Straddling the Art Weeks: Frieze 2021 by

by November 17, 2021

Global Art Market News, Commentaries, and Critiques. A Column by Stefano Baia Curioni.

As I board the Eurostar that will take me home from a buzzing week of auctions and FIAC in Paris, I try to unravel the million thoughts that populate my mind at the end of what feels like the longest and busiest fortnight for the art market since the pre-COVID era.

Let’s go in order.

On October 13, Frieze 2021 opened its first in-person edition since 2019, welcoming a crowd of (more or less diligently) masked — and nonetheless very excited — VIP collectors and art professionals. Regents Park, sprinkled with large sculptures as part of the fair’s program, felt lavish again, as visitors made their way between the two huge, bright white pavilions hosting Frieze London and Frieze Masters.

The atmosphere was particularly dazzling at Frieze London, where things felt more like “business as usual.” One gallerist at Frieze London, showing confidence in the market while seemingly inverting the growing tendency for advance sales, confided that “of the artists we are representing at the fair, we decided to only pre-sell the works on paper before the show, while keeping the oils available for Frieze week.”

Meanwhile, the general consensus at Frieze Masters was that, this year, the pace was made even slower than usual by two factors: the strictly timed ticketing system introduced as a crowd control measure; and the thin attendance of collectors from America and Asia.

The character of the fair certainly reflected the current zeitgeist of diversity and inclusivity, highlighted by the success of a popular Frieze Week satellite event for collectors and their advisers: the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, a leading international art fair dedicated to Africa’s fifty-four countries and its global diaspora. As its name suggests, 1-54 strives to promote vibrant and dynamic contemporary art from a diverse set of African perspectives.

At Frieze Masters, the celebrated Spotlight section, curated by Laura Hoptman (executive director of The Drawing Center, New York), featured solo presentations of rarely seen works by overlooked modern masters, thus championing a diverse group of artists. A few booths away, art-market power dealers Lévy-Gorvy dedicated their exhibition to the friendship of African-American artists Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) and Terry Adkins (1953–2014).

Meanwhile in Mayfair, major contemporary art sales were held by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, with encouraging results and some wow moments. Sotheby’s made a stir when it sold Banksy’s Love Is in the Bin for a record price of £18.6m, which had partially self-shredded when it last appeared in the same room three years ago. A day later, Christie’s sold the first non-fungible token to come to auction in Europe — only minted in September 2021— for just shy of one million pounds to a bidder in the room, where 90% of the lots found a buyer.

London Frieze week also offered Sotheby’s and Christie’s a perfect platform for the European unveiling of the magnificent properties that the two houses will soon be selling in New York.

One of the most important collections of contemporary art, owned by New York real estate magnate Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife Linda, and comprising sixty-five paintings and sculptures spanning from Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol, will serve as the bulk of Sotheby’s November sales week, with an estimate in excess of $600 million. To the windfall of the Macklowe Collection at Sotheby’s, Christie’s has responded with the incredible Cox Collection of modern art — including major paintings by Van Gogh, Caillebotte, and Cézanne — that will be offered the week before in New York.

Fast-forward to October 21, when FIAC held its opening in the new setting of the Grand Palais Éphémère, a temporary exhibition hall in the Champ de Mars, designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte as a replacement for the Grand Palais, currently being renovated for the 2024 Olympics.

When questioned about the suitability of having two fairs back-to-back, many of the exhibitors (some of which had arrived directly from Frieze) shared their concerns and said that, going forward, they were not planning to participate in as many fairs as they did in 2019; others, however, were more optimistic and reported “good energy” and, more importantly, major sales.

Witnessing the art world become more digitally savvy while setting new goals for sustainability and carbon footprint reduction is something to rejoice. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that breathing the rarefied air of those crowded tents has never felt so energizing.

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Ottavia Marchitelli