Paris tightens its grip on the art world – but London is far from beaten yet

Christie’s is expected to sell Rego’s Dancing Ostriches for a record-breaking £2-3 million
Christie’s is expected to sell Rego’s Dancing Ostriches for a record-breaking £2-3 million - Christie's Images Limited 2023

“Staying Ahead – opportunities for the UK art market” was the lead topic of the Art Business Conference in London last month. The competition between London and Paris is a subject that has obsessed observers ever since Brexit and the drift of powerful international galleries with London bases (David Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth) to open branches in Paris – long overshadowed by London’s more attractive tax regime and higher number of billionaire residents.

In terms of global market share, the UK is second only to America, and its closest challenger is China, not France. But there has been a shift in perceptions about the balance of power in the art world – ones that are particularly pertinent this month, in which London celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Frieze Art Fair.

When Frieze launched, it was in direct competition with Paris’s long-running market leader FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) and before long it was attracting thousands of well-heeled visitors from all over the world. London’s October auctions, previously quite minor events, became major money-spinners, growing tenfold in just three years. Meanwhile, the Paris sales trod water, and FIAC struggled to maintain its status on the European calendar.

Now the winds of change are blowing again and Frieze, having rudely pushed FIAC aside 20 years ago, faces the more powerful Swiss-based Art Basel (part of the MCH Group, where James Murdoch is the major shareholder), which has taken root in Paris, replacing FIAC with Art Basel Paris+. The second iteration takes place a week after Frieze this month, appealing to a similar list of exhibiting galleries, similar artists and a similar international crowd of collectors – though with a stronger French bias.

London has already proved its mettle this year. When Murdoch’s MCH group withdrew its support of London’s top summer art and antiques fair, Masterpiece, it planted the seed of an idea that the London market was on its knees. But within a matter of months, a replacement, the Treasure House Fair, had sprung up, in true bulldog spirit, in the same location (Royal Chelsea Hospital) at the same time of year, backed by two of Masterpiece’s originators, Harry Van der Hoorn and Thomas Woodham-Smith, and is set to do so again next year.

Basquiat’s Future Sciences Versus the Man is estimated at £9-12 million
Basquiat’s Future Sciences Versus the Man is estimated at £9-12 million - Jacek Gancarz

London Mayor Sadiq Khan thinks the capital’s art market is healthy enough to support a creative drive, London Creates, which is being launched alongside Frieze to promote London as a creative world-leader. But Melanie Clore, a former chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, thinks the market itself needs government support. “The overseas exhibitors at Frieze all have to complete a temporary admission [TA] form to import their exhibits,” she said at the conference. “What would help would be if there could be one TA scheme that covered the whole fair. Things like that would really boost the market.”

From an auction perspective, London is not booming. Frieze week is estimated to bring 169 million in sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips this year, down just 1.2 percent on last year’s estimate, but a more telling 42 percent down on the total 293 million pounds in 2017.

Only Christie’s in London is looking at an improvement on last year’s Frieze week takings, with a Basquiat estimated at £9million-£12 million; a potentially record-breaking Paula Rego at £2 million-£3 million; and some choice post-impressionist works by Vallotton, van Dongen and Gauguin from the collection of Paul Josefowitz adding an estimated £30 million to its haul.

A picture of health: Last year's Art Basel at the Grand Palais in Paris
A picture of health: Last year's Art Basel at the Grand Palais in Paris - Luc Castel

In Paris, meanwhile, the auction consignments are stacking up. Sotheby’s has chosen to sell an €11 million tranche of the Pauline Karpidas collection in Paris rather than London, as some may have expected, and Christie’s is looking to exceed last year’s €74.4 million total (£64.6 million) with an eight-figure Miró and a 10ft, €4 million-€6 million bronze Rhinoceros by François Xavier Lalanne that will bring it neck-and-neck with its London branch.

At the Art Business Conference, one of the speakers was a Frenchman, François Chantala, who works with a leading UK gallerist, Thomas Dane. Chantala played down the rivalry between London and Paris, framing the two cities as interdependent powerhouses just two and a half hours apart, each with its own attractions that could be mutually beneficial.

Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, quoted the American editor of Vogue, Diana Vreeland, who when asked to remember how she liked being in London in the 1920s and 1930s, replied: “London was wonderful; but the best thing about London was Paris.”

That’s a sentiment we may just have to learn to live with again.

The 1.65-inch horse that could fetch £180,000

Copper-bottomed: the Bradwell Warrior was discovered in Norfolk
Copper-bottomed: the Bradwell Warrior was discovered in Norfolk - Richard_Valencia_Photography

Antiquity dealers have a chance to show off some miraculous finds in the Frieze Masters section of the Frieze Art Fair in London this month. A classic example is a 1.65-inch-long Anglo-Saxon copper alloy horse and rider named the Bradwell Warrior, which was discovered by a metal detectorist in Norfolk in 2015. At the time, the Treasure Act required that only precious-metal finds be handed over to the state, so even though the find had to be recorded, the object was returned to the detectorist. In 2020, they placed the object in a small auction, where it was estimated at £6,000- £8,000. Imagine their surprise when it sold for £120,000. The purchaser was the veteran antiquities dealer Rupert Wace who is now displaying it with an asking price of £180,000 at Frieze Masters. Now that the laws have changed to widen the definition of treasures, the warrior could not have appeared on the market had it been found today.

Reversal of fortune for Chinese museums 

It doesn’t seem so long ago that China was the buzzword in the Western art market, with privately owned museums springing up like mushrooms to house the best that money could buy.

Based in Shanghai, Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum and the Long Museum, owned by former taxi driver Liu Yiqian and his partner Wang Wei, were at the top of the list for gold-digging dealers and auctioneers. Among the latter’s most memorable purchases were a large Reclining Nude by Modigliani, for which they paid a breathtaking $170 million (£113 million) in New York in 2015, and Jenny Saville’s imposing study of naked bodies, Shift, which they bought for £6.8 million in 2016, a record for a living female artist.

Downsizing: Le miroir universel by Magritte was one of the treasures to go
Downsizing: Le miroir universel by Magritte was one of the treasures to go - Rene Magritte_Le miroir universel

But recently the Chinese economy has hit a sticky patch in response to the pandemic, the property crash and political instability. The Yuz Museum downsized this summer, and this Thursday, the Long Museum is disposing of some 40 of its treasures at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

Acquired over the past 14 years, they are estimated at as much as $135 million. The top lot by Magritte, bought in 2015 for $6.6 million, could double that to bring in $12 million, and a still life by Swiss artist Nicolas Party, bought in 2020 for $1 million, could sell for as much as $3.5 million. But the top lot, a female nude by Modigliani which cost $42.8 million in 2015 might fetch no more than $45 million.