rights to the fair – claimed that the market, now worth $60bn a year, was in an extraordinary moment of transformation, due to rising asset prices, new collectors, new technology and new mentalities.

“There used to be criticism of the use of the term ‘industry’ for art, but no longer. The big issue is what is going to happen to the old structures and directions,” Skaterschikov said.

But financial analyst Christian Roehl, pointing out that many art funds have failed to deliver, said: “Investors want a speedy approach, everything has to be quick and dirty. You can’t treat the art market like that, it’s a slow burn, and to succeed it needs knowledge and passion.”

Ceramic jar (2007) by Iranian Farhad Moshiri, up for sale at Christie’s in Dubai next month

However the market (or the “business”) evolves, interest in art investment continues to be strong. Next week in Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Citibank will hold a conference in London on art as an alternative asset, with Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, UBS, Deutsche Bank and Barclays attending. The fully booked event has attracted 300 participants.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has revealed another tranche of its art purchases for the museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015. The range is broad, including the first photographs that the future institution has bought; antiquities, Roman sculpture, an Islamic pavement and a Limoges reliquary, as well as paintings by Gauguin and Magritte. A selection of the acquisitions will go on show on Saadiyat Island next year.

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

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