Christie’s surprised the market this week by announcing that it will cost more to buy art in its auctions. The change is not a rise in its rates, but rather in the thresholds at which the premiums are calculated. Christie’s new charges, from March 11, are 25 per cent on purchases up to $75,000 (the previous level was up to $50,000), 20 per cent from $75,001 to $1.5m (previously $1m) and 12 per cent above that.
Art dealers are incensed at the increase. Dorsey Waxter, the new president of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), said: “Everything is going on the buyer, and you have to add taxes here in New York as well; it’s a big hike.” London’s Helly Nahmad, who with his dealing family are big buyers at auction, said: “This is a big jump, particularly in the middle band. It is making auction look increasingly unattractive, and it will be a drag on the market.” But collector Frank Cohen was more resigned about its impact. “When you add in premium, VAT, artists’ resale right ... you can be looking at over 30 per cent on the hammer price,” he said. “I don’t think it will make any difference, collectors will just have to pay more.”
What about the other auction houses? Phillips and Bonhams told me, in different ways, that they were not commenting, and Sotheby’s said it was “studying the matter, but hasn’t taken any decisions”.
Stay tuned – chances are they will all align soon.
The first edition of London’s new fair, Art13, opens next Friday in Olympia with a decidedly global mix of 129 galleries from more than 30 countries. At the same time, 30 private museum owners will be meeting to discuss their goals and concerns; this session is private, but there will be two panels open to the public. The first is “The China Moment”, with the Chinese collectors/museum owners Dai Zhikang, Li Bing, Liu Wejjian and Wang Wei (Friday). Then on Saturday, “The Global Rise of the Private Museum” (which I am chairing) brings together more museum founders: Dr Oei Hong Djien from Indonesia, Don and Mera Rubell from the US, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo from Italy and Ramin Salsali from Dubai.
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To the surprise of many, the Spanish art fair Arco, which finished on February 17, was far less dire than some had feared. “We are all quite happy, considering the difficult times we are in,” said director Carlos Urroz. The fair attracted 201 exhibitors, 66 per cent of them non-Spanish. Spanish art galleries have been hard hit by the economic slump; last year’s hike in sales tax, to 21 per cent, added to their woes. Carlos Duran, president of Arte Barcelona, an association of the top local galleries, says that a quarter of its members have closed recently. Nevertheless, dealers at Arco reported surprisingly encouraging sales, to Spanish and international buyers. Edward Nahem, for example, sold Juan Muñoz’s “Untitled” (1998) sculpture of two men looking in a mirror to a Spanish collector; it was tagged at €200,000. Galerie Lelong placed an alabaster Jaume Plensa portrait bust, “Awilda VII” (2011), with a buyer from Madrid (about €240,000). And a grouping of 10 Brazilian galleries reported healthy sales, with Casa Triângulo selling a Joana Vasconcelos piece to a Spanish collector for €65,000.
The organisers had brought in a large number of VIP collectors – 260, plus 25 art advisers and 150 panellists – from 47 countries. “They took a global view and this was definitely a success,” said first-time exhibitor Honor Fraser, of Los Angeles. One VIP collector, Californian Blake Byrne, bought Juan Garaizábal’s “Tower Window” (2012) in the solo projects section (tagged at $18,000, with Álvaro Alcázar gallery).
Urroz explained that, even though budgets have been slashed, Spanish institutions were still buying, and cited Reina Sofia, which spent €300,000 at the fair. “Museums and art centres have to continue with their programmes, so they have to acquire.”
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about sales of art by US museums, and now another such sale has sparked fury in Turkey. SantralIstanbul Museum of Contemporary Art, which was recently closed, tipped its whole collection of Turkish art into auction, causing consternation among art circles in the country. The institution, part of Bilgi University, had only opened in 2007 and many of the works of art had, according to a petition to stop the sale, been donated or sold at rock-bottom prices because they were supposedly going to a museum collection “that would represent the heart and soul of histories of art in Turkey”.
Despite the petition, the sale went ahead in an Istanbul hotel this week, offering 69 lots from the museum, mainly paintings. The most expensive was “Abstract Composition” by the Turkish painter Nejad Devrim, which made just over £510,000; the whole sale fetched about £3.8m. But leading curator Vasif Kortun, who had attempted to stop the auction, was distressed by the whole affair. “The reversion of a public-service collection to private hands was a big disgrace,” he told me. “It was the worst kind of heritage to pass on to our children.”
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper