Focus on the London Art Market

Jun 28th, 2013 | By | Category: Journal

The following article on the London Art Market was published by Art Media Agency ( and contains a good overview of London’s art maket and its status versus that of New York.

Focus on the London Art Market

London, 27 June 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Following the end of Art Basel and the first exciting weeks of the Venice Biennale, London is set to temporarily become the centre of focus for the global art market. Annual sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams and Phillips promise to turn collectors’ attention towards the capital, whilst art fairs such as Master Paintings Week expect to attract hundreds of visitors each day.

Accompanying these events are major exhibitions across the city’s most prominent galleries, with artist retrospectives — including Lowry at Tate and Vermeer at The National Gallery — displayed alongside rich, permanent collections. The Royal Academy’s “Summer Show” is the largest open-submission exhibition in the world, and features over 1,000 works by both prominent and emerging artists, all of which are available for sale.

But, whilst all eyes might be on London, will visitors to the city find an art scene which is thriving? — and can the London market compete with the recent, highly successful auction season in New York? Art Media Agency examined the developments of the market, as well as the challenges it currently faces.

The Art Market

Despite a difficult economic climate, the art market continues to remain strong, with high-end sales relatively unaffected by the eurozone crisis and slowing economic growth in major market centres such as China. Whilst pessimists have long predicted of a fall in sales — or market crash — sales over the last four years have continually defied expectations. Chinese demand may have weakened, but, except for a brief drop in auction turnovers in 2009, high-quality works of art continue to rise in value.

Speaking to the New York Times following Christie’s most recent Impressionist & Modern sale, the president of Christie’s Europe, Jussi Pylkkänen, attested to the market’s growth, citing new buyers from emerging markets including Asia, Russia and India — “corners of the world we weren’t even touching five years ago.”

And sales continue to attract dealers with money to spend on the highest-quality works. In the same article, dealer Daniella Luxembourg described the “‘endless appetite” for works, stating confidently that “there’s money for art. There’s no doubt about it.”

The Evolution of the London Market
London has a long history as a major centre in the global art market. During the first half of the 19thcentury, the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars resulted in a significant redistribution of artworks. At the same time, the Papacy’s loss of power compromised export laws, causing a large number of paintings — and sometimes entire collections — to be dispersed at auctions across Europe. Contemporary scholars believe that London emerged as a centre of international art trade at the beginning of the 20th century. The city replaced Paris as the centre of the art world, a status that was confirmed when prominent French collections such as the Orléans were moved to the British capital.

London’s status as a hub for contemporary art was cemented from the early 1900s, with the establishment of grand spaces such as the Fine Art Society and the development of British Modernism in major art centres, including Bloomsbury and Chelsea. This brief period of prosperity, however, was followed by the dramatic collapse of the market during the first and second world wars. In 1923, fewer than 10% of exhibition art works found buyers, and a large number of galleries were converted into cinemas and jazz clubs.

In the 1950s, London’s quiet market was mainly dealer-lead. Peter Wilson, an auctioneer and chairman at Sotheby’s, sought to change this and to re-establish the London-based auction house as a major centre for art trade. In 1956, Wilson revolutionsed art auctions by doing something which had never been done before, offering a guarantee of sale to the vendor of Nicolas Poussin’s Adoration of the Magi (1633).

By 1958, Wilson’s unique approach to trade had resulted in some of the strongest sales the auction house had ever witnessed. A now legendary auction of seven impressionist paintings raised over $2m, with each of the works having found buyers in under 21 minutes (at the frantic pace of a sale approximately every three minutes). The same auction established a new record price for a painting sold at auction, with Cezanne’s Garçon au Gilet Rouge (1888-89) selling for $616,000 — a sale that was met by Wilson’s famous question, “Will nobody offer any more?”

Contemporary Market Developments
Since Wilson’s revolution, London has remained an important centre of international art, though it is in constant competition with other major markets in New York, Paris, China, Russia, and significant emerging markets in the Middle East. During the last five years, the city has been noticeably absent from lists of record auction sales, which have predominantly taken place in New York and Beijing. The last record sale in the capital was in 2008, when Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas (1919) was sold for £40.9m.

Yet the capital remains a tactical location for many private galleries, and recent years have seen an influx of American institutions, with four new branches of David Zwirner, Pace, Skarstedt and Werner, opening in the capital in 2012. The expansion of existing London galleries followed the arrival of major American institutions, with the long-established Marlborough Fine Art opening a new gallery on the second floor of its Mayfair building. At the time, the gallery’s director Andrew Renton stated that “it confirms where we are as the central location in the world for contemporary and modern art. London has had a dynamic art scene for 20 years, but not necessarily a dynamic art market. Now we’ve got both.”

The sudden growth of the city’s gallery scene was attributed to the city’s high concentration of major international and non-domicile collectors. In 2012, a third of London’s 5,995 inhabitants who had a net worth of more than $30m were non-doms. Commenting on the development in a 2012 article inThe Guardian, Judd Tully of the Art+Auction magazine stated: “Essentially, what the richer galleries are doing is establishing new beachheads in London to find new collectors from Russia, Asia and the Middle East who are more comfortable there than in New York.”

London at Auction
Despite this brief period of London-centric development, New York has so far emerged as the dominant force in the 2013 auction seasons. This year’s spring auctions shattered previous sale records, with Christie’s Post War & Contemporary sale raising a total of $495m — the highest total ever to have been achieved in the history of art auctions. Impressionist and Modern auctions held in May built upon this success: a sale of works by Picasso, Rodin and Monet saw 85% of its 71 lots sold, and raised a total of $235m — just under its high pre-sale estimate.

London’s June 2013 auctions have got off to a rockier start, with several commentators doubting the quality of the lots available, and expressing concern over a selection that has relatively low pre-sale estimates. An article published in The Independent on 8 June stated that the success of the city’s auctions would be heavily dependent on the presence of “über collectors” from Russia and the Middle East. New York Times journalist Carol Vogel complained that none of the London lots came near the $58.4m paid at the May sale at Christie’s New York for Jackson Pollock‘s Number 19 (1948), stating that the London season looked “healthy, but might not blast record books.”

A shortage of works?
In the same New York Times article, Vogel complained that works in London’s June sales gave the impression of having been “cobbled together.” Acquiring the highest quality paintings and sculptures is a constant challenge for both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with the very best works held in museums of private collections, where collectors — uncertain about financial markets — are holding on to them as important investments.

London’s major auction houses appear to have adapted to the problem, offering a selection of sales focused on precious objects and collectibles. As well as offering sales in Post War & Contemporary Art, Old Masters and Modern Art, Christie’s is to hold a sale featuring Rock and Roll Memorabilia, Elizabeth Taylor’s first wedding dress, and a watch originally featured in a James Bond film. Sotheby’s has similar interspersed fine art auctions, with the sales of precious objects. An auction titled ‘Treasures, princely tastes” is to feature objects dating from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

As the number of high quality works in the Impressionist and Modern categories continues to dwindle, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have enlisted the help of the Nahmad family — a renowned dynasty of collectors with spaces in New York and London — to help fill their sales. This has been a controversial move for both of the auction houses: the family has been in the news since April, when federal prosecutors pressed charges against Hillel (Helly) Nahmad, believing him to be a leading member of an international gambling and money laundering operation.

A breakdown of June and July sales
London auctions continue to be lead by the city’s two largest houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, with the latter offering the largest and most significant sales of the summer auction season.

At Christie’s, estimated sales of $388m are significantly lower than last year’s sales, which were just under $600m. The auction house has made a promising — if not astounding — start to the auction season, following sales in the Impressionist and Modern category which began on 18 June. A total of £89,341,713 / $139,981,526/ €104,713,989 was achieved, with the sale having had an original estimated turnover of $82.8 – $118.8m. A total of 44 lots were available, 7 of which failed to find buyers.

The highlight of the sale was Kandinsky’s Studie ze Improvisation 3 (1909), which was purchased at Christie’s for £13,501,875/ $21,157,438 /€15,851,201 (estimate: £12m-£16m). In 2008, the same work was bought for $16.8m in a New York auction. Other notable sales include Modigliani’s portrait of art dealer Paul Guillaume (1916), sold to the Hammer Galleries, New York, for $10.6m (estimated at $10.6m), and Picasso’s Femme Assise dans un Fauteuil, a portrait of the artist’s wife, sold at $9.5m — exceeding it’s highest estimate of $9m.

Forthcoming sales include: Post War and Contemporary, 25 & 26 June (day sale); Pop Culture, 26 June; Old Master and British Drawings and Watercolours, 2 July; Old Master and British Paintings, 3 & 5 July; Old Master and British Paintings, 5 July; Modern British Art, 10 & 11 July; Modern British and Irish Art, 11 July; Important Victorian and British Impressionist Art, 11 July; First Impression Prints and Multiples, 16 July.

Sotheby’s opened its London summer season with an evening sale of Impressionist & Modern works, which raised a total of £105,939,000 ($165,932,256 or €123,789,394) – surpassing the highest pre-sale estimate. Participating bidders represented more than 30 countries, with the highest number of bidders participating in the Exceptional Estate Collections sale. A large number of buyers participated in the auction either online or by telephone, and a record number of bidders were based in Asia.

The highest-selling lot was Monet’s Le Palais Contarini, which was sold at £19.7m ($19.7m or €22.9m). Other highlights included Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (1927) which was sold for £9,266,500/ $14,514,119 (est. £4.5m-£6.5m), a price which reflects the rarity of such distinct works by the Dutch artist. 81.7% of the works were sold by lot. Helena Newman, the chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Department – Europe, commented that “there was an extraordinary dynamic at play in the sale room. Established collectors — drawn out by the quality of the estate collections presented in the sale — competed with many of the new contenders in today’s market.”

Major forthcoming sales at the auction house include: Contemporary Art, 26 June (evening), 27 June (day); European Sculpture, 2 July; Old Masters and British Drawings, 3 July; “Treasures, Princely Taste,” 3 July; Old Master and British Painting, 3 July (evening), 4 July (day).

Bonham’s and Phillips
Bonham’s London sale of Impressionist and Modern works was held on 18 June, and followed early season sales of British and European Pictures, along with Islamic and Indian Art. The Impressionist and Modern sale raised a total of £1,169,975. A total of 40 lots were sold, 10 of which failed to find buyers or were omitted from sale. The highest selling work was Le Baiser 4ème by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), which was sold for £175,250/€206,516/$271,238.

Forthcoming auctions for the London summer season include: Contemporary Art and Design, 27 June; Old Master Painting, 3 July; 19th-Century Paintings, 10 July; Period Design, 16 July; and Prints, 16 July.

Phillips has remained the smallest of the four auction houses, with only two forthcoming sales in Contemporary Art on 27 June (evening) and 28 June (day).

London Art Fairs
London’s prominent June/ July auction season is accompanied by a number of significant art fairs, which further attract collectors, dealers and art enthusiasts to the capital.

The 41st Olympia Art and Antiques Fair and Art Antiques London
The 41st edition of Olympia Art and Antiques Fair ran in the capital between 6 – 16 June, and featured exhibits by around 200 dealers. It markets itself as the most prominent of all London art fairs, attracting approximately 35,000 visitors over the course of its 11-day run. Held alongside Olympia — though not associated with the event — the 4th edition of Art Antiques London ran between 12 – 19 June, and gathered 62 galleries and dealers. Commenting on the fair in The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers-Cocks stated that Art Antiques London, “unlike most other fairs today… is an encounter between people who really want to talk art and handle objects knowledgeably.” Objects on sale were priced between £550 – £80,000.

Master Paintings Week
Now in its fifth year, Master Paintings Week runs from 28 June – 5 July, and brings together fine art from twenty leading galleries, as well as auction houses Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Christie’s. Each of the participating galleries stages an exhibit or event created specifically for the event, and a large focus is placed on the display of newly discovered or rediscovered works. Significant pieces to be unveiled during the 2013 edition of the fair include Barbieri’s The Expulsion of the Moneychangers(1591-1666), which is shown by newcomers Coll & Cortés Fine Art.

Cesari Lampronti Art Broker Finance Ltd. is to host a special exhibition devoted to rarely exhibited works by Dutch landscape painter Gaspar van Wittel (1653-1736), whilst Colnaghi will exhibit Willem Bartsuis’s Samson and Delilah (c.1612). Rafael Valls Ltd. is to present “Master Paintings on a Budget,” an innovative exhibition of 17th-century paintings priced at under £40,000 — including works by Gerard van Honthorst — designed to attract young, new collectors.

Major auctions at Bonhams on 3 July, Christie’s King Street on 2 and 3 July, and Sotheby’s on 3 and 4 July are hosted in association with the fair and will feature works including The Molo, Venice, from the Bacino di San Marco by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), estimated at £4m-£6m (Christie’s), and Halte de Chasse by Jean-Baptiste Pater (1695-1753), estimate not given (Bonham’s). Sotheby’s Old Master & British Paintings Sale on 3 July is to offer 141 works from the collection of Dr Gustav Rau, with proceeds from the sale going to UNICEF Germany.

The event runs alongside Master Drawing and Sculpture Week, a fair now in its thirteenth year which runs from 28 June to 5 July. This is the first year the fair is incorporated into the first “London Art Week,” which aims to combine Master Drawing and Sculpture Week with Master Paintings Week on a single, coherent platform. More than 50 specialists are to display a diverse range of works dating from the 15th century to the 20th century.

A dynamic market 
Whilst the city might not have been the centre of the most prominent recent sales, London’s important position in the global art market is indisputable. Public institutions across the capital boast some of the finest collections of works worldwide, fostered by a strong culture of patronage and government support for the arts. Though the financial crisis may have resulted in some potentially hazardous cuts to arts funding, major institutions in the capital tend to maintain a policy of free entry, promoting an artistic culture which is accessible and inclusive.

Private galleries dominate the streets of Mayfair, with institutions such as David Zwirner, Gagosian and Lisson mounting regular exhibitions of works by leading contemporary artists. Whilst 2012 saw the closure of seven of the Cork Street galleries, it also saw significant new openings, with many galleries recognising the city as an important centre for international collectors from Russia and the Middle East.

The results of this year’s auction season remain to be seen but, for the moment, all eyes in the art world are turned towards London.

Tags: art buying, art market, art world, Christie's, London art fairs, London art market, London auctions, Master Paintings Week, Sotheby's

One Comment to “Focus on the London Art Market”

  1. While some folks may perhaps be surprised that the art prices are accelerating upwards – it is really not remarkable at all since the true value of all or at least most of the art that has been sold or gone up for auction – is actually much much higher than any of the art prices has ever reached so far –

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