OFF TO MARKET
One story overshadowed all other auction and art market news this year: the record-breaking sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. The c.1500 painting by the most masterful of Old Masters is a portrait of Christ holding a crystal orb in his left hand with his right hand raised in the sign of benediction. It sold at Christie’s for a staggering $450.3m on 15 November 2017, in the process becoming the most expensive painting ever sold. The previous record holder was Willem de Kooning’s Interchange, sold privately in 2015 for approximately $300m. But the most expensive painting sold at auction prior to Salvator Mundi was Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, sold at Christie’s for $179.4m in 2015. That’s a difference of over $270m – a breathtaking figure by anyone’s standards.
On the one hand, it is almost understandable. Salvator Mundi is one of fewer than 20 known paintings still in existence by the great Leonardo, and apparently the last one in private ownership, so it was not unexpected that it would sell for vast amounts when it did eventually hit the market. But on the other hand, this is not a work without its controversies. For years, the painting was thought to be a copy of a long-lost Leonardo original. Even though most specialists now agree that the work is legitimate, there are still plenty of dissenting voices who remain doubtful. And beyond the disagreements, everyone can agree on one thing: the work has been repeatedly – and badly – restored and overpainted. Whatever is left of the original is very well disguised. After much mystery, it was eventually revealed to have been bought by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Farhan on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.
Now, that huge headline sale might give the impression that the auction world, and the art market in general, spent 2018 in rude health, but – as ever – the truth is a lot more complex. This year, the main fears about the economics of art regarded the industry’s top-heaviness. Back in 2016, sales of works over $10m fell a massive 53 per cent across the auction market – spread across the British big hitters Sotheby’s and Christie’s, alongside smaller houses like Bonhams – but 2017 saw sales rise again by 125 per cent, according to the UBS/Art Basel market report. That sounds good, but those major sales account for a huge amount of the total sales, leaving big question marks hovering over the medium and lower ends of the spectrum. According to Rachel Pownall of Maastricht University, global auction sales grew 17 per cent in 2017, but if you take away the Salvator Mundi, that figure drops to 14 per cent. That’s the impact of a single painting; how sustainable is growth in the top end of the market when the rest of it is left to flounder?
Christie’s announced annual revenue of £5.1bn for 2017, a 26 per cent increase over the previous year. The Leonardo painting, however, accounted for an estimated 37.5 per cent of that increase (not the total, just the bounce). The growth of online sales can be partly thanked for the rest of the growth. Sotheby’s on the other hand posted $118m net income for 2017, a whopping 60 per cent year-on-year increase, helped largely by a 28 per cent increase in private, rather than auction, sales. In the first quarter of 2018, private sales at the auction house increased 70 per cent year-on-year. Compare that to Christie’s, where private sales plummeted, and you start to see the impact of non-auction results. Bonhams meanwhile saw its profits rise in 2017 to £4.8m from £1.9m the previous year, a happy state of affairs that has seen advisory group Rothschild reportedly brought in to oversee a potential sale of the auction house. Sotheby’s also launched its inaugural sales in both Dubai and India this year, opening up two huge new potential markets.
If all of this seems at once positive yet not, or at the very least a little confusing, then that is merely a reflection of the lack of transparency in the art market’s financial reporting. Every year we see bad news smuggled through in amongst good news in order to appease investors, and are left wondering what the real state of affairs is. It is not until next year that we will really start to get a good understanding of what happened this year.
There were still plenty of headlines made at auction this year beyond Leonardo though. A record was set for a work by Marc Chagall when Les Amoureux (1928) sold for $28.4m in November 2017. Abstract painter Joan Mitchell, at one point the most expensive female artist, had a new artist record set when her Blueberry (1969) sold for $16.6m in May 2018. Contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall meanwhile set a record for a living African-American artist when Past Times (1997) was bought by rapper Sean Combs for $21.1m in May 2018.
This year saw gender imbalance in the workplace make international headlines, and the auction world was no different. At Bonhams, women were found to earn 37 per cent less than men, while the gap at Christie’s was 25 per cent and 22 per cent at Sotheby’s; the discrepancy was also echoed in bonus pay, where women at Bonhams got 45 per cent less than men, 40 per cent less at Christie’s and 17 per cent less at Sotheby’s. The problem is just as bad when it comes to top earners, where only 27 per cent of top quartile earners at Bonhams are women, though Sotheby’s and Christie’s did better at 48 per cent and 43 per cent respectively. It’s worth bearing in mind that the median pay gap across all industries in the UK was 9.7 per cent.
But hanging over the future of the art market – as with the rest of the UK – is the cloud of Brexit. Analysts are (still) clamouring to figure out what the impact of the UK leaving the EU will be on the art world. Barrister Carl Islam, among many others, was keen to point out that Brexit will lead to an increased regulatory burden and transaction costs on all sales of art. Pontus Silfverstolpe of search service Barnebys highlighted that leaving the customs union would drastically impact the way that we currently, and freely, sell and move art around the EU – in a wholly negative way. However, Britain is currently a signatory of the Artist’s Resale Right, a levy imposed on sales of art by living or not-long-dead artists, which often pushes buyers to places like New York; leaving the EU would allow Britain to walk away from that agreement, potentially attracting buyers who would normally be scared away by it.
The impact of Brexit is not some faraway thing, either: it is already being felt. A general decline in the global art market in 2016 may have masked the impact of the referendum, but there was nothing of the sort to hide behind this year. While UK art exports dropped 2.2 per cent to £4.8bn in 2017, imports slumped 21 per cent to £1.8bn. A weak pound played a large role in that, but general reluctance in Europe (the UK’s most regular art trading partner) to send art and antiques over the channel accounts for the rest. Either way, the potential future impact of Brexit has again left the UK art market fearful for another year.
The big headline to take from all of this is that even if the auction world looks to be doing well, it is so reliant on the top end of the market that its future is shrouded in worrying uncertainty – combine that with the all-encompassing fear of a Brexit future and you have a recipe for serious uneasiness.
PLAYING TO THE GALLERIES
Away from the auction houses, the gallery world had its own year of ups and downs, as ever. At first glance, it all seems more down than up, with galleries closing at a similar rate to previous years. British gallerist David Risley shut his Copenhagen space after writing an impassioned letter calling for more support for artists, while the David Roberts Art Foundation – based in a Camden mews since 2012 – decided to shut up shop to concentrate on putting together a programme that was accessible to the rest of the country, a sort of itinerant gallery project. Supplement Gallery in London’s East End, run by the people behind Sunday Art Fair, also closed after ten years. These closures are just a small sample of what is happening on a wider scale to the global commercial art scene, with the UBS report The Art Market 2018 finding that just 0.9 galleries were being opened for every one that closed (down from five openings for every closure just ten years ago).
There are many reasons why this might be happening, but one of the most obvious – in London at least – is skyrocketing rent. The Fine Art Society, for example, has occupied the same Bond Street townhouse for more than 140 years, helping to launch the careers of John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler in the process. Its rent has risen so much that it feels that its hand has been forced and this year the lease was put up for sale. Coming in the wake of galleries fleeing London’s former art hub Cork Street, seemingly en masse, this is a tentative time for the city’s more traditional galleries.
But on the other hand, there has been an awful lot of good news, too. Galleries have been opening new spaces or moving to fancier digs like it’s going out of style. The movers included Peckham’s The Sunday Painter, which moved into the far more accessible environs of Vauxhall; Arebyte, which left achingly hip Hackney Wick for a new development in the Docklands; Arcadia Missa, which also left Peckham but for Soho; and Richard Saltoun Gallery, which took its collection of avant-garde feminist photography from the depths of Fitzrovia to the infinitely more civilised Mayfair. There were plenty of secondary spaces added to established galleries, including Stuart Shave’s Modern Art opening a new outpost by taking over the old Wilkinson Gallery building on Vyner Street; Herald St taking over a building near the British Museum; Thomas Dane Gallery opening a space in Naples; and Victoria Miro inaugurating its new Venice gallery. There were some brand new galleries too, including Amanda Wilkinson’s new Soho space (after last year’s breakup of Wilkinson Gallery, which she ran with her husband) and a clever gallery in the rotunda of Piccadilly Circus station called Soft Opening, open 24 hours a day as a sort of art gallery shop front.
On a more international level, gallerist Vanessa Carlos of London’s ultra-hip Carlos/Ishikawa gallery took her Condo scheme to new territories. Condo is essentially an art fair where galleries in one city invite international galleries to show in their space for a month (an exchange programme, if you will). Started in London, it moved to New York last year and this summer had great success in Mexico City.
In non-gallery commercial news, two major art fairs also announced new expansion plans. London’s Frieze Art Fair declared that it was expecting to open a new annual fair in Los Angeles to accompany its New York and London fairs, and Masterpiece announced that it too would be trying to break into the American market by next year, after MCH Group bought a majority stake in the company. Downturn? What downturn?
FRIGHT AT THE MUSEUMS
Away from all the commercialism of the mainstream art world, the UK’s museums and institutions were rocked by a single topic this year: restitution. It is no secret that the nation’s great public galleries are filled with objects and treasures that were acquired in a, shall we say, less than ethical manner. This year, the debate around many of those objects finally started coming to the fore – the focus, however, was not on Nazi loot, but rather on postcolonial repatriation. The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, whose former director Martin Roth died this year at just 62, opened a display of Ethiopian artefacts in April. The treasures – which included a gold crown and a royal wedding dress – were plundered by the British during the 1868 capture of Maqdala in the mountains of what was then Abyssinia. Ethiopia first lodged a restitution claim back in 2007, which was refused, but as the furore around the objects reared its head again this year, museum director Tristram Hunt suggested that the treasures could be returned to Ethiopia on long-term loan.
Though that sounds like a step in the right direction, campaigners fear that it is simply not enough, and that all the objects should be returned to the country that they were taken from, a sentiment echoed by the Ethiopian government. This is not as simple as it sounds, however, as the Maqdala treasures are spread across roughly a dozen UK institutions, including a tablet of the ten commandments said to be hidden in Westminster Abbey.
The V&A’s openness to the return of these objects caused ripples in the museum world, as the British Museum was forced to consider giving back its collection of Beninese cast brass plaques, or bronzes, to Nigeria, under pressure from a Nigerian consortium. The opening of a new museum in Benin City seems to promise a safe environment for the storage of the objects, which, like the Maqdala artefacts, were looted during a punitive British military expedition.
These cases show that the impact of colonialism is finally being considered on an institutional level, with important questions being asked – and beginning to be answered – about the provenance of much of what fills our great museums.
Closer to home, the lord mayor of London decided to return a Dutch Old Master painting that was looted from the Netherlands by the Nazis. The Oyster Meal by Jacob Ochtervelt was on display at Mansion House, the lord mayor’s residence, and was handed over to its original owner’s granddaughter in a ceremony in November. There was some almost-reverse restitution news this year too, when it was announced that the Bayeux Tapestry would be loaned back to Britain almost 1,000 years after it was created. The 70m work is currently housed in the Bayeux Museum in France, but will tour the UK in 2022 while the museum undergoes refurbishment.
In more contemporary international museum relations news, the British Museum decided to end its ten-year loan and cooperation deal with Abu Dhabi’s new Zayed National Museum two years early, after it became clear that the Emirati institution was nowhere near completing construction. The construction of museum projects in the UK similarly took a hit, when it was found that this year only 17 per cent of major museum projects (that is, those costing over £2m) won grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, down from over 40 per cent in 2016. This is due to funding dropping from £434m in 2016–17 to £305m in the last financial year, with the figure due to drop to £190m in 2018. The reduction represents a huge blow for UK institutions. There was a further setback thanks to Brexit, as the EU parliament pulled the plug on the UK’s bid for European Capital of Culture 2023. Another impact of Brexit wrangling came in the form of seemingly ceaseless cabinet reshuffling, with Jeremy Wright becoming the seventh UK culture minister in just eight years.
There was controversy around the opioid crisis, too. Purdue Pharma, the company which makes OxyContin and which came under huge scrutiny for allegedly helping to make millions of people around the world debilitatingly addicted to the pain medication, is run by the Sackler family. Anyone who has ever set foot in a major UK museum or gallery will be familiar with the name; it graces whole rooms at places like the Royal Academy of Arts, and even an entire building at the Serpentine. Institutions in the UK spent the year being forced to answer questions about whether or not they will continue to accept donations from the family.
More bad press came flooding in when 27 educators who had been employed on a freelance basis by the National Gallery (some for decades) were laid off and subsequently took the museum to an employment tribunal, seeking recognition as employees. The gig economy has developed a particularly bad rap lately, and the art world is clearly not immune. There was some truly devastating news in June 2018 when fire once again consumed the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Glasgow School of Art (the building had already been severely damaged by a blaze in 2014). The damage was extensive and the university considered finally knocking the building down, but in the end it decided to rebuild.
The final bit of discouraging news came when the Art Newspaper published its annual attendance figures survey. There was just one UK show in the global top 20 most popular exhibitions in 2017 – and that was ‘Painters’ Painters’ at the Saatchi Gallery, an institution which the Art Newspaper believes ‘augments’ its attendance figures. The top ten most popular museums do not make for happy reading either, with the British Museum dropping two places to fifth (5.8 million visitors) and the National Gallery dropping four places to eighth (5.2 million visitors), though the Tate held firm in sixth place (5.6 million visitors). Not a good year for attendance figures at UK art museums, and bearing in mind that many of these institutions rely on high attendances to ensure government funding, that is grim news indeed.
But there were positive developments too, including the National Gallery buying a Bernardo Bellotto and an Artemisia Gentileschi for its collection. There was also a glut of openings, re-openings and refurbishments. The Royal Academy of Arts celebrated its 250th birthday by finally unveiling its new wing, featuring a new gallery, a huge lecture theatre and its first-ever permanent collection display; the Southbank’s brutalist icon the Hayward Gallery opened its doors after a two-year refurbishment with a major show of the work of German photographer Andreas Gursky; Tate St Ives similarly got refurbished and then promptly won Museum of the Year; the V&A opened a brand new wing in London as well as finally inaugurating its Chinese outpost in Shenzhen; south London’s Horniman Museum opened a gorgeous new ‘world’ gallery filled with all sorts of fascinating objects; and Westminster Abbey unveiled a brand new museum of its own, hidden in a secret undercroft. In the future, there are refurbishments of the Royal College of Art and the Courtauld Gallery to look forward to. It’s not all doom and gloom.
AND THEN THE ARTISTS
Great controversy arose this year when artist Sonia Boyce removed John William Waterhouse’s nude painting Hylas and the Nymphs from the walls of Manchester Art Gallery. She did so, in collaboration with the institution, with the aim of fostering debate about how our museums are curated. She wanted discussion, but instead engendered a torrent of hatred and countless column inches dedicated to ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the dangers of censorship.
The Turner Prize nominees this year met with similar reactions. After Lubaina Himid was announced as the winner of the 2017 prize in December, this year’s shortlist was seen as too political, and too right-on, by many in the mainstream commentariat. Nominees were Forensic Architecture, Luke Willis Thompson, Naeem Mohaiemen and Charlotte Prodger. There’s a lot of conceptual, heavily political, and not-especially-aesthetic art there, but that might just be an accurate reflection of our times. Other winners this year included Helen Cammock, who won the Max Mara Art Prize for Women; Lis Rhodes, who won the Freelands Award; Idris Khan, who was one of the winners of the 2017 American Architecture Prize for his work on an installation in Abu Dhabi; and Richard Long, who was given a knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours list.
There was sadness too as the abstract painter Gillian Ayres died, as did photorealist artist Malcolm Morley, the photographer David Goldblatt and influential American pop artist Robert Indiana. But, ending on a happier note, there was the unveiling of Gillian Wearing’s excellent, and very important, statue of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett. This became the first-ever statue of a woman in Parliament Square, and not before time.
ART CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Where there is money, there is crime, and there is a lot of money in art. Bath’s Museum of East Asian Art was burgled in April, with 48 objects stolen. A police statement said that due to the speed and intensity of the crime, they believe that the objects were stolen to order. Over in Canada, an unidentified work of art by notorious British street artist Banksy was also reportedly stolen from a show put on by his one-time manager Steve Lazarides. Earlier in the year, art dealer Jean-David Cahn was accused of selling looted and stolen antiquities at Frieze Masters art fair in Regent’s Park after two vases that once belonged to disgraced, and convicted, Italian art dealer Gianfranco Becchina popped up for sale on his stand. All of the above would lead you to think that a police art and antiques squad would be more necessary than ever, but the Metropolitan Police’s unit was disbanded after the Grenfell Tower fire last year and seconded to help with the inquiry. Fortunately, in December it was re-formed and rejigged to try and put a stop to all of the UK’s art crime shenanigans.