The art market: Street cred for Caro

By Georgina Adam

Published: November 28 2009 00:35 | Last updated: November 28 2009 00:35

The French often rename streets in honour of notable citizens, and the latest person to be so feted is British artist Sir Anthony Caro. The sculptor has been working for a number of years in the Gothic church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in the little town of Bourbourg (pop: 7,059) near Calais. The church and its choir were severely damaged in the second world war when a British aircraft crashed into it. Caro was commissioned by the French ministry of culture to make a sculptural “intervention” in the Chapel of Light, filling niches with a series of steel, wool and terracotta sculptures. It was inaugurated last year, and the edifice is now being compared with Vence’s Matisse chapel. At the inauguration of the newly rechristened avenue, Bourbourg’s mayor was enthusiastic: “Bourbourg is becoming an internationally famed, major tourism site,” he proclaimed.

This week brings the Russians to London, with specialised sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, MacDougall’s and Bonhams. There are two seasons for Russian art sales in the British capital, in June and late November, and in the last three seasons the small, specialised MacDougall’s has vaulted into a position just behind Sotheby’s, elbowing Christie’s into third place. Its sale on Thursday, which is estimated at up to £14m, features the highest-priced lot of the week, Zinaida Serebriakova’s sensuous “Nude” (1932), carrying expectations of £1m-£1.5m.

Sotheby’s evening sale on Monday is estimated at over £7.8m (pre-sale estimates don’t include commission; results do) and the firm expects up to £20m for its four sales, which include £1m for a group of 100 items from the Romanov family, going under the hammer on Monday. These comprise cigarette cases and cufflinks, many by Fabergé, belonging to Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and her husband, Grand Duke Vladimir, brother of Tsar Alexander III. They recently resurfaced after being hidden in pillowcases in the Swedish legation in Stockholm for 90 years, and are being sold by the family. Estimates here start at just £80 for a set of cufflinks; the cigarette cases start at £700. Christie’s is expecting a little over £9m for its two day sales, held Tuesday to Thursday.

As elsewhere in the market, volume and prices for Russian art contracted after the credit crunch, with sellers and buyers holding off. “Prices for Russian art fell by up to 40 per cent, but not as much as Russian equities, which fell, from peak to trough, by 75 per cent,” says William MacDougall. “But things started to recover in April, and the June sales were healthy.” He points to Sotheby’s auction of Russian art earlier this month in New York, which totalled $13.8m, well over its high estimate of $9.6m, as a sign of an upturn. And he says, “While we may not beat Sotheby’s for first place this time around, we’re snapping at their heels.”

It is extremely rare for Larry Gagosian, incontestably the world’s most powerful art dealer, to speak publicly, so his appearance on a panel in Abu Dhabi last week (November 20) caused quite a stir. The title of the session was “Collecting Then and Now”, and many of Gagosian’s colleagues, including White Cube’s Jay Jopling and Tim Marlow, Tony Shafrazi and PaceWildenstein’s Marc Glimcher crammed into the room to hear him. Gagosian was a cogent and forthright speaker, noting that “I have learned in my 30 years as a dealer that a sense of competition and envy is what drives collecting.” His own need to succeed seems to have been driven by his early experiences; he recounted how, at a holiday camp and just seven years old, he had “thrown a towel” over his clothes, smart by his own standards, when he saw another boy’s. The same thing happened when, aged 10, he started collecting coins.

Speaking about the recession, Gagosian said it had been “mild” for his business: “I know a lot of galleries have closed, and my business is certainly down from a year ago. We’ve taken a hit, but it’s quite manageable.” Asked for advice for budding collectors, Gagosian said: “You have to have some sort of passion. People shouldn’t collect just because they have been told to. Reading magazines is helpful, if you’re smart enough to understand what they are saying.” And the dealer in him probably took over when he continued: “At some point you have to start purchasing, so don’t be paralysed by doing research. Don’t be gun shy – just pull the trigger!”

Former leading art dealer Anthony d’Offay’s collection has been enriched with another work. Bruce Nauman’s neon piece, “Violins Violence Silence” (1981-82), offered at Sotheby’s contemporary art auction in New York earlier this month, sold to d’Offay for $4,002,500, over its estimate of $2.5m-$3.5m (which does not include commission). However the piece is not – as yet anyway – going into “Artists’ Rooms”, the collection d’Offay sold at a generously discounted £26.5m to Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland last year.

“Zero” was the name given to a progressive art movement that started in the late 1950s and continued to the mid-1960s. The name derived from a publication, Zero, and from the artists’ aim to “go back to zero” by abandoning the art of the past and incorporating non-art elements – such as light, fire and water – into the works. In the group were such well-known names as Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, Roman Opalka and Victor Vasarely.

A Salzburg couple, Anna and Gerhard Lenz, have assembled a world-famous, 600-strong collection of Zero art, which has been widely exhibited. Now, advancing in age, they are selling 49 works at Sotheby’s in February 2010, with the remaining ones going into a foundation. “The collection is probably the best of its type in the world,” says David Leiber of New York’s Sperone Westwater Gallery, which held a show of Zero works last year. “I am sure it will focus more attention on these artists.”

The top lot in Sotheby’s auction is Yves Klein’s “Feu 88” (1961), made using fire, body and water imprints on paper, and estimated at £2.5m-£3.5m; a blood-red Fontana studded with glass pebbles, “Concetto Spaziale, Ritratto di Carlo Cardazzo” (1956) has a target of £1m-£1.5m. But the sale also includes more accessible offerings, such as Turi Simeti’sWeisses Strukturbild” (1962), a cardboard-on-paper abstract, at £8,000-£12,000.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper