As Frieze London marks a landmark anniversary, exhibitors and attendees on the VIP preview day were reflecting on how much the city’s art market has changed in the past 20 years. Although it has grown and professionalised, the heady optimism of the early 2000s has been missing in the last few years.
The current mood of the market is perhaps best summed up by Alex Logsdail, the chief executive of Lisson Gallery: “Not as bad as everyone is saying, and not as good as everyone is saying—give it six months.” The gallery is one of several this year to make a concerted effort to present fresh works for Frieze’s anniversary, exhibiting a solo stand of new paintings by the American artist Van Hanos, all made for the fair during a stay in Vienna. Three of these had sold by 3pm on preview day: two modestly sized canvases for $22,000 each, and a larger one, Der Rosarote Panther (the pink panther), for $60,000.
Thaddaeus Ropac has also encouraged its artists to make new work for the fair. Fresh pieces by market titans like Georg Baselitz, as well as younger names like Zadie Xa, Mandy El-Sayegh, Megan Rooney and Alvaro Barrington, all came to the stand. Among the works placed by 5pm on preview day were Baselitz’s painting Besuch in Dinard (2023) for €1.2m and four works by El-Sayegh, each for $115,000.
At Pace too, fresh work dominates the stand: around 75% of the gallery’s presentation has been made in the past two years, a spokesperson for the gallery says. Nonetheless, it is a mid-century artist, Louise Nevelson, with Model for Celebration II (1976), which is installed on Regent’s Park as part of Frieze Sculpture, that led the gallery’s preview day sales for $2m.
Further sales at Pace’s Frieze London stand include an Arlene Shechet sculpture, Cousin (2023), for $90,000, and eight sculptures from her Together series, priced at $65,000, at Frieze Masters. Pace’s president, Samanthe Rubell, says that “the growing interest in building collections that incorporate works that span from historically important to very contemporary, is surely impacting the way that people see and experience Frieze Masters, and I expect that we will see the dialogue between both fairs flourish”.
Secondary market sales
Greater crossover between Frieze Masters and Frieze London also chimes with a general trend among larger galleries relying more heavily on the secondary market to stay afloat. Thaddaeus Ropac says that secondary market dealing has “absolutely” increased in the past two years. Rubell says that Pace’s “secondary market dealing is definitely increasing—although secondary prices for living artists are not necessarily rising”. So what is behind this trend? Rubell says that new clients — most of whom have made their wealth rather than inherited it—are looking to build “more cross-referential collections mixing young and old in a way that other collectors don’t”.
A similar reasoning is found in the words of Hauser & Wirth president Iwan Wirth, who said in a statement that “right now we see the most sophisticated collectors focusing more on the relationship between past and present”. The gallery’s Frieze London stand is devoted to recent sculptures and works on paper by Barbara Chase-Riboud, two of which from the latter medium sold for $120,000, while four works were disclosed to have sold at Frieze Masters, including an early Louise Bourgeois bronze sculpture for $3m.
A turn towards tried-and-tested names also comes at a time when prices at auction for lesser-known—and often very young—artists is cooling, following a meteoric rise in the past five years. This was no better exemplified than at Phillips’s New Now sale in New York last month—the same “ultra-contemporary” category that turned fresh-from-art-school names such as Michaela Yearwood-Dan into market stars overnight, albeit in a manner that has been roundly criticised as highly speculative. This time round, all top nine highest prices achieved at Phillips were by artists over the age of 50—and most of them male—including Anish Kapoor and Gilbert & George.
Its certainly a tried-and-tested name at Gagosian’s stand. While last year at Frieze London the gallery gave its whole stand over to new works by the much-in-demand 30-year-old UK painter Jadé Fadojutimi, this year it is devoted to 12 new floral paintings by Damien Hirst, priced from $450,000 to $1m, all of which sold on the preview day. “We thought, who better to celebrate 20 years than the artist who best defines London’s rise as an art centre?” says Gagosian director Millicent Wilner. She adds that, while “prices for young artists at auction might have fluctuated, they have remained steady with us.”
It is not just large, established operations that report a doubling down on already-sold art. Younger galleries with contemporary programmes are looking to get in on the secondary market game too. Alex Vardaxoglou, whose gallery Vardaxoglou is taking part in Frieze London for the first time, has just signed his first estate, that of Robyn Denny. “It’s kind of unprecedented for a gallery my size to take on an estate. The 20th-century context is very important for my programme,” he says. The gallery is showing a solo presentation by the 28-year-old Tanoa Sasraku, priced between £15,000 to £30,000, and has sold one to the Arts Council Collection Foundation, with two others on hold to institutions.
What can be viewed as a retreat to the known is a trend that has been building for years, says the dealer Phillida Reid. She founded her gallery, formerly called Southard Reid, in 2010, and says that “buying is conservative, although much less nervous than it was last year. It has been for the last four years or three years”, reasoning that a “sort of prudence” or “thought hesitation” is accompanying the decision to buy. “Prices got too high” with some galleries, and there “is definitely a correction”, she says. Importantly, she says: “The market is totally fine for things that have become popular or familiar. Or if the artist is very revered. That has become more exaggerated and that’s the way that things sell. Holding attention for the unknown is more and more difficult. And that is a challenge when you want to be a programme-led gallery.”
But amid these challenges are positive signs. Reid is one of a number of London galleries to have opened a larger location in the past year, taking advantage of the pandemic to get an “amazing deal” on her Bloomsbury space. And while the problems “from Brexit, to increasing prices” have only “gotten worse”, more people are buying art than ever before. “It balances out,” she says.