art market

Don’t Know How to Start Investing in Art? Fintech Startup Arttrade Has a Solution

Art collecting has a very distinct cachet, one that is exclusive, monied, and largely opaque. Blue-chip art and artists (those with a proven sales record and a reliable history of increased valuation) regularly make headlines with record-setting sales, leaving many to believe the market is accessible only to those with incredible amounts of capital and insider know-how. In recent decades, art as a form of investment has become mainstream, as a greater understanding of its appreciation of value is more closely studied and understood. In fact, “Big Four” accounting firm Deloitte estimates that by 2026 over $2.7 trillion will be invested in collectible assets, largely comprised of art objects.

Although fine art is appreciated and collected for its cultural and aesthetic value, it is also a formidable financial asset—one that has gained tremendous traction over the past decade, with upwards of 85% of wealth managers as of 2022 recommending art as a means for portfolio diversification. Art collecting, however, is commonly thought of as a pastime exclusive to the ultra-wealthy. We’ve all seen staggering hammer prices for artworks at major auction houses, or learned of astonishing six- or seven-figure sales at fairs, with the cost leading many (frankly, most) into believing they simply cannot afford or understand how to invest in art.


Founders of Arttrade, left to right, Svenja, David, and Julian.

Founders of Arttrade, left to right, Svenja Heyer, David Riemer, and Julian Kutzim.

Contemporary financial technology, more commonly known by its portmanteau “fintech,” has come a long way in providing accessibility and transparency to the process of investing in art. Fintech company Arttrade was founded by Svenja Heyer, David Riemer, and Julian Kutzim with the aim of providing a means of diversifying one’s portfolio through art—specifically blue-chip art—without having to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

Arttrade maintains an extensive and knowledgeable network of gallerists and art dealers, as well as an independent art advisory board, to aid in identifying some of the most promising blue-chip artworks. Then, using data-driven analysis, including information culled from Midnight Publishing Group—the most trusted auction database in the world—the artist’s or artwork’s value appreciation is forecasted to determine which pieces meet Arttrade’s discerningly high standards. Each asset acquired by Arttrade is then fractionalized via digital security tokens that can be purchased by investors, allowing them to partake in the artwork’s accrual in value. The barrier for entry, unlike traditional art collecting routes, is incredibly low, with investments starting at only €250.


Gerhard Richter, 3.5.88 (1988). Courtesy of Arttrade.

Gerhard Richter, 3.5.88 (1988). Courtesy of Arttrade.

The ability to own fractions of artworks through tokenization, and soon trade and sell the said tokens, removes many of the hurdles commonly associated with entering the traditional art investment sphere. The accessible threshold of participation through Arttrade opens the door for a wider, more diverse body of investors to engage with the art market—who can do so with the confidence of having state-of-the-art technology and the backing of artworld insiders and experts’ know-how at their disposal.

Learn more about Arttrade’s assets here.

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Running a Famous Artist’s Estate Is a Maze of Infighting and Deal-Making. Here’s How the Rothkos and Other Families Did it

When artist Robert Indiana was on his deathbed, lawyers for the Morgan Art Foundation, which holds the copyright to some of Indiana’s most famous works, were busy filing a lawsuit against the foundation Indiana had named as the sole beneficiary of his estate. Three years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, the dispute between the two parties was finally settled this June, but not before the confusion over who had authority over the work had a chance to upset Indiana’s market, as well as cast shadows on his artistic legacy.

The debacle wasn’t the first, nor the last time, the transfer of an artist’s estate has been embroiled in controversy. Artists rarely leave a crystal clear path for the direction of their legacy after their deaths, such as a framework for authenticating their work or clear instructions on who should have authority over their market.

And when money is involved, there is little way of knowing who really has the artist’s best interests at heart. As a result, the responsibility for interpreting these complex questions often falls to whomever inherits the estate, regardless of how well-equipped they are to deal with it.

“I never expected to do this work, and it wasn’t required that I do it either,” said Christopher Rothko. When his father, Mark Rothko, died in 1970, shortly followed by his wife Mary, V was just six years old. The value of Rothko’s work skyrocketed nearly overnight—prices more than doubled after 1971—and his heirs were left with questions over who to trust to manage their father’s artistic legacy when interested market parties were involved. After all, the business of contemporary art is sizeable, but the business of artists’ estates—when a finite supply of artwork meets the demand of the market—can be even bigger.

Christopher Rothko with Mark Rothko, No.64 (1960). Christopher Rothko in 2019. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern.

Christopher Rothko with Mark Rothko, No.64 (1960). Christopher Rothko in 2019. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern.

“I was young and didn’t have much knowledge of how galleries operated,” said Kate Prizel, Christopher’s older sister, who was 19 at the time of her father’s death. “That came with the lawsuit.” A year after her father’s death, Prizel sued the artist’s longtime gallery, Marlborough, to secure the return of a large body of work, despite an agreement that had granted the gallery exclusive rights to sell them.

The children accused the estate’s executors and the gallery of conspiring to defraud them out of their share of the estate by undervaluing work while Rothko was alive and stockpiling paintings. A court eventually concluded in 1975 that there was a conflict of interest, and ordered Marlborough to pay more than $9 million in damages and costs, and return the 658 Rothko paintings still in its possession.

The experience was a valuable lesson for the Rothko children, who have both embraced the challenges of being closely involved in the management of their father’s estate. “We really wanted to limit the role of the gallery after Marlborough,” said Prizel. “We needed to develop a level of trust and didn’t want to work exclusively with anyone anyway,” she added.

Pace Gallery has been the primary venue for selling Rothko’s work since 1978, and will show a retrospective this fall. Despite the arrangement, Rothko’s children have always kept a tight grip on their father’s market. “While we do not control the secondary market, we set the price for our own works,” said Prizel.

“Sometimes we would bring an unusual work for sale, or something that had not been sold before, and we would create a market for it,” Christopher Rothko added. “For the rest, we keep track of prices and auction results from afar. I never set foot in an auction house.”

Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), during his MoMA exhibition, New York City, March 1961. Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images.

Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), during his MoMA exhibition, New York City, March 1961. Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images.

The Importance of Trust

Other heirs have not found it so easy to control the direction of their parent’s legacy. Sometimes, this has been because the artist implemented more rigid structures before their death. Henry Moore, for example, established a charitable foundation to which he conferred ownership of all of the works he produced in exchange for an annual salary. After Moore’s death, his daughter Mary took the Henry Moore Foundation to court over ownership rights to some of the work when she disagreed with the foundation’s plans to expand the artist’s family home, which she felt was not in line with what her father would have wanted. She lost.

Elsewhere, family in-fighting has done more harm to the legacy than good. In Germany, the descendants of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer fought each other so often in court it prevented pretty much all publications, exhibitions, and comprehensive academic research. “It ultimately reduced access to the work,” said Loretta Würtenberger, co-founder of the Institute for Artists’ Estates and author of The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs. According to Würtenberger, a successful estate must involve new generations of collectors, academics, and curators who will have fresh views of the work. “That can only work with a certain freedom, like opening the archives and letting people publish their own findings,” she added. 

Students dance to the opening of the Bauhaus Museum Dessau with stage masks, which go back to Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus. Photo by Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Students dance to the opening of the Bauhaus Museum Dessau with stage masks, which go back to Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus. Photo by Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images.

As one end of the gallery market has swelled to mega proportions, many galleries have developed machines that are well-equipped to deal with the sophisticated questions faced by those entrusted with an artist’s estate. These big businesses know exactly how to encourage new scholarship, secure museum placements, and manage the flow of works to the primary market that will ultimately benefit an artist’s historical legacy. Meanwhile, securing the trust of the heirs to gain representation of an artist’s estate and its inventory can pay off big time.

That’s exactly what Galerie Perrotin has been banking on. After abstract artist couple Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman died childless, a foundation was set up to manage their estate. Through his work and research, French scholar and curator Matthieu Poirier got acquainted with the Foundation Hartung Bergman, and in 2012, when it was looking for a new gallery, Poirier introduced them to Emmanuel Perrotin, for whom he had previously curated a show of Jesus Rafael Soto’s work. 

“Emmanuel immediately offered to put on a museum-like show in his space. He also asked MoMA for loans, simply because I told him it was needed,” Poirier said. “Very few places have the will and manpower to care for estates the way he does.” The gallery was eventually rewarded by signing contracts to represent both estates. Between 2012 and 2016, three Hartung paintings sold at auction for at least $300,000. Between 2017, the date of the Hartung exhibition at Perrotin, and 2021, the record grew five fold, according to Midnight Publishing Group’s Price Database. 

Hauser and Wirth is another European mega-gallery that has been rapidly expanding its roster of artist estates, which today weigh in at 37. Last November, it announced that it would start working with the estate of François Morellet.

The French artist had signed over sole ownership of his estate to his wife Danielle before he died in 2016, which his son, Frédéric Morellet, said was to ensure there were no arguments over the inheritance rights. “My mother was the sole owner of the estate,” Morellet said, adding that for this to work, he and his two brothers had to give up their own inheritance rights. Danielle and Frédéric have been managing the legacy since then.

The Morellets were introduced to Hauser and Wirth by a mutual friend at a time when the family wanted to simplify the organization of the estate, paving the way for the next generation to eventually take over. Frédéric Morellet said the opportunity was too good to pass up: “We were convinced that amongst the mega-galleries, they were one of the most respectable and prestigious ones, and that they would be able to secure Morellet’s legacy in art history.”

Carlos Cruz-Diez Jr. Director of the Atelier Cruz-Diez, Paris @ Atelier Cruz-Diez Paris / Photo: ECL © Carlos Cruz-Diez / Bridgeman Images 2021.

Carlos Cruz-Diez Jr. Director of the Atelier Cruz-Diez, Paris @ Atelier Cruz-Diez Paris / Photo: ECL © Carlos Cruz-Diez / Bridgeman Images 2021.

Legacy Planning

While facing-up one’s own death can be daunting, the historical record has shown that investing time in estate planning will ultimately support the market and in turn an artist’s place in art history. And contemporary artists working today seem to be taking their own legacies more seriously than ever. The British Abstract painter Frank Bowling has had one eye on his legacy for several decades. Among his preparations for the future were a late-career switch in galleries to Hauser and Wirth, and sending his sons to take a crash course in estate management.

Before he died, the Venezuelan Op artist Carlos Cruz-Diez was also keen to secure his artistic future. “My father was very articulate about his wishes for his legacy,” said Carlos Cruz-Diez Jr., who is one of several artist’s children taking part in a talks series on the topic at Newlands House Gallery in Sussex, U.K. He added that the discussion started after his mother died, when his father was 81 years old. They established the Cruz-Diez Foundation in 2005 to preserve a collection of works selected by the artist, with the clear mission of preserving and promoting his life and work. “My father was involved in the foundation’s projects just as much as he was in his studio,” Cruz-Diez Jr. noted.

By the time the artist died in 2019, the family had been working together for several decades. The estate and the foundation are still run by family members working together with a select few galleries to promote the estate around the globe.

“Managing the commercial aspect of my father’s work is a collaborative effort. As owners of the works, the family has the last word on the number of works available and establishing prices,” Cruz-Diez Jr. said. “Our commercial partners enrich our process with their knowledge of the market and help us maintain the delicate balance between supply and demand.”

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The Lockdown Made Collectors Even Hungrier for Paintings of the Human Form. Is Figuration Fatigue Coming Next?

The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Midnight Publishing Group News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.


Reflecting on the contemporary art market’s voracious appetite for portraiture today, an art dealer recently told me over coffee: Imagine all these collectors waking up one morning, looking around their homes, and asking themselves, “Who are all these people?”

It was a joke, of course. But it got me thinking: Is there figuration fatigue on the horizon? 

There’s a glut of figurative art out there: on social media, in galleries, auction salesrooms, and museums. Building up prior to the pandemic, the desire for figurative paintings, and portraiture in particular, has only accelerated over the past 16 months. Recently, Asian collectors have been driving up prices for works by Dana Schutz and Amy Sherald, Amoako Boafo and Emily Mae-Smith.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie's.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Human figures appeared in all but three of the top 30 contemporary and ultra-contemporary artworks sold at auction in the first half of 2021, according to Midnight Publishing Group Analytics (two of the three exceptions depict plants and trees). 

“It’s hard to get away from portraiture,” said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, whose family museum will display new figurative works by three artists in December. “It remains powerful. Every generation has its own version.”

Artists have been depicting the human figure for millennia, starting with cave paintings. But the current obsession has been fueled by a number of factors. As museums and private collectors alike work to fill gaps in their holdings by artists of color, and particularly Black artists, whose work has been undervalued for decades, portraiture has emerged as an important genre. 

Some, however, wonder if the single-minded focus of profit-motivated collectors may keep them from engaging with the true breadth of cultural production. “People want to check these boxes and say they participate in the moment,” said art consultant Rachael Barrett. “They want something recognizable, something people can easily spot on a wall. I think there’s going to be fatigue of that. I do hope that the range of artistic practice of the artists of color becomes more appreciated.”

Installation view, "Hugh Hayden: Huey" © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Installation view, “Hugh Hayden: Huey” © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

There are signs this is already starting to happen. At Lisson gallery in Chelsea, Hugh Hayden has created three chapel-like spaces filled with meticulously sculpted, sawed, and woven objects such as reclaimed church pews, basketball hoops, and school desks.

Nearby, Gagosian mounted “Social Works,” an exhibition that focuses on community engagement in Black art practice, with monumental sculpture, video installations, and even a functional farm. Theaster Gates contributed a display of 5,000 records amassed by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who was influential in Black queer circles in the 1980s. House music fills the gallery and a DJ on site is busy digitizing the archive for the duration of the show. 

Works of this scale and complexity would be hard to appreciate, or even grasp, on Instagram, the social media platform that contributed to the saturation of figurative art during the pandemic. Portraits were much easier to digest and acquire because people knew what they were looking at.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

“Even sculptures, in lockdown, it’s hard for people to take this leap of faith and buy something digitally,” said art advisor Ed Tang. “Unless you are standing in front of it, looking at it from various angles, it’s difficult to commit to it.”

In a moment of social isolation, figurative imagery was comforting. “There was a desire to see ourselves in some way or another, to see the context around the human figure, socially, historically, or just on a physical level,” said gallery owner Franklin Parrasch. “The drive for figuration is part of the replacement of the socialization process.”

As physical interactions with art resume at museums, art fairs, and biennials, audiences may swing toward something more challenging.

“The way people are looking at art will change,” Tang said. “Can you imagine going to Venice and seeing figurative painting in every pavilion?”

While it’s hard to say what the next big trend will be, the pendulum seems to regularly swing between abstraction and figuration. And while some artists make work that responds to prevailing ideas and taste, many do what they do independently of them. Sometimes, it takes decades to understand the significance of a particular work or artist. A recent rehang of New York’s Museum of Modern Art radically paired Faith Ringgold’s 1967 American People Series #20: Die with Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

“We didn’t have the same versatility of context in the ‘60s when this work was being made,” said art advisor Allan Schwartzman. “Figuration was seen as dated.”

Installation view, "A Thought Sublime." Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Installation view, “A Thought Sublime.” Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

While pure abstraction remains somewhat out of fashion these days, the landscape, which hasn’t been a hot genre in decades, is making an appearance in several shows, including “A Thought Sublime” at Marianne Boesky and “Ridiculous Sublime,” organized by advisor Lisa Schiff.

“It’s something of a relief from all this figuration,” said art advisor Wendy Cromwell. “It may be a bridge back to abstraction for some artists and collectors.”

Some artists are fusing the figure and the landscape. Matthew Marks gallery sold out its current show by 31-year-old Julien Nguyen, who makes haunting portraits and jewel-like allegorical scenes inspired by the Bible, Renaissance painting, and anime. (The waiting list for his work is growing.) Prices ranged from $30,000 to $50,000.

A block north, at Cheim and Read gallery, the late Matthew Wong’s ink drawings depict his signature lone figures in exquisitely rendered mystical spaces. Several sold, with prices ranging from $275,000 to $450,000.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Many see figuration fatigue as linked to the pure volume of material, some of which is bound to be of lower quality. “Bad figurative painting is everywhere,” critic Dean Kissick wrote last year in an essay on a wave of painting he called Zombie Figuration. “It crawls into every room, from museums to galleries, to cool young project spaces, to the world at large.” 

Others simply long for a more sophisticated and critical level of discourse than a social media post that says: “Hey I just got this artwork. I bought it online. What do you think?”

“And there are 400 likes or kisses,” Parrasch said. “It’s never anything deep enough to create an argument. What we have is clicks and underdeveloped thoughts.” 

But weaning off the figure will not happen overnight, said Ron Segev, the co-founder of Thierry Goldberg gallery on the Lower East Side.

“Collectors who are coming to me want figurative work,” he said. “I can’t convince people to buy abstract paintings right now. But you can see that there are some artists out there who are working against the trend. One of these artists will start a new one.”  

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How Lockdown Has Accelerated the Blurred Lines Between Galleries and Auction Houses

In February last year, a group of art-dealing titans went public with an unusual proposition—they would team up and sell the storied collection of the late philanthropist Donald Marron. The move was a shock to the art-world system because it saw three galleries, Gagosian, Pace, and Acquavella, snaffling up a $450 million estate that historically would have been the territory of auction houses.

The Marron deal was a strong sign that the traditional lines separating galleries and auction houses had become increasingly blurry. This slow-brewing convergence only accelerated after the pandemic struck and both sectors were initially confined to the web.

Now, as auction houses pursue pop-up spaces and invest in private sales while galleries launch new secondary market ventures, the market’s Venn diagram threatens more than ever to become a circle.

Welcome to the era of the blobified art market. 

Sotheby's new space in Palm Beach. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s new space in Palm Beach. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

What Is at Stake?

The business model of auction houses has historically hinged on splashy and expensive public sales of work by dead artists and from collectors’ estates. Meanwhile, traditional dealers would more quietly sell work on both the primary and secondary markets.

But these divisions have been eroding for years. Sotheby’s began experimenting with the private-sales model as far back as the early ’90s. Meanwhile, Christie’s acquired a primary market gallery, Haunch of Venison, in 2007, which dissolved six years later to become its private-sales arm.

Amid a dip in confidence in public sales during the pandemic, auction houses reported record highs in private transactions. The Big Three houses—Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips—all saw the category grow around 50 percent in 2020.

Auction houses have also taken on a greater interest in exhibition-making, buying up or renting out more space to mount exhibitions, conduct private sales, and organize selling shows. Last year, Sotheby’s opened pop-up gallery spaces in Palm Beach and East Hampton, and the house is now moving its Paris headquarters into the former premises of the legendary Bernheim Jeune gallery.

David Nash, cofounder of Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery who previously led Sotheby’s contemporary and Impressionist and Modern art divisions, regrets his role in encouraging the house to take up private sales, as he now sees the development as an existential threat to galleries.

“I don’t know how dealers can respond to it,” he tells Midnight Publishing Group News. “Certainly the auction galleries have taken away huge amounts of business… and the number of dealers who were really involved in the resale market have shrunk.”

Art advisor Sibylle Rochat thinks auction houses’ posture threatens to cut into galleries’ business with living artists as well. “Galleries are losing control of the secondary markets of their artists and unfortunately this is where they could make the money to grow, meaning there is a glass ceiling for galleries working with living artists,” Rochat says.

Glimcher. Photo © Axel Depuex.

From left to right: Arne Glimcher, Bill Acquavella, Larry Gagosian, and Marc Glimcher. Photo © Axel Depuex.

Galleries Muscle In

Yet blobification is not a story of one sector engulfing another—both sides are encroaching on the other’s turf. In the process of handling the Marron estate, the three mega-galleries launched a new business called AGP to handle future sales of major collections.

The move has received nods of approval from other respected dealers—including Emmanuel Perrotin and Johann König, who are among a cohort testing out secondary market endeavors of their own. While their projects are distinct, they share a common desire to dip into auction-house portfolios—and to do business with margins higher than the typical primary market 50-50 split between artist and dealer. 

Perrotin, who recently opened Perrotin Second Marché with two business partners, says that his gallery’s presence in a five-story building down the road from Christie’s and Sotheby’s on Avenue Matignon is “sending a powerful message that our presence is wished for and founded on expertise.”

Galleries’ push into the secondary market is in part a response to the fact that artworks are cycling through collections much faster than they used to, he says: “Works now can appear twice within five years without affecting its value—to the contrary. Collectors have come to realize that it could be in their interest to work with [artists’] galleries on both the buying side and the selling side.”

Back in 2011, when White Cube became one of the first galleries to venture into secondary-market dealings with a dedicated gallery (run by the now-disgraced dealer Inigo Philbrick), the prospect was taboo enough that White Cube gave it a different name, Modern Collections.

Last month, White Cube launched a new venture under its own brand, Salon, to offer month-long presentations of individual secondary market works. The initiative began with a work by Carmen Herrera, who is not represented by the gallery.

The aim, according to Mathieu Paris, White Cube’s director of private sales, is to distinguish themselves by foregrounding scholarship and expertise. “Auction houses are playing the clock and the quantity of sales whilst galleries are proposing more elaborate curatorial visions,” he says.

A scene inside KÖNIG GALERIE in the virtual world of Decentraland. Courtesy of KÖNIG GALERIE.

A scene inside König Galerie’s virtual show on Decentraland, which was accompanied by the gallery’s first-ever auction. Courtesy of KÖNIG GALERIE.

Other dealers are less interested in making any distinction at all. “If you are client-centric, there is no separation between [auction and gallery] models,” Johann König told Midnight Publishing Group News. He has been trying out both an in-house art fair and, more recently, an auction with digital works attached to artist-minted non-fungible tokens (NFTs).  

Indeed, the vogue for NFTs has likely accelerated blobification even further. Crypto-artists, König notes, seem to place less value on galleries’ vetting clients and placing work, forcing dealers who are eager to get in on the action to adopt a new approach. “They find it the most normal thing in the world to auction off their work,” he says. “How crazy is that?”

The new Perrotin gallery in a five-storey townhouse at 8 Avenue Matignon in Paris.

The new Perrotin gallery in a five-story townhouse at 8 Avenue Matignon in Paris. L’ATELIER SENZU

What Is the Future of Blobification?

The convergence between auctions and galleries is already having an impact on transparency. While online art fairs and viewing rooms have encouraged galleries to share prices publicly, the increased volume of and new formats for online auction sales have resulted in increasingly obscure public results. 

Some question whether auction houses might end up undermining their own business model by delving into private sales and other strategies borrowed from galleries. Several experts commented that even live auctions, with the omnipresence of in-house and third-party guarantees, have become little more than private sales conducted theatrically in public. “I’m not quite sure whether they are swallowing their own tail,” dealer David Nash says.

Some houses have been reluctant to embrace guarantees for this very reason. “In principle, you put something in an auction and it either sells or it doesn’t—so if one starts using mechanisms like guarantees, it would contradict what one is trying to do in an auction,” says Diandra Donecker, a director and partner at Grisebach auction house in Berlin.

Denzil Forrester in conversation with Victor Wang, LIVE, Frieze Week 2020
Photo by Deniz Guzel. Courtesy of Deniz Guzel/Frieze

One aspect of the gallery business that auction houses have not subsumed is the representation of artists and estates, which is generally a longer-term commitment than these businesses—which have seen significant turnover in recent years—are suited for.

Sotheby’s quietly shuttered its artists’ estates division in 2018 after less than two years, and its plan to co-represent the estate of Vito Acconci with never got off the ground. But David Schrader, the house’s global head of private sales, noted that some artists may become increasingly open to selling directly through auction houses and bypassing the gallery system entirely. “I think ultimately that’s sort of where we’re going with NFTs, that’s essentially a direct-to-market strategy,” he says.

Schrader predicts that the era of blobification has only just begun, and that the market’s future lies in multi-faceted art businesses rather than strictly defined auction houses or galleries. The stress of the pandemic encouraged sectors to collaborate, with some galleries even offering inventory (gasp!) on auction-house websites“I do think that there is a softening of old boundaries-slash-adversarial type thinking,” he says.

According to Schrader, Sotheby’s data shows there is only a five percent overlap between private-sales clients and those who are active in auctions, but those who cross over from auctions to private sales don’t reduce their activity in the former category. “There’s an historical myth of cannibalization of one versus, the other,” Schrader says. “And in fact, I think they’re quite synergistic.”

Nora Turato, "let’s never be like that”, organized by LambdaLambdaLambda, LA MAISON DE RENDEZ-VOUS, Brussels, 2020. photo credit: Isabelle Arthuis.

Nora Turato, “let’s never be like that”, organized by LambdaLambdaLambda, LA MAISON DE RENDEZ-VOUS, Brussels, 2020. Photo: Isabelle Arthuis.

The result may be art businesses that not only look more and more alike, but also converge on the same moments and locations. Asked whether he could imagine an auction at Art Basel in the future, Schrader didn’t rule it out: “I think if you asked that question two years ago, the answer would have been, zero chance. And I think if you ask the question today, it might be 25 percent.” He points out that for years Sotheby’s mounted exhibitions in the same building and during the same week as Art Basel in Hong Kong. 

Despite the possibilities, not everyone is likely to emerge from this blobified art market a winner. In an industry of vertically integrated conglomerates, what happens to the mom-and-pop shops?

“Galleries can learn from auction house strategies,” says Jo Stella-Sawicka, the London director of Goodman Gallery, which teamed up with several other dealers on an experimental auction to help uplift artists and galleries in the Global South, “but not everyone has the medium or the means to do that.”

Jeffrey Rosen, who cofounded the Brussels gallery-share Maison de Rendezvous in Brussels, is skeptical that centralization is good for culture. “What we put on the walls must be dictated by the belief that it has cultural significance in the immediate present while betting on it in the long-term,” he says, and “not determined by what will generate the most money as quickly as possible.”

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Art Dubai, the First Major In-Person Art Fair Since the Pandemic, Proves That Collectors Are Ready to Show Up and Spend

At any other time, visitors to the annual Art Dubai fair might have mistaken the sleekly curved, glossy white hand sanitizers that lined the halls for an art installation. Interspersed between gallery stations at the 14th edition of Art Dubai, they are a potent symbol of our new reality—and of what it takes to stage an art fair in 2021.

The fair was the first major international art event to cancel last March amid the onset of the pandemic and is now the first to resume in-person operations. It might be one of the only fairs this year to be staged at all.  

In many ways, this year’s Art Dubai, which runs through April 3, signals the resurgence of the Gulf megapolis. Prior to the pandemic, the emirate had entered into a grave recession. The spectacular collapse of crude oil prices caused finance ministers across the Gulf to dramatically cut spending; the real estate market had slumped, symbolized by the many glistening sky rises with only a few windows illuminated; and expats had been returning to their home countries by the thousands. Then, the pandemic dealt Dubai another crippling blow. The very strengths that allowed it to shine—hospitality and tourism—also made it particularly vulnerable. 

Opening Day at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

Opening Day at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

But Dubai has a habit of defying even its biggest skeptics. This time, it has done so royally. As the rest of the world continues to struggle with vaccine rollouts, the UAE has already vaccinated more than half its population, a rate second only to Israel. Its borders remain open and residents and visitors are allowed to live “normal” lives so long as they abide by state-instituted health protocols, social-distancing measures, and obligatory mask-wearing. 

At Art Dubai, expressions of joy and relief could be felt beneath masks as fairgoers—many attending their first big social gathering of the year—gathered inside three white-tented halls nestled between the iconic Gate Building and towering sky rises of the Dubai International Financial Center. The central location calls the fair back to its origins: It was in this very spot that Art Dubai launched in 2007 as the Gulf Art Fair before moving to its previous base in Madinat Jumeirah’s Joharah Ballroom. 


Overcoming Hurdles

Aware that this year would be far from typical, fair organizers adopted an unprecedented profit-sharing model. Galleries did not need to pay a fee up front to participate. Instead, they paid Art Dubai 50 percent of sales made during the fair, up to the cost of the booth. Dealers that had put forward the traditional 50 percent advance for the cancelled 2020 fair had the option to apply the fee to this year’s event or to the 2022 edition. 

Art Dubai also instituted a remote participation program for galleries that were unable to attend in person due to travel restrictions. Seven dealers, including Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery and Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler, oversaw their installations via Zoom. The fair hired a representative to man their stands and QR codes enabled collectors to Whatsapp the far-flung gallerists directly. 

Strong sales offered “a good sign for Dubai as well as a positive omen for some of the bigger fairs globally,” said Iranian-born collector and financier Mohammed Afkhami. “This is the way forward in a post-pandemic future.”

Installation view of Aicon Art Gallery at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

Installation view of Aicon Art Gallery at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

That’s not to say it was easy. “This has been a process of diving into the unknown,” said Pablo del Val, the fair’s artistic director. Participating gallerists had to take two PCR tests—one the day before the fair and another the day after it opened. Only visitors who had booked an appointment were permitted to enter, and the fair limited attendance to 600 people at once (250 fewer than the government-issued cap). 

The scaled-back edition hosted 50 galleries from 31 countries—40 fewer than in 2019. It boasted the same glittering sponsors, BMW and Ruinart, as well as first-time supporter Salvatore Ferragamo. But many other hallmarks were missing: no fancy VIP lounge with collectors sipping champagne, no dressed-up patron’s preview, no media center, no food or beverage stands, and no expensive public program. (In their place was a social distancing-friendly film program and sculpture park.)

“We were concerned about how the experience would be since we had to sacrifice many of the special features,” del Val told Midnight Publishing Group News. “But instead, this seems to be the happiest week of the year so far.” 


Sales Abound

It was certainly a happy week for many dealers, who reported swift sales from the fair’s first day. On view was a mix of work by established and emerging artists with a focus on the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. 

First-time participant Perrotin sold a work by French photographer JR for $65,000, while Custot Gallery Dubai sold two works by British artist Ian Davenport in the range of $120,000 and $150,000, one by Fabienne Verdier for $150,000, and two by Sophia Vari for between $45,000 and $70,000. Dubai-based Meem Gallery sold two works by revered Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi in the range of $55,000 and $90,000, while Comptoir des Mines, a first-time exhibitor from Marrakech, sold a work by Moroccan-born Fatiha Zemmouri for $32,000.

“We came with no expectations and had a nice surprise,” said Anne-Claudie Coric of Galerie Templon. The Paris gallery, which has been participating in the fair since 2013, sold pieces by Ivan Navarro in the range of $28,000 and $100,000, Jitish Kallat for between $6,000 and $50,000, and Senegalese star Omar Ba in the range of $50,000 and $70,000.

Ángeles Agrela at Yusto-Giner Gallery. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

Ángeles Agrela at Yusto-Giner Gallery. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

The fair has adopted a growing focus on art from Africa and its diaspora in recent years, and the material found an eager audience. Third-time participant Gallery 1957, with bases in London and Accra, sold four works by Ivory Coast-based artist Joana Choumali in the range of $10,000 to $16,000. Addis Fine Art, of Addis Ababa and London, sold works by rising Ethiopian star Tizta Berhanu in the region of £4,000 to £6,000.

“We find that [Dubai] is a great middle ground for us to connect with South Asia and the Middle East,” said Rakeb Sile, co-founder of Addis Fine Art. 

International collectors flocked to Dubai in the dozens. Yet missing were the many museum groups that usually fill the aisles—an indication of the financial challenges facing institutions following the pandemic. 

“Everything has a taste of fake here even if they are trying, except for Sharjah,” said collector Alain Servais, who traveled from Belgium for the event. While he did not find the art at the fair particularly compelling (“The art is the same everywhere”), he noted that the event “was well organized and big gallerists were in attendance and this tells you something.”

“When we travel for an art event, we are traveling to visit an art scene, so I am not coming here for Art Dubai, I am coming for Dubai and its art ecosystem,” he said. “It has world-class institutions such as the Jameel Art Center and the Sharjah Art Foundation, but still lacks art schools.”

A visitor at Templon's booth at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

A visitor at Templon’s booth at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

On the Cusp of Change

The fair arrived at a moment of transition—and great potential—for the UAE. Last year, the emirate made “peace” with two longtime foes. It lifted the embargo on Qatar (whose royal family is full of deeply committed art collectors) and normalized relations with Israel. 

Hebrew can now be heard throughout the city, an indication of the tourism boomlet that the agreement brought to the UAE. At one point early in January, The Times of Israel reported that more than 50,000 Israelis had flocked to the Gulf nation.

“People have discovered that Dubai is a more sophisticated place than they expected,” del Val said. “Many collectors from Europe have moved here to escape lockdown in their home countries.” Plus, he said, with restrictions on Hong Kong tightening and the Gulf nation’s normalization of relations with nearby countries, “the perception of Dubai is going to change a lot in the future.” 

Others feel Dubai still has a ways to go in order to become a global player in the international art scene. “It may not be to the level of a ‘capital’ quite yet, but it is definitely a regional cultural hub,” said Anne-Claudie Coric. 

One way or another, the recent geopolitical changes spell opportunity for the Gulf city. For one thing, dealers in Tel Aviv are increasingly considering setting up shop in Dubai. “Israel as a country is not surrounded by many friendly neighbors,” said Israeli art dealer Charly Darwich, who is opening TLV Fine Art in Dubai. “Dubai, without a doubt, is going to be the center of the world because many big cities are falling apart.”

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