London’s Frieze Art Fair opened its doors to VIP guests on Wednesday in an optimistic mood, defiantly showcasing the beautiful, the bohemian and the bizarre despite the volatility in world markets and concerns over the impact on the art world.
High-profile collectors and celebrities such as Russian entrepreneur Evgeny Lebedev and model Elle Macpherson gathered in Regent’s Park at London’s leading fair for the sale of contemporary art, which traditionally sees millions of pounds change hands.
This market has enjoyed several years of strong growth, especially at the top end, but amid global economic uncertainty and in the wake of a few weak London auctions last week, dealers are anxious to see if sales of contemporary art will hold up.
“The market feels sound. For people who have accumulated wealth contemporary art is, in a way, one of the most sophisticated ways of enjoying it...But people do say that the middle part of the market is suffering,” said Nicholas Logsdail, owner of London’s Lisson Gallery, which made five sales in the first three hours.
The White Cube gallery reported brisk trade, selling Antony Gormley’s “Spy”, a rusted steel standing figure, for £300,000 as well as Andreas Gursky’s “Cocoon II” for €600,000. An untitled 2011 painting by Mark Bradford also sold for $400,000. New York’s David Zwirner Gallery, meanwhile, sold a 2003 work by the German painter Neo Rauch for $1.35m to a US collector.
Hiscox, the insurers, have estimated that the five-day event will showcase $350m worth of art, $25m less than last year, displayed by 173 galleries from all round the world, including dealers from Colombia, Peru and Argentina for the first time. As in previous years, the fair also includes a sculpture park.
Many of the pieces on display use the internet and social networking to examine the role of information. A project by the German artist Oliver Laric will exist online only – he is filming the fair and creating an archive of slow-motion footage.
Matthew Slotover, co-founder of Frieze, said: “More galleries applied than ever before to take part. When the markets turned down in August we were worried but good art always sells. This is about getting quality works through the door.”
Laurence Tuhey, associate director of the Timothy Taylor Gallery, said there had been significant interest in the New York-based artist Kiki Smith. Her stained glass piece “A Behold” sold in the afternoon for $125,000. “We had expected doom and gloom but the energy at the start of the fair was really good,” he said.
Among the more experimental pieces of art on display yesterday included Beijing artist Liu Wei’s video installation called “The 400 Blows” in which 400 men pull down their trousers and show their bottoms to the camera. French artist Pierre Huyghe created an aquarium featuring a hermit crab
The fair’s “Frame” section, dedicated to young galleries displaying solo artists, was bigger than in previous years. “This is the younger more experimental side of the market. But the work sells if the work is good,” said Francois Ghebaly, owner of the Ghebaly gallery.
Mr Ghebaly was displaying American artist Patrick Jackson’s work. Within two hours he had sold Mr Jackson’s “dirt piles” - tables piled with dung-like dirt, for $9,000.
Auctions at Sotheby’s Christie’s, Bonhams and Phillips de Pury will be held at the end of “Frieze Week” including Bonhams’ first “Contemporary One” sale on Thursday.
“People are generally quite nervous in the contemporary art market after the collapse of Lehman’s when the market fell off a cliff. That could easily happen again,” said Robert Read, fine art expert at specialist art insurer Hiscox.
“There is a hell of a lot of cash held by the uber wealthy that is looking for a home to go to. There are not that many investment opportunities generally at the moment. So the purchasing power is there but whether they will be tempted by the contemporary art market is another matter.”
Stefan Ratibor, director of the Gagosian gallery, which sold seven pieces in the first three hours said: “Sometimes we sell more sometimes we sell less but it is really too early to comment on the state of the market. We need to wait and see what happens in the auctions at the end of the week.”