Modern art sales fail to excite

Pier 92 report: dealers remain upbeat, despite envious glances at contemporary pier

The Armory Show’s latest venture, its inaugural modern art section with 68 dealers from eight countries showing on Pier 92, was bound to be risky in the current market. And as some had duly predicted, sales over the first two days were slow.

On the VIP opening day on Wednesday, it was also obvious that although Pier 92 looked smarter than anyone had believed possible during the set-up period, more collectors were flocking to the contemporary art, down the perilous scaffold staircase, to Pier 94. On Thursday afternoon, an informal poll of 25 dealers revealed that less than 20% were reporting vigorous sales. However, more encouragingly for the fair organisers, about 80% indicated that they were planning to return next year.

While some dealers had not completed a single sale, they remained upbeat about this new Armory Show initiative. Renato Danese, who heads the Chelsea based Danese (P92/249), said: “Even if we complete not a single sale, we’ll return. Also none of my colleagues are complaining, as this is far better than sitting back in the gallery with no traffic at all.” The gallery had yet to make its first sale towards the end of Thursday trading.

There was some confusion, meanwhile, over the “modern” tag. Several dealers were, perhaps understandably in the current market, covering all bases—Boulakia Gallery (P92/102), for instance, showcased artists from the Nabis group and Rodin to Basquiat—while others such as Alan Cristea (P92/216) and Marc Selwyn Fine Art (P92/348) displayed large numbers of contemporary works. Clearly editing this new fair was no easy task.

Dealers with strong showings of classic post-war art were reporting a number of significant reserves by Thursday afternoon. For example, Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art of New York (P92/104) was holding a Sam Francis 1957 oil, Towards Disappearance III, for an American museum at more than $5m. “We also have reserves on a Franz Kline, a Richard Prince and a Pettibone,” said director Lance Goldsmith of his gallery’s first fair in Manhattan.

Across the aisle, Galerie Thomas of Munich (P92/213) clinched a deal on a Tom Wesselmann 1985 Blonde on a Blanket steel cut for $35,000, one of an edition of 25, and had reserves placed on Anselm Kiefer’s 2002 mixed media Merkaba priced at $1.4m, on a Kandinsky 1933 watercolour at $385,000, and on a Louise Nevelson 1968 wood wall piece for $265,000.

But earlier historical material from the Great Depression was barely moving at all with Forum Gallery (P92/328) and Alan Koppel Gallery (P92/444), perhaps because of its unpleasant dose of contemporary reality. And although iconic photography by masters such as Edward Steichen and William Klein was prevalent with a number of dealers, the few photographs that did sell were of a lesser level. Yancey Richardson Gallery (P92/455) sold two pieces: one to an American museum by Sharon Core, Early American, Watermelon and Apple Gourd, 2007, for $6,500. The other, by Hellen van Meene, Untitled #271, Netherlands, sold to a private collector for the same amount.

With slow sales, some modern dealers expressed a degree of envy towards their colleagues based on the contemporary pier and stressed the critical need for easier access between the two piers. “It was very hard to get over from the contemporary wing,” David Carmona, director of Yancey Richardson, said. “It would be great to get a little bit more traffic. I think that’s part of the problem.”

Joerg Paal, the director of Galerie Thomas, Munich, was more positive: “If only half of our reserves end up as sales, this fair will outstrip a number of other American shows in better times.”

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