I got to London just in time for the World Cup, but I was in England for sport of another sort -- a wealth of art fairs, gallery openings and art auctions.
Shortly after my arrival I rushed off to catch the last day of the Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair and the new Hali textile fair, both housed in the wonderful glass-domed Olympia hall. The Olympia Fair had over 400 exhibitors, a huge number. Still, one of its greatest appeals is the affordablility of the wares -- some reasonable enough even for a journalist.
As I wandered through the light-filled exhibition making imaginary purchases for my imaginary flat in Kensington, the emptiness of the booths struck me -- much of the material had already been carted off. The mood was good and dealers were happy, as many pronounced the market "strong," claiming it was the best year yet.
A few of my favorites at Olympia: four enormous, Italian 17th-century statues of gods at Sweerts de Landas; a Queen Anne silver wine cistern made by William Lukin at Koopman & Rare Art; Smith & Robinson's politically incorrect stand of what the trade calls "smalls": superb tortoiseshell cases and ivory boxes, frames and comb cases.
The new antique carpets and textiles fair organized by Hali magazine had a short run, from June 11 to June 15. With some 50 exhibitors, including top dealers Teresa Coleman from Hong Kong, Nilufar Gallery from Milan and Yves Mikaeloff from Paris, the show has room to expand. Major dealer John Eskenazi, for example, who did not have a booth -- he showcased several of his textiles on two walls -- says he will fully participate next year.
The following day I dragged myself to Grosvenor House, my least favorite of the major antiques shows. Once a must on the art world circuit, Grosvenor had much more panache in the late '80s thanks to the sumptuous booths of such high-end furniture dealers as Carlton Hobbs and Giovanni Sarti from London and Yves Mikaeloff from Paris. "Time warp" is the phrase most frequently used to describe the fair now.
Chiefly on view were worthy but boring furnishings suited to taste in home decor circa 1955. What's worse, the fair venue itself was dark, underground and poorly decorated -- quite unappealing.
Having said all that, I enjoyed myself more than I expected. One of the best booths was that of Victorian picture dealer Peter Nahum, who showed an unusual allegorical Fantin-Latour painting of the composer Berlioz. While antiques dealers did well, though not as well as last time around (which was a bumper year for Grosvenor), the Old Master paintings dealers had a hard time. Neither Johnny van Haeften, Raphael Vals nor Konrad Bernheimer sold a single painting.
As the Asian art market shifts from London to New York, London has been taking steps to ensure that it is not entirely eclipsed. In June, London auction houses and dealers inaugurated Asia Week in London as a counterpart to the one in New York in March, and a second Asia Week is planned for London this November. Unfortunately, the euphoria that accompanied New York's Asia fest was replaced by uncertainty here. With the worsening of the "Asian flu" the market is still heavily dependent on American buyers; the Koreans and the Japanese are out of the market, and of the Asians, only the Taiwanese are buying art to any great extent.
The Chinese art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's in London were weak in those areas dependent on Asian buyers -- lot after lot of porcelain and jade were passed in silence. A remarkably high 167 lots out of 299 at Sotheby's and 170 lots out of 361 at Christie's did not sell.
The top lots did bring great prices, however. At Sotheby's on June 16, a rare Han dynasty gilt-bronze figure of a mythical beast exceeded its pre-sale estimate of £80,000-£00,000, selling at £243,500. (The current exchange rate is about £1.00 =$1.65.)
Champagne flowed at the June 16 preview of Christie's Impressionist and 19th-century paintings sale. Much talk focused on the future of Christie's in the hands of its new French owner, M. Pinaut, but no conclusions were drawn.
The party was far more amusing than the artworks on block at the June 24th sale.
Is Christie's recent decision to sell Impressionist paintings together with 19th-century academic art a mistake? Though chronological kin, Pre-Raphaelite paintings and classic Victorian pictures don't mix well with Monets and Renoirs. And it remains to be seen whether collectors will cross over, as the auction house hopes, buying Alma-Tademas to hang next to their Monets. When I asked a specialist from Sotheby's (who shall remain anonymous) about Christie's new categories, he archly responded,"I think it is a noble experiment and I hope they will continue to do it."
A scant few paintings appealed to me at the viewing so I cast around to see what others were looking at. There was some ado over a hideous painting by German artist Adolph Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel, shockingly estimated at £450,000-£600,000. It sold at the low estimate, which was nonetheless a record price for the artist. A beautifully painted work by Lord Frederick Leighton was also attracting attention, though the sentimentality of the child with a kitten was a little hard to swallow. Sweetness sells -- Kittens brought £859,500 though estimated at £700,000-£1,000,000.
The sale itself more than fulfilled my negative expectations -- the room was two-thirds full and only half the lots sold. Though traditional 19th- century works by the likes of John Everett Millais and George Frederick Watts did well, it was a disaster for the Impressionists. The two Monets that were to be the stars of the sale -- or the most expensive lots, anyway -- were less than wonderful. One was a snow scene -- always a hard sell -- and the other a drab landscape. The estimates were ambitious: £1.8-£2.5 million and £3-£3.5 million, respectively. Only the landscape sold on a single bid for just under the low estimate.
The promotional parties for the London auctions are far more lavish and imaginative than their cousins in New York. In a private view to promote the eight Magrittes in its 20th-century art sale, Christie's served Surrealist food -- chocolate cookies shaped like pipes, green apples and the like.
The theme of Sotheby's "summer party and Impressionist and modern viewing" on June 25 was "Artists and Models" -- guests were treated to the sight of scantily dressed men and women covered from head to toe in bright paint.
Sotheby's pared-down evening sale on June 30 of Impressionist and modern works was the highlight of the week, making £37.7 million against pre-sale expectations of up to £25 million. The star was Monet's large, brilliantly colored Waterlily Pond and Path by the Water (1900). This Giverny garden painting made an astonishing £19.8 million, three times the high pre-sale estimate. It took seven minutes to sell the work as six bidders competed. The price was a record for the artist and the 11th highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. The painting had been in a private British collection for 44 years.
Also interesting were a Modigliani and a Munch. The Modigliani portrait (1918) of the artist's Polish émigré friend Baranowski came from the collection of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury. Depicting an androgynous man, the picture was not an easy sell at £4.3 million, just below the low pre-sale estimate.
The Munch painting depicts dramatist Henrik Ibsen seated in the cafe of a hotel in Oslo. Norwegian bidders drove the price up to £1.76 million (est: £500,000-£700,000).
After the sale the World Cup soccer game between England and Argentina was on every telly in Sotheby's. Reversing the rules of "Upstairs, Downstairs," the porters watched in the upstairs salesroom, while the higher-ups drank champagne while watching in the downstairs reception area. Alas, England lost. "I feel as if we lost the Falklands War," lamented one Sotheby's paintings specialist.
On July 1 Christie's managed to sell six of the eight paintings by Magritte that comprised La domaine enchantée (1953), although five of the six went below estimate. Lucky to be sold at all, the series was painted as a study for a group of monumental murals in the Casino Communal in Knokke-Le-Zoute, Belgium. They were bought in 1991 by Fuji TV Gallery, Tokyo, for a private client with plans to open his own museum. He went bankrupt and the pictures went to Lake, the biggest art collateral firm in Japan -- who sold them to an American investor. The American finally consigned the series to Christie's after showing it to every potential buyer in Europe and the U.S. This is the first time that they were not sold together.
The sale made a total of £8.3 million and 49 of the 61 lots found buyers. The big surprise was a rare painting by Paul Klee, Stadtariger Aufbau (1917). Telephone bidders dueled for fifteen minutes before it sold for £1.1 million (est: £200,000-£300,000). Berlin collector Heinz Berggruen won.
The enormous price paid for the Monet -- in comparison to the low prices paid for the mediocre Impressionist works -- fueled speculation on the absence of good Impressionist paintings on the market. Many great Impressionist paintings remain in private collections, though, and as Philip Hook, a paintings specialist at Sotheby's London points out, "Good paintings are always in short supply, but they are recycled. The supply is not diminishing because they are not going into museums."