This year’s London February art sales were quite disappointing, as the 3 main auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips brought in $219.7 million, almost one quarter less than last year. These results can easily by accounted for by the economic uncertainty in the UK following the Brexit and a bad timing, as the sales happened on the same week as Frieze Los Angeles, thus questioning the suitability of these mid-season auction sessions. Compared with London’s dullness, the American art fair was a success with a few big sales to major collectors including Hollywood celebrities, despite its relatively small size. And yet, in either case, the mid-market remained dynamic, with a few artists on this segment who achieved remarkable progress.
Sotheby’s session was the exception that proved the rule this year in London, as the auction house generated a satisfying $120 million in sale, a bit above its $110 million low estimate and almost the same as last year. The evening session was dominated by a few valuable pieces above $5 million, the first of which being a pool painting by David Hockney from 1966, which was acquired for $29.8 million. A beautiful red painting by Basquiat and one of Francis Bacon’s ghostly figures completed the podium.
And yet, some of the best attractions of the night were in mid-price range, such as a record-breaking A.R. Penck painting. This piece from 1981 was acquired for $687,200, thus breaking his last record of $513,251 which dated back to 2007. Eddie Martinez was also honored at Sotheby’s this February with his second all-time high made with a large-scale painting that sold for an impressive $793,842. Julie Curtiss, another artist from the new figurative generation, confirmed her auction fame this year with a painting acquired for $209,755.
Christie’s sales were far more disappointing with a total revenue of $72.7 million, just a few million below its high estimate, thus plunging 16% compared with last year. None of the lackluster top lots – among which were a minor Basquiat, a beautiful Mohamed Ali portrait by Warhol and a computer painting by Albert Oehlen – sold for over $5 million. However, there were a few good surprises, such as a beautiful portrait by Jordan Casteel that was acquired for a record-breaking $668,548.
Phillips recorded the sharpest decline in sale with a total of $27 million, almost half of last year’s results and a bit above its low estimate. Apart from a gorgeous $3.2 million Keith Haring, a classic $3.3 million Ed Ruscha and 2 million-dollar Damian Hirst, most of the lots were in the mid-price range. And yet, there were a few record-breaking sales during both night and day sessions, such as a Tschabalala Self portrait which sold for $567,736, and one of Lucas Arruda’s landscapes that was acquired for $391,032, thus multiplying its low estimate five-fold. Last but not least, the African-Austria painter Amoaka Boafo made his outstanding auction debut with a $880,971 painting – more than 13 times its low estimate. However, despite the aesthetic qualities of his paintings, his prices will hardly remain at such a high level given the large number of works available on the market.
At the same time on the other side of the globe, the California sun was shining on Frieze Los Angeles, which took place within the Paramount Studios. Even though the fair only had 70 exhibitors – only a fraction of the 269 booths at Art Basel Miami last year – there were few major sales for its sophomore edition, such as a $3.75 million Keith Haring sold by Gladstone, a $2 million Neo Rausch piece and a $1.35 million Rauschenberg at David Zwirner and Thaddeus Ropac.
A large number of major collectors – the Rachofsky, the Rubells, the Horts, the Eisenbergs, Sascha Bauer and Maja Hoffman to name but a few – chose LA over London this year. But they were not the only ones to rush in the Paramount studios, as a few A-List celebrities were spotted at the fair. Indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio was seen at the Karma and Hauser & Wirth booths, soon followed by Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Nathalie Portman, The Weeknd and Kendall Jenner, who reportedly bought a $750,000 work by James Turrell at the booth shared by Kayne Griffin Corcoran and Pace.
The success of Frieze LA this year can be accounted for by the remarkable organization of the fair with its multiple performances and impressive scenography. Indeed, according to Nate Freeman, art reporter at Artnet, « Frieze managed to successfully eventify the proceedings, making the experience feel more like being at Coachella than on the Messeplatz. » A few shows also contributed to this overall feeling, such as Gagosian’s booth full of blue-chip artists dedicated to LA’s traffic. In addition to Avery Singer's exhibition at Hauser & Wirth's booth, the gallery also contributed to this amazing week in town with its much talked-about opening for Nicolas Party's show and the exhibition of Lucio Fontana's works in its premises.
Given the growing number of international events in the art world – there were 3 other art fairs in town on the same week – the competition to attract the biggest collectors has become harsh. This year, Frieze LA had good arguments to convince them, with its interactive, Instagram-friendly exhibitions under the California sun, miles away from the post-Brexit cold streets of London.