The art market: January blues banished

There was a time, not so long ago, when January was a fallow month for the art market, with hardly a fair or an auction in sight. How things have changed with the global expansion of the market. In Singapore, the second edition of Art Stage Singapore is already in full swing (ends on Sunday). Strongly supported by the Singaporean government, this was a surprise success last year, drawing collectors from Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia as well as local buyers. This year there are 132 exhibitors, up from 122 the first time around, with galleries from China, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan, but also westerners Victoria Miro, Lehmann Maupin, Haunch of Venison and Eigen Art.

Is it in competition with the Hong Kong fair (which now mainly belongs to Art Basel)? Hong Kong gallerist Anna Ning doesn’t think so: “This fair is more focused on south-east Asia,” she says, “And it’s good for meeting local collectors. It’s a bridge into the region.” Among the offerings is a Bernar Venet wall sculpture, “Grib 1” (2011), with de Sarte gallery at $300,000 and a huge “Portrait of Ai Weiwei” by the Gao Brothers (Vue Privée, €250,000). Initial results were good, with Perrotin selling out his stand of works by Bharti Kher and Othoniel.

Next, the Islington-based London Art Fair opens on Wednesday with 100 exhibitors: the emphasis is on Modern British art, but the fair includes a curated section of contemporary photography.

In New York, the inaugural Metro Show at 125 West 18th Street also opens on Wednesday, with antiques and a focus on Americana.

And Los Angeles boasts at least three fairs this week, with Affordable Art, Antiques at the LA Convention Centre and a contemporary fair at Santa Monica.

The French online art data site Artprice has never shied away from legal battles, partly due to the combative nature of its colourful founder Thierry Erhmann, who is a qualified lawyer, lecturer in law and a sculptor. His latest initiative, to auction art online on the eBay model, has provoked a spat between him and the Conseil des Ventes, the French body that oversees auctions. The Conseil said it would ask for an injunction to “clarify” whether the auctions were in conformity with French auction law but then said it was suspending it. Erhmann has threatened legal action against some members of the Conseil, pointing out that they are also auctioneers, and so potential competitors.

Meanwhile Artprice says it is going ahead with its project, which launches on Wednesday. It already has 3,600 works of art on offer, which it estimates at more than €700m, and which vary from Zhang Daqian’s 1944 handscroll “Happy Birthday to Chairman Chiang Kaishek of the Government” with a starting price of €49.2m to an 18th-century engraving, “Portrait of Titian”, at a modest €24: most, however, are in the €1,000-€5,000 range. Artprice takes between 5 per cent and 9 per cent on the transaction.

‘Caspian Vacation’ (2011) by Tora Aghabayova at Phillips de Pury

Still in France, the line-up of auction house results for last year saw Christie’s leading the field with turnover of €199m (up 13 per cent) while Sotheby’s was close behind with €190m. But the “best in show” prize goes to Artcurial. It reported its highest total ever, making sales of €127m, a 23 per cent increase over 2010. Co-chairman Francis Briest picked out the €5.8m made for a De Staël and €7m for a Feininger as particularly satisfying and noted: “Our firm has reached a critical mass and now we can rival the salerooms of London or New York.”

The VIP online-only art fair returns next month and has been “re-engineered” to avoid the technical issues that crashed the site during its inaugural outing last year. And, boosted by a $1m investment from two collector/investors, Selmo Nissenbaum from Brazil and Philip Keir from Australia, it is launching another three online fairs as well as hiring a new chief executive.

The fair will be slightly smaller this year, having lost a number of its original exhibitors, including biggies Sadie Coles, L&M and Blum & Poe. Most have been replaced by other dealers, including Christophe van de Weghe. VIP has hired as chief executive Lisa Kennedy, who is a specialist in e-commerce and comes from a more down-to-earth field – her previous job was with Quidsi, which sells nappies, soap and beauty products online. “I have been looking at how contemporary art is experienced, and I want to translate the offline experience into an online one,” she says.

At the launch last year the founders, New York dealers James and Jane Cohan, were clear that VIP was not about selling art online. “This is not e-commerce,” Cohan told me. “We’re not selling art online; we’re selling access to leading art galleries around the world.” So I asked Kennedy if her appointment means the fair is performing a U-turn. She replied that the fair is not “a transaction engine” and will create “meaningful” events, but that the fairs must also generate “meaningful” sales and “we are not divorced from reality”.

The three new fairs are VIP Paper in April, Photo in July and in September Vernissage, a three-day preview of the autumn gallery season. “Our platform can be scaled up quite quickly,” says Kennedy. “We want to partner with art dealers in meaningful ways by creating such high-impact events.”

Azerbaijan comes to Phillips de Pury in London this week with a selling show of work by Azeri artists. The show, which will travel to Paris and Berlin, is curated by Hervé Mikaeloff, who also advises Louis Vuitton. He made the selection after visiting more than 20 studios in Baku: “The art training in Azerbaijan is similar to Russia’s, but there is a more southern, more colourful feel to the art,” he says. The date – it starts on Tuesday – is timed just after the Russian New Year, so he hopes to see many Russians as well ... and of course Phillips now belongs to the Russian Mercury Group. Prices range from £5,000 to £60,000.

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

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