London Eye: February 2010
Thus far, the art market seems to have weathered the storm reasonably well, with high-end auction consignments beginning to grow and confidence gradually returning. Sotheby’s recent London sale of Giacometti’s 1961 L’Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I) for a world auction record of £65,001,250 ($104,327,006) caught the media’s imagination, but one swallow does not make a spring. The middle of the market still seems to be languishing in the doldrums.
It will therefore be fascinating to see how the market responds to two significant March fairs — the British Antique Dealers’ Association Fair (the BADA Antiques & Fine Art Fair) taking place in a purpose-built pavilion at the Duke of York Square in London’s Chelsea district March 17-23, and the prestigious TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair) held March 12-21 in the Dutch town of Maastricht.
The Giacometti bronze has already shown that when a rare opportunity arises to acquire a historically important work of art there are still enough wealthy buyers with the wherewithal to do so, global recession notwithstanding. This year’s TEFAF event provides further opportunities of that nature.
Traditionally, TEFAF was most notable for its emphasis on Old Master paintings, but in recent years the Modern and Contemporary categories have come more to the fore, and this year one painting in particular is representative of that shift.
This is Deux Femmes or La Chevelure Fleurie, a late Tahitian period painting by the French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. It is being offered by London dealers Dickinson at a price believed to be in the region of €18 million (£15.6 million or $24.5 million at current exchange rates). The work is being offered on behalf of a “leading British private collector” who bought it at Sotheby’s in London in February 2006. James Roundell, a Dickinson director and former head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern department, said the collector in question has decided to switch the focus of his collecting onto pictures from later in the 20th century and is thus “rationalizing” his holdings.
The picture reportedly sold in 2006 at the height of the last boom for £12.3 million, including premium, ($21.9 million). Whether it will turn a profit after ownership costs and sales commissions have been levied remains to be seen.
Elsewhere, among the more typical Old Master objects on offer is a 15th-century domestic altarpiece by the Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo depicting the Madonna and Child enthroned between saints. This superb example of late Gothic religious painting will be on the stand of Moretti Fine Art Ltd. of Florence, London and New York at a price of €2.2 million ($3 million), while one of the most notable museum-quality works on view in the modern art section is a 1982 abstract painting entitled Untitled XVI by the Dutch-born Abstract Expressionist master Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). This is to be offered by New York dealers L&M Arts at €3.7 million ($5 million).
The Oriental works of art section — an area of the art market benefiting from the attention of newly wealthy Chinese mainland collectors — includes a rare Chinese Kangxi period (1662-1722) Tianhuang seal. Carved in the form of a crouching lioness, it also has the name of one of the emperor’s sons inscribed on the side. This will be exhibited by London dealers Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art with an asking price of €550,000 ($750,000).
Last year’s fair saw the successful launch of a new Design section entitled TEAFAF Design, which proved to be a big attraction. This year’s innovation is TEFAF on Paper, a new section devoted to Old Master and modern drawings, limited edition prints, photography, antiquarian books and manuscripts, Japanese prints and watercolours. Around 18 dealers have signed up to exhibit in the new section which will occupy the upstairs hall in which TEFAF Design was located last year. TEFAF Design moves downstairs.
Back in London, the British Antique Dealers’ Association Fair will provide an indication of whether trading conditions are improving at all for traders operating in the middle of the market. Around 100 of the UK’s leading art and antiques dealers will be showing at the fair, which this year is most notable for an interesting loan exhibition entitled ‘Heroes or Villains?’ devoted to celebrity memorabilia.
The exhibition is an opportunity to view a selection of objects from what the fair’s organisers describe as “one of the world’s greatest private collections of celebrity memorabilia”. The collection, which includes such bizarre treasures as Mussolini’s fez and a pocket watch owned by convicted murderer Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, was assembled by Jersey-based collector David Gainsborough Roberts, a former actor and wrestling promoter whose collecting passion began when his grandmother gave him a piece of wood reputedly from Adm. Horacio Nelson’s flagship The Victory. Quite how she came upon such a thing remains unclear, but it was enough to ignite in Roberts a life-long passion for objects with connections to famous people.
Unlike collectors who focus their attention on one type of celebrity, such as pop singers or film stars, Roberts threw his net much wider. As a result, his 3,000-piece collection embraces not only objects once owned by respected public figures but also items that formerly belonged to murderers, gangsters and others of dubious renown.
So, if you fancy taking a closer look at, among other items, Al Capone’s cigarette case, Elvis Presley’s sapphire ring, Lawrence of Arabia’s robe or John Lennon’s cufflinks, then the BADA Fair is the place to visit from March 17 to 23.
Famous historical figures may also be enough to lure the punters down to the Westonbirt Antiques and Fine Art Fair at Westonbirt School near Tetbury in Gloucestershire March 26- 28, where Somerset dealer Karen Jones, a specialist in historical portraiture, will be showing portraits of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and Henry VIII (1491-1547). The unsigned portrait of Cromwell dates from the late 18th century and shows him in heroic pose wearing the soldier’s uniform of the famous New Model Army rather than his usual garb of statesman and Lord Protector. Measuring 25 by 23 inches, the portrait will be offered with a price of £7,500 ($11,775).
The tiny 7 by 6 inch portrait of Henry VIII, painted in oil on copper and also dating from the 18th century, is a copy of Holbein’s famous portrait. This is priced at £4,800 ($7,500).
Around 45 dealers show at the Westonbirt Fair, which remains a classic example of the kind of provincial event that has just about survived the recent downturn. Like many country fairs, it provides dealers at the lower and middle sections of the market with a more economically viable route to market than a shop. Founded in 1928, Westonbirt School, a former manor house just a few miles south of Tetbury in picturesque Gloucestershire, boasts sumptuous interiors and has become an ideal location for a mid-market fair.
Finally, one or two notable prices from the provincial auction circuit in recent weeks. Last month we mentioned the forthcoming sale of a fine pair of silver-gilt waiters by William Burwash, formerly owned by the illustrious 19th-century collector William Beckford at Fonthill Abbey. They were estimated at £15,000-20,000 ($24,400-$32,500) when they came under the Salisbury hammer of Woolley & Wallis on Jan. 27, but they eventually crept up to a hammer price of £36,000 ($56,500).
A few days later Woolley & Wallis offered a superb dragonfly pendant decorated in plique à jour enamels by famed French silversmith and jeweler René Lalique. This demonstrated the continuing strength of the market for fine quality jewellery of the early 20th century when the hammer fell at £42,000 ($65,935). Although the price didn’t quite top the £58,000 paid for a Lalique cicada brooch at the Salisbury rooms in July 2008, Woolley & Wallis’s jewelery specialist Jonathan Edwards was encouraged.
“I’m delighted that we’re getting a reputation for selling good pieces of Lalique jewellery,” said Edwards. “The pendant in our sale on Thursday went to a New York dealer, which shows just how global the market is at the moment and, to my mind, demonstrates that the provincial salerooms are just as capable of attracting the right buyers as those in London.”