Frieze tests the appeal of the London art market to widely dispersed buyers


London’s recovery as the hub of the global art trade will be put to the test next week when the Frieze art fair reopens after a pandemic hiatus.

European art buyers and advisors are expected to be in place, but market experts warned of the risk of large US and Asian visitors staying at home amid travel restrictions and Covid-19 fears.

As an integral part of the capital’s art calendar, the annual Frieze fair draws a global mix of well-heeled collectors, dealers, artists and art advisors to their huge tented exhibition rooms in Regent’s Park. Auction houses, commercial galleries, and museums benefit from their presence by holding events or sales in other locations in the city in the same week.

Frieze was one of several art fairs around the world that put its main event on hold last year due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions and public gatherings.

National bans have weighed heavily on revenues in the broader art market: according to a closely watched art market report by Art Basel and UBS, UK art sales fell 22 percent in 2020 to $ 9.9 billion, the lowest level in a decade. This despite online initiatives by galleries and auction houses to retain top buyers and gain new customers.

Simon Fox, CEO of Frieze, said there was a “backlog” in the art world after a return to physical viewing and events. Bookings from stands where galleries and dealers present their wares to connoisseurs were at 2019 levels, suggesting that his optimism is more widely shared.

For those concerned about Wednesday’s traditional opening crush on Wednesday, the organizers have introduced a new limited-time admission system to distribute attendance while also asking visitors to wear masks and a negative Covid test result or to show proof of double vaccination upon entry.

At Art Basel in Switzerland last month, which was replaced by its usual date in June, signs of a recovery were seen, with art market experts pointing to healthy sales and good participation. “It has shown that the art market has managed to move on with a degree of strength,” said Bona Montagu, founder of the art consultancy Montagu Arts and vice-chair of the Society of London Art Dealers.

Ron Mueck’s couple under an umbrella 2013/2015 (Courtesy Museum Voorlinden / Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery) © Ron Mueck / Antoine van Kaam

But while European visitors visited the Basel trade fair in large numbers, US and Asian buyers who were faced with different travel rules when they returned home were few and far between. Whether London’s greater reach and reach will entice widely dispersed buyers to overcome the problems of international travel remains an open question for the capital’s arts sector.

“Frieze London is the real test of whether the Asians and Americans are coming,” said Clare McAndrew, founder of Arts Economics and author of the Art Basel / UBS report.

The pandemic has hit sales in London harder than rival centers in New York and Hong Kong, she added, although the picture is mixed: the British capital has outperformed other European art centers.

Fox was optimistic that American buyers would come as they had fewer hurdles to return home than Asian visitors. If you are traveling to Frieze, you might also be tempted to plan a detour to Paris, where the FIAC art fair will take place the following week. “As long as the big European and US collectors are around – and I think they will be – we’re going to see some high prices,” he said.

One impact of the pandemic has been more overseas work for art consultants like Montagu, as customers staying at home sent them to inspect and buy artwork, including at art fairs. “I find that my ability to travel on behalf of people is becoming increasingly important – whether they travel less because they can’t or because they have made a lifestyle choice.”

This has resulted in a decline in opportunistic buying: “People are thinking about what to buy rather than rushing everything,” she said.

It also means that you focus less on the social and more on the real business. Art Basel visitors noticed the “focused” approach of those who had made the effort to attend. “The people at Frieze are going to take things a little more seriously,” McAndrew said. “It’s not just about looking at what everyone is wearing or the big dinners, but about exhibiting and selling art. That can’t hurt. “

Wealthy art buyers still seem unaffected by broader economic fears of inflation, China, and volatile stock markets. Thaddaeus Ropac, founder of the gallery group of the same name, which at Frieze has works by the artist duo Gilbert and George as well as works by the Australian sculptor Ron Mueck and the French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp in Mayfair, said: At the moment it is almost boom time. ”

While the lack of some well-funded international buyers could curb overall sales, the thirst for physical events will make the show a success, he argued. “People held their breath with Covid, but art cannot only be seen on the internet. You have to stand in front of it to be touched by it. That’s what people want. ”

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