Sotheby’s gains Richter, London loses Masterpiece fair

Sotheby’s starts 2023 with a £20mn bang, in the form of Gerhard Richter’s four metre-wide, two-part “Abstraktes Bild” (1986), which it will offer in London on March 1. The work is being sold from an American collection, which acquired it for $9.7mn in 2007 (£4.7mn), then a record for a Richter abstract.

The German artist’s prices have continued to rise, with recent records for his Colour Charts, Clouds and Seascapes paintings, though his abstracts are still the most prized internationally — eight out of 10 of Richter’s priciest works are those, like the Sotheby’s work, made with his trademark squeegee, a tool traditionally used to clean windows.

These include his top price of £30.4mn ($46.3mn), made for another 1986 work in 2015. “He is on the top of every auctioneer’s wish list,” says James Sevier, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for Europe. The work is guaranteed to sell and starts its tour in Miami this weekend.

In April, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie opens a show of 100 of Richter’s works, while David Zwirner gallery, which recently took over the commercial representation of the 90-year-old artist, promises a solo exhibition in New York in March.

The Masterpiece art fair at the the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, in June 2022 © Alamy

Art market players were surprised by the cancellation of Masterpiece, the mixed-category fair founded in 2010 that had grown to be a welcome addition to London’s summer season of smart events. The UK’s inflationary and post-Brexit environment created a “harsh commercial reality”, says chief executive Lucie Kitchener. She cites staffing struggles in the wider hospitality industry and says that, since Brexit, the fair’s European exhibitors had halved from 38 in 2018 to 16 this year.

The fair proved to be one too many for MCH Group, which took full ownership of Masterpiece just five months ago, up from its 67.5 per cent investment in 2017. The company also runs the four Art Basel events, its priority art brand. While MCH specifies only that the 2023 Masterpiece fair has been cancelled, there is no sense that it will come back.

To Kitchener’s credit, and in a crowded field, Masterpiece did something right. Robert Travers, founder of the 20th-century art gallery Piano Nobile, is one of many longtime exhibitors to praise the fair, particularly its 2022 edition, where “there was one billionaire after another”, he says. Perhaps for another organiser, there’s a summer opportunity ahead.

‘Seascape: Floating Ocean Chunk No. 1’ (2017) by Ashley Bickerton © Ashley Bickerton/Courtesy Gagosian

“Everybody has flown in for the first time in three years,” enthused Emi Eu, director of Singapore’s STPI gallery at the opening of her city’s newest fair, Art SG, which runs until Sunday. Her international counterparts were also pleased to be among the 160 galleries testing the south-east Asian art market in the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

Many had committed to the fair back in 2019, but first logistical and then Covid-related problems delayed its opening, during which time Singapore gained an influx of wealthy inhabitants from Asia’s more Covid-restricted countries, including China.

“In some ways, Singapore was a net beneficiary of Covid,” notes Nick Simunovic, director of Gagosian in Hong Kong. His gallery’s early sales included two Ocean Chunk series works by Ashley Bickerton, who lived on the Indonesian island of Bali from 1993 until he died last year, to Jakarta’s MACAN Museum. Simunovic and others said they had brought works that were priced “invitingly”; Javier Perés, founder of Peres Projects, confirmed early sales of his more expensively priced works, at around $50,000.

Patti Wong and Daryl Wickstrom © Bonnie H Morrison

Patti Wong, who recently left Sotheby’s after more than three decades, latterly as its senior international chair, has set up her own art advisory business for Asia’s collectors of art and luxury items. She says the auction business has changed dramatically since the pandemic: “Overnight, Sotheby’s became a digital auction house. Automation is fantastic, but there are certain clients who need more hand-holding.”

Wong opens her Hong Kong-based business with Daryl Wickstrom, another Sotheby’s long-timer in Asia who left the company in 2016.

Wong notes the growth of Asian buyers beyond the continent in the past 10 years. “Before the pandemic, half of all the works [that Sotheby’s] offered for more than $5mn were bought or bid for by Asian collectors,” she says. This is part of the thinking behind Wong’s tie-up with the London-based Fine Art Group advisory business, an investor in Patti Wong & Associates. The Fine Art Group also provides “access to capital”, which Wong says appeals to clients looking for art loans and other forms of financing.

‘Exit 4’ (2021) by Pavlo Makov, est £2,500-£3,500

The Natalia Cola Foundation, set up by the Ukrainian philanthropist in 2019, is organising a charity dinner and auction at London’s Royal Academy of Arts to benefit Kyiv’s National Academy of Arts of Ukraine (NAAU). Since Russia’s devastating invasion last year, the museum has lost most of its local support, the foundation and museum say.

The fundraiser will go towards necessary repairs to the building and will directly support Ukrainian artists. “Russia’s policies and atrocities intend to eradicate Ukrainian identity and it is more important than ever to preserve Ukrainian art and culture in all its forms,” Cola says.

The live auction on January 28 will have nine works, with another 25 offered in a silent auction that opened this week. Artists who have donated work include Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley, while Juergen Teller has given a photograph taken while he was in Ukraine, “Kiev No 1” (2007), with a starting bid of £10,000.

The country’s own artists Boris Mikhailov and Pavlo Makov — the latter represented Ukraine at last year’s Venice Biennale — also feature. Kyiv-born Cola, who studied art history at a branch of the NAAU, says she hopes to raise £250,000.

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