Frieze Masters brought a healthy dose of spectacle this year and sales into the eight figures. It ran from October 12-16 at Regent’s Park, London, and dealers found reason for optimism despite tough conditions.
The undoubted highlight was a landscape on copper by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). It sold for roughly $10m from the stand of quasi-retired Old Masters specialist Johnny Van Haeften.
The composition was not only an appealing Dutch scene showing people dancing in a riverbank village – a Brueghel speciality – but also contained a self-portrait of the artist. Catalogued as the “culmination” of Brueghel’s series of such pictures, it came with a detailed provenance and publishing history.
“This has been a wonderful fair”, Van Haeften said. “Nearly all sales were to new clients, and from all over the world, with many still under discussion. It’s been just like the old days.”
But the fair was not all just dancing with friends on a riverbank. The market is tough. Brits shopping at Frieze Masters were probably not battling against the cost-of-living crisis the way some in the country are. However, continued political and economic uncertainty, Brexit and Anti-Money Laundering legislations, rising costs of exhibiting and the overwhelming demand by museums for works reflecting under-represented groups mean that trade can be more of a challenge than even a year ago.
So exhibitors worked hard, many bringing something a little unusual to catch buyers’ eyes.
Fuelled by fossils
David Aaron, for example, exhibited two dinosaur fossils. According to the gallery’s Catherine Wood, the reaction was “phenomenal”. She told ATG: “From the moment we began un-crating the dinosaurs till the very last moment of the fair we had people asking questions and taking photos.”
The skeleton of the Jurassic-period Camptosaurus sold for £1m and the gallery also parted with an important inlaid gold torque.
The firm’s Salomon Aaron, who said he was “delighted” with the variety of visitors, added that US buyers were in evidence and “particularly motivated by the favourable exchange rate”.
Other seven-figure sales were made on the stand of Dr Jörn Günther Rare Books, where a pair of $2m medieval manuscripts went to a European collection. These were the Soissons Missal, a heavily decorated liturgical book, and the Arenberg Hours, a tiny Flemish book of hours.
Waddington Custot found a new European home for a painting by Serge Poliakoff (1900-69) for £1.5m.
Among the six-figure results was a pastel and gouache on brown paper by Claudio Bravo (1936-2011), which sold with an asking price of £150,000 from Stephen Ongpin Fine Art.
ArtAncient turned heads by sidestepping the fair’s 2000 dateline and bringing in a Costa Rican corrugated iron doghouse from 2019 – which had been pierced by a falling meteorite. Specialising in works from ‘the formation of the Solar System to the Roman period’, the gallery sold a Roman marble torso of a youth, priced at £220,000, and a large cross-section of the main mass of the Imilac meteorite, priced at £165,000.
Also in the – perhaps surprising – position of offering something unusual was Martin Beisly. A first-time exhibitor at this or any fair, he brought a huge offering of Victorian pictures and found he was one of few in the fair to have any.
He said: “I was amazed with how many people came and said ‘I love to see pictures I can understand’. I had more people on the stand than I’ve ever had in my shop and as entertainment for the visitors it went very well.”
Though none of his starring pieces got away, Beisly made some smaller sales and had hope for the contacts he made.
Once it would have been hard to surprise a fair-goer with a Victorian picture, but times have changed.
“The opening day was very busy although it was pretty much all old friends. There was a surprising amount of Americans, and the strength of the dollar was very evident. I made one sale for £30,000 to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and a few more to private clients.
“So it was tough, but that’s what’s on the horizon at the minute; Brexit and current tastes do not help the sales of traditional Old Master objects.”
The last point was repeated throughout the fair by dealers struggling to find buyers in the once-reliable field of old works by white men. Now the demand tends towards female and non-white subjects and makers.
Some dealers came armed. Among them was Sam Fogg who, even in the notoriously white, male and anonymous field of medieval art, had the 12th century head of an African king to show.
The fair was set up for the shift in interest, dedicating its Spotlight section to displays on ‘previously overlooked’ 20th century female artists.
Elsewhere at the fair, Contemporary specialist Kamel Mennour, noted that its “large representation of 1960s women artists” was a “hit” and reported a work by Gina Pane (1939-90) among its sales.
Modern British art specialist Osborne Samuel staged an exhibition (now at its Mayfair gallery) dedicated to Lilian ‘Diamond Lil’ Somerville. Though not an artist herself, Somerville was the director of the British Council’s Fine Arts department from 1948-70 and is credited in the show’s title as ‘The Woman Behind the Post-War British Art Boom’.
The gallery sold many pieces by the artists she worked with such as Ben Nicholson, Kenneth Armitage and Henry Moore among others ranging from £40,000-400,000.
European drawings specialist Emanuel von Baeyer also focused on women artists.
Among its sales was a large-scale painting by Andreana Dobreva, a Contemporary artist whose pictures give a twist on Old Master Compositions. The gallery said the picture “drew attention throughout the fair and captured the very essence of Frieze Masters.” It went to a private collection in New York.
Will Elliott, making his fair debut, chalked up 10 sales in total, including Portrait of a Zulu by FD Oerder (1867- 1944), which was ticketed at £60,000 and went to a UK private buyer.
“It was a good first fair in the end”, he said. “I’m happy with how it went.”