The Art Market: Bringing out the big guns

Hardly a week goes by without something new happening on the Chinese art scene. Even though art sales have faltered in the past year, both the mainland and Hong Kong remain a huge market and the region that auction houses and dealers want to be in (see Susan Moore). Witness the joint venture between Sotheby’s and the massive GeHua, the commercial wing of the Culture Ministry, which begins with two exhibitions in the Beijing World Art Museum. One is of contemporary Chinese art, the other retraces Sotheby’s history (until October 7). “The collaboration really could be a game-changer,” says one local resident.

An early sign is the increased presence in Hong Kong of the two Chinese powerhouses, Guardian and Poly. Guardian – which reported sales in 2011 of US$1.77bn – is the fourth biggest auction house in the world, and is holding its first auction in Hong Kong on October 7. It is estimated at about HK$200m (US$26m), a small sum compared with the mega-sessions staged by Sotheby’s and Christie’s twice a year. “We are starting slowly but surely,” says Yannan Wang, chief executive of Guardian, “in two areas we do well, traditional painting and classical furniture. We are testing the waters there.” Will she move into contemporary Chinese as well? “Maybe, but for the moment we have our hands full.”

Poly – the world’s third largest auction house, with a reported $1.9bn turnover in 2011 – is also strongly rumoured to be planning an auction in Hong Kong in November, to coincide with Sotheby’s sales there. At press time it had not responded to a request for confirmation.

The first auctions of the autumn season have shown extraordinary strength in the market, across-the-board. In New York, Sotheby’s two-day Brooke Astor sale, which featured high Park Avenue taste – fiddly Chinese porcelains, rococo mirrors, silver, Old Master drawings and 100 paintings of dogs – made a buoyant $18.8m, almost double its upper $9.7m pre-sale estimate (estimates do not include commission; results do).

Bernard Frize’s ‘Thouan’ (2002), sold at Sotheby’s in Paris

In Paris, works sent for sale by Marcel Brient, a noted French collector, did extremely well at Sotheby’s, making €5.1m, double the low pre-sale estimate. Mainly postwar French art, it set some startling prices, such as the €126,750 made for Bernard Frize’s “Thouan” (2002), way over its €20,000-€30,000 estimate. At Christie’s in Zurich the estate of Bruno Giacometti (brother of Alberto and Diego) racked up over CHF5.4m (US$5.6m), five times expectations, with three pieces of Diego Giacometti furniture soaring to new records.

All these were collections linked to a well-known name and off the market for decades: such sales generally sparkle. But in New York the various-owners sales of contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s were also solid, with a Yayoi Kusama “Red Nets” from 1960 trawling in just over $1m (est. $400,000-$600,000) at Christie’s and Gerhard Richter demonstrating his continuing clout with a double-estimate $842,500 at Sotheby’s for a decidedly mediocre squeegee abstract. And consignments for the coming contemporary art sales in New York are very strong, with multimillion-dollar works by Pollock, Warhol, Rothko and Basquiat on offer – a sure sign of confidence among vendors.

Art13 London, the new fair spawned by Tim Etchells and his partners, who founded the Hong Kong fair, has announced its advisory board. Taking place in the Olympia Centre on March 1-3 next year, it aims to bring together 100 galleries from around the world. The advisers include six collectors: China’s Li Bing, the Manchester-based Frank Cohen, the Parisians Dominique and Sylvain Levy, and Sydney Picasso, Dubai’s Ramin Salsali, and China’s Thomas Shao, who is also a publisher. China/UK go-between Philip Dodd and Korean curator Sunhee Kim round off the panel. “A global art fair for a global city” is the fair’s catchphrase, and looking at the list, it seems apt.

Still in London, Phillips de Pury is doing its bit for world peace with an exhibition (on view at the ICA) and auction of works by leading British artists. The initiative comes from Peace One Day, whose aims are expressed in its name. The artists’ works illustrate an AK-47 assault rifle, all to be auctioned on Thursday by Simon de Pury.

White Cube is opening a new gallery in São Paulo on December 1, the first of the world’s top dealers to attack the potentially lucrative Brazilian market directly. “Brazil has a big, important and vibrant culture,” says Tim Marlow, White Cube’s director of exhibitions. “We had been thinking about this for some time. In May we showed Antony Gormley’s Special Project, Facts and Systems in the space, and it was a great success. It all seemed to come together.”

The gallery, which will open with a solo Tracey Emin show, has a three-year contract for the 4,600 sq ft industrial-feel space, near Ibirapuera Park, where the São Paulo Biennale is being held. The Brazilian market has some handicaps, notably a punishing tax on imports, which can almost double prices. Marlow said: “We’ll just have to confront this head on. We are trailblazers here, and we have lots of plans.”

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

This article has been amended since pubication to clarify a reference to the Sotheby’s and GeHua joint venture.

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