Markets

Art-World Professionals Are Ambivalent About Returning to the Market’s Traveling Circus This Fall


Just a few short months ago, the full-throated return of the IRL art event felt imminent. Now, as the Armory Show in New York prepares to open in less than two weeks, rising coronavirus rates and the rapid spread of the Delta variant have once again thrown a serious curveball at the prospect of live events. 

In late July, ARTnews revealed that 55 exhibitors of the Armory Show’s previously announced 212-gallery lineup—around 25 percent—would participate only virtually, deferring in-person attendance to the 2022 edition. Not surprisingly, most of them are from Europe, where international travel remains difficult due to constantly changing restrictions.

Conversations with collectors, dealers, and art advisors suggest that any kind of universal “welcome back” moment will prove elusive. Instead, the return to the circuit is likely to be governed by individual circumstances. Some Armory skeptics cited the fair’s proximity to Jewish high holidays and the looming start of the school year as reasons for caution.

“I am really hesitant about the Armory or any kind of big super-spreader event,” art advisor Lisa Schiff told Midnight Publishing Group News, noting that she has a young unvaccinated son at home. At the same time, she acknowledged, “It will be a hard one to not go to because people are going to be pulled to go to it.”

The sentiment was split down the middle in a mini-survey that the Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA) conducted among 40 of its members. Half of those surveyed do not plan to travel for art fairs at all this year. Half of U.S.-based advisors, meanwhile, plan to attend Independent and the Armory Show. 

International travel remains a challenge. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the E.U. is set to advise its members to reintroduce travel restrictions for U.S. visitors, leaving unclear the prospects for those who had planned to attend Art Basel.

Corporate curators from Canada, Europe, and the U.S. are not traveling internationally at all, according to the APAA poll, and none of the European art advisors surveyed plan to attend American fairs this year. Only three U.S. respondents expect to attend Art Basel; five will attend Frieze London; and three intend to visit FIAC in Paris. Nine U.S. respondents said they were likely to attend Art Basel Miami Beach. 

The Armory Show, Pier 94. Photo: Teddy Wolff, courtesy of The Armory Show.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Not surprisingly, most of the in-person art fairs that have taken place so far this year have had a heavily regional flavor, including Frieze New York, the recent concentration of art events in Aspen, and Upstate Art Weekend in New York’s Hudson Valley.

For some, this makes Armory Week—which, despite last-minute changes, will host a considerable number of international galleries—all the more exciting.

“In my conversations with our exhibitors and collectors, I’ve been heartened by their enthusiasm for the return of fairs,” Armory Show director Nicole Berry told Midnight Publishing Group News. “We understand that for many of our exhibitors and collectors, the Armory Show marks a return to large-scale events after a long hiatus, and they’ve expressed comfort in the rigorous health and safety protocols we have put into place.”

In its new home, the Javits Center, the fair will present work by Modern and contemporary exhibitors under one roof for the first time in over a decade. Architects Frederick Fisher and Partners “have thoughtfully designed an open floor plan keeping social distancing and safety in mind while also creating amazing sight lines,” Berry said. At the center of the fair is an open gathering space where visitors can take in large-scale installations (while keeping a safe distance from one another).

The 2020 Armory Show in New York. Photo by Teddy Wolff. Image courtesy The Armory Show.

The 2020 Armory Show in New York. Photo by Teddy Wolff. Image courtesy The Armory Show.

New York-based art advisor Wendy Cromwell has three clients lined up to attend the Armory Week fairs, all of whom are eager to see art in person after so much time spent viewing it online. (Cromwell also plans to visit Art Basel in September, Frieze London in October, and FIAC later that month; for the latter, she will have an American client in tow.)

“Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m just trying to do good work, as always, and support the galleries,” the advisor said. “I think it means a lot when you show up in person.” Every one of her clients who attended Frieze New York, she noted, bought something at the fair. 

The same spirit motivated art advisor Liz Parks to float the idea to clients in early spring of attending Zona Maco in Mexico City. “I was recently vaccinated, and itching to get out of my home prison to look at art in my second favorite city, and thought they might be, too,” she said. “In the end, three different U.S. clients came with me. It was a joyful time, filled with endless art eye candy after having been in a visual desert for so long.”

With the arrival of Delta, however, the outlook has changed considerably, “casting just enough doubt in the mix to make one question one’s every move,” Parks said. That’s why she’s decided to sit out Art Basel this year. 

Visitors enter the expositions building during the VIP opening day at Art Basel. Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images.

Visitors enter the expositions building during the VIP opening day at Art Basel. Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images.

Hurdles to Travel

For many, the complex go-or-don’t-go calculus includes the fact that younger children remain unvaccinated and the school year is just about to begin. COVID-related travel hurdles also present an issue.

Earlier this week, for example, organizers of Liste, a satellite of Art Basel, sent an email alerting travelers that only Swiss or E.U. COVID-19 certificates would guarantee entry. Vaccinated visitors from outside the E.U. must submit a collection of documents to a government agency more than a week in advance to secure a certificate. (Adding another layer of complexity, not every vaccine manufacturer has been approved by the Swiss government.) 

“Aside from COVID itself, the difficulties that can arise from trying to get test results within 24 hours to board an international flight can be in itself a mini-mess, as I have found from my own family’s attempts and very last minute surprises,” appraiser Elin Lake Ewald noted. 

Many of the experts we spoke to seemed most optimistic and relaxed about Art Basel Miami Beach—likely because it is the furthest away on the calendar. Los Angeles based dealer Susanne Vielmetter reported that her gallery had just shipped its crate to Switzerland for Art Basel when collectors began to tell her they were cancelling their trips. Art Basel Miami Beach, she said, is giving galleries more time to make a final commitment, knowing that people are apprehensive.

For some, 16 months of lockdown has offered a welcome glimpse of what life might be like with less frantic art-fair travel—for good. Jonathan Schwartz, an industry veteran and CEO of art shipper Atelier 4, said he feels that these events have been headed for a reckoning ever since Miami Art Week hit 23 fairs around 2007. 

Amid the pandemic, he said, “We did such a good job of pivoting away from art fairs because there were none, that we actually don’t need to go back to them…. What if we did in fact staff up and then it gets shut down because union workers, art handlers and a few early arriving dealers test positive, and then we all have to go home?” 

“I know we will eventually get out of this mess,” he added, “but what’s the rush, art fairs?”

Schiff agrees. “I’m really going to do my darndest to fight [going to so many fairs]—and then you can make fun of me when I’m right back in the same circuit,” the art advisor said. “There are lots of ways to work more creatively and the gallery system has showed us that. With all the galleries mounting OVRs, I’m going to be there virtually—but I don’t have to go anymore.”

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The Dawn of the ‘Art Bro’: How Hungry Investors Are Moving the Markets for Young Artists From Their Bedrooms


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.

 

From his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 27-year-old dealer Connor Remes talks to dozens of art buyers every week. Most are in their 20s and 30s, based in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and pursue works ranging from $10,000 to $1.5 million. Frequent conversations involve emerging artists with soaring markets like Amoako Boafo and Eddie Martinez and others who are poised to take off, like Ivy Haldeman and Szabolcs Bozó.

Remes, whose father is collector Peter Remes, says his client base grew “significantly” during the pandemic as new buyers entered the art market. With galleries closed, art fairs canceled, and museums in lockdown, they turned to online platforms like Instagram to discover artists making colorful, commercial paintings that looked good as JPEGs. Some buyers who weren’t able to get works through galleries turned to Remes to find them on the secondary market.  

“Everyone wants to say they bought X, Y, Z artists when they were a nobody,” Remes said. “It’s not only the bragging rights in the collecting circles, but it can be quite substantial returns as well.”

Against the backdrop of a democratization of the financial world and the expansion of retail investing platforms like Robinhood, a new generation of buyers is gaining prominence—and setting records. Lots priced between $100,000 to $1 million generated $264.5 million at auction in April, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database, the largest total of any price bracket. Not only was it a massive jump from last year, it was also an 18 percent increase from the same period in 2019, pre-pandemic. 

Joel Mesler, New York, New York (2021). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Joel Mesler, New York, New York (2021). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

During last week’s auctions in New York, buyers set new high marks for artists including Alex da Corte ($287,500), Nina Chanel Abney ($990,000), Joel Mesler ($275,000) and Jonas Wood ($6.5 million). 

“I didn’t know many of the names of buyers and bidders in our 21st century sale,” said Alex Rotter of Christie’s, who crafted a new auction concept focused on the past 40 years of art-making specifically to attract new audiences. “We saw different energy, a different level of bidding, and also different people bidding.”

Profit is a significant driver for these new entrants. Unlike earlier generations of collectors, who found it gauche to talk numbers, they grew up as art became accepted as an investment that sometimes outpaced traditional asset classes. 

Some are expanding their online day trading from shares and Bitcoin to sought-after artworks, according to dealers and auction executives. And just as traders swap war stories on Wall Street Bets, these buyers are not shy about sharing prices they’ve paid and gains they’ve made.

One longtime market player described them as “art bros”: young men who’ve made millions in equities and are now moving markets for individual artists from their bedrooms —without ever setting foot in a gallery.  

Two macroeconomic trends underpin the current demand for art as well as collectibles such as watches, sports cards, and NFTs.

First, many professionals are awash in cash thanks to soaring equity markets and aggressive stimulus efforts by fiscal authorities. In the depths of the pandemic, when everything was shut down, U.S. households were saving one-third of their discretionary income compared to a more typical rate of five to six percent, said Benjamin Mandel, head of portfolio strategy at Itaú Asset Management in Sao Paulo, Brazil. With inflation on the rise after more than a decade, investors are now looking to channel some funds into assets that are perceived as a hedge against it: real estate, commodities—and, potentially, art, he said.

Another trend playing into this shift is the intergenerational transfer of wealth. Those who are inheriting family fortunes want to make their own unique mark. “They are going to find their own thing and they are going to stick with it,” Remes said. “That’s why we are seeing prices for younger artists escalate.”

Asia is also playing an increasingly large role. Whereas several years ago, Asian collectors were focused on the trophy market, they are now also chasing the same up-and-coming talents as their American and European counterparts—at auction, through galleries, and even directly from the artists.

“The buying pool is much larger than before,” said Kevie Yang, head of Phillips art advisory. “It used to take years for the artist’s primary prices to go from $50,000 to, say, $200,000. Now it can take a year or even less.”

Javier Calleja, What I Mean (2017). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Javier Calleja, What I Mean (2017). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

An artist doesn’t have to be a household name anymore to break the $1 million mark at auction. Take Spanish artist Javier Calleja, whose solo show is opening at Almine Rech Gallery in Shanghai this Friday. His big-headed, big-eyed cartoonish characters, reminiscent of Yoshitomo Nara, are all the rage in Asia. A painting of a green-eyed boy, Waiting for a While (2019), fetched $1.1 million at Christie’s online sale in March, more than doubling its high estimate. The artist made his auction debut just two years ago, when prices were under $5,000.

Chinese-born, Los Angeles-based collector Harry Hu, 26, isn’t into Calleja, but getting access is difficult even for an active art buyer and museum patron like him. (He said he has spent more than $1 million on art in the past year, including 16 new works in May alone.)

“It requires a lot of effort to get a piece of art,” he said. “We joke that we have to beg people to take our money.”

Collector Harry Hu with artist Cai guo qiang. Courtesy of Harry Hu.

Collector Harry Hu with artist Cai Guo Qiang. Courtesy of Harry Hu.

Hu, who attended the California Institute of the Arts, said he isn’t driven by profit (his family made its fortune in alcohol and beverage distribution as well as concert stage equipment). He plans to open an artist residency for international artists in Los Angeles next year and eventually set up a foundation for his collection. He’s friends with some artists whose work he owns, including Martinez and Katherine Bradford, whom he calls “grandma.” He is donating a painting by Glenn Kaino, Salute (Second Salute) (2019), to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and joined the Whitney Museum’s painting and sculpture acquisition committee this spring.

“There are many, many people like me, who will become important one day,” Hu said. “We don’t have a lot of pressure for money. We can do something meaningful. I chose art.”

While Hu said he’s not a flipper, he is keenly aware of the escalating prices for many of the artists whose works he owns. He paid $90,000 for a Martinez flower painting recently and was glad to see a similar piece fetch $325,000 at auction last week. 

“I am happy that these guys are doing great,” he said, “and hope my collection value goes up.”

 

Magnifying Glass

A closer look at one work making waves in the market this week

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1982). © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1982). © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

While paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat ignited global bidding wars at Sotheby’s and Christie’s last week, another majestic canvas by the artist quietly greeted visitors at Lévy Gorvy gallery on Madison Avenue. Painted in 1982, the untitled work depicts a skeletal figure amid blue and red swashes. A totem. A hero. A prophet. 

Also, a question: For sale or not for sale? 

The painting is recorded in an iconic photograph of Annina Nosei and Basquiat, taken while he was working in the basement of her gallery in 1982. The eight-foot-tall, five-foot-wide canvas belongs to Lorenzo Fertitta, a Las Vegas collector who bought it privately for about $50 million at the end of 2019 at Sotheby’s, according to people familiar with the deal. The seller at the time was Marieluise Hessel, a benefactor of Bard College. She acquired it in 1985 from Gagosian gallery, according to its published provenance.

Sotheby’s and Lévy Gorvy declined to comment. Fertitta couldn’t be reached for comment. 

The work has been shown in public only occasionally over the years, including at Bard in 2010 and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2018. But over the past 10 months, it has appeared at no fewer than three Lévy Gorvy locations: Hong Kong, Palm Beach, and now, New York. It arrived in time for the May auctions and remains on view through May 29.

“It is a masterpiece,” Gorvy said. “I have worked with many Basquiats in my time, but very few have this surface and color and bravado.”

The work is not for sale, he said. 

Gorvy initially borrowed it during COVID to showcase in Hong Kong while the rest of the art world was in lockdown. “It was fantastic,” he said. “People seem to forget what we did last year to make our galleries relevant and dynamic.”

While it was on view there, the owner turned down unsolicited offers, Gorvy said. At the time, the painting was insured for $65 million, according to a person familiar with the work.

It’s unclear whether the value would be higher now following a $93.1 million result for Basquiat’s skull painting at Christie’s on May 11. 

Why would a powerhouse gallery schlep something so valuable around the globe, if not to sell it? 

“I am of the firm belief that collectors have a responsibility to lend their works when it is appropriate for the work and its condition to travel,” Gorvy said. “It has had little public exposure and it needs to be seen to be really appreciated.”

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