LONDON — National, or international?
As the fault lines deepen between these two ways of thinking in Western democracies, wealthy buyers are facing a similar choice when it comes to acquiring art.
The London Art Fair, whose 30th edition opened to V.I.P.s on Tuesday in the Islington district of the British capital, has, in recent years, become best known as a showcase for dealers in “Modern British,” meaning works made by British artists during the 20th century.
“I used to bring contemporary, but now the standard of Modern British is higher, so I bring historical pieces,” said Jane England, the Australian-born founder of England & Company, a London dealership that has been exhibiting at the fair since the early 1990s.
“Before Frieze, this fair had a different profile,” Ms. England added, referring to the Frieze art fair, which made its debut in 2003 and has come to be regarded as London’s premier international event for new art.
Frieze’s pre-eminence denuded the Islington fair of exhibitors such as Annely Juda Fine Art, which now shows at Frieze’s sister fair, Frieze Masters.
England & Company was showing a 1946 watercolor by the British surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-1976) that hadn’t been exhibited for 70 years. Offered on behalf of private collectors, “Landscape with Figures (Birdman Piper and Fisherwoman)” sold right at the start of the event at a price in the region of 200,000 pounds, or about $277,000, according to Ms. England.
Burra, known for his watercolors, worked in Harlem, New York, in the 1930s and was influenced by a German Expressionist, George Grosz. The “Landscape with Figures” piece was particularly desirable because it combined the idiosyncratic artist’s favorite motifs of surreal figures and strangely foreboding countryside.
The London Art Fair this year featured 131 galleries with most of the higher-value works being offered by Modern British specialists in the central mezzanine level of the venue at the Business Design Center. It was also a predominantly British crowd sipping the free gin and tonics at the private evening view.
The London gallery Osborne Samuel, another stalwart of the event, which last year attracted 23,000 visitors, was showing the 1963 abstract “Pierced Vertical” by Paul Feiler, priced, but not sold, at £135,000.
“If it were by an American artist, it would have another zero,” said Tania Sutton, a director at Osborne Samuel. The gallery had four confirmed sales at the private view, ranging in price from £10,000 to £35,000, according to Ms. Sutton.
Feiler was part of the St. Ives School of artists, based in Cornwall, England, whose works have been popular with modern-minded British art collectors. In November, a similar but smaller abstract by the artist sold for £125,000 at a London auction, according to the Artnet database. That was the highest auction price achieved for the artist since 2008.
“A lot of people have accumulated money in this country, they want to buy art and they’re drawn to their own national school of artists,” said Robert Upstone, a private dealer, who was visiting the fair. “They’re undervalued in international terms,” added Mr. Upstone, a former director at the Fine Art Society, a gallery that stopped exhibiting at the London Art Fair in 2010.
By that time, the Islington fair had lost its reputation for being a place where City of London bankers spent their bonuses, according to Ms. Sutton of Osborne Samuel.
“It’s a different market now and bonuses are paid differently,” she said. Ms. Sutton did say, however, that Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, visited her gallery’s booth on Tuesday (he didn’t buy anything).
For the Modern British market to expand significantly, either a lot more British collectors will have to buy more works — which looks problematic with Brexit, or Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, threatening to put a brake on theeconomy — or more of the sector’s “undervalued” artists, such as Burra and Feiler, will need to gain wider international recognition. At the moment, such artists are more likely to be siphoned into Impressionist and Modern auctions, as happens with other British artists, like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
In 2016, Sotheby’s enjoyed a bumper £52.3 million year of Modern British art auctions, thanks to an injection of almost £20 million from the David Bowie sale. But prices like the £797,000 given at the Bowie auction for a 1961 abstract by the St. Ives School painter Peter Lanyon haven’t proved transformative. Last year’s Modern British auctions at Sotheby’s were up just 11 percent on 2016, discounting Bowie. Equivalent auctions at Christie’s were up less than 1 percent.
At Sotheby’s, American buyers have accounted for about 14 percent of those totals since 2015, the auction house said. A few blue-chip names aside, “Mod Brit” remains, by and large, a British taste.
The market for new international contemporary art in London’s galleries has a different dynamic.
Stephen Friedman, a London dealer in Mayfair, for example, is showing an exhibition of new paintings by Kehinde Wiley called “In Search of the Miraculous.” Helped by a general surge of interest in African-American artists, and by the recent appointment of Mr. Wiley as the official portraitist of Barack Obama, all 10 of these large allegorical canvases, depicting figures in old-master-inspired seascapes, have sold to selected buyers from the America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, according to Karon Hepburn, a director at the gallery. Prices ranged from $140,000 to $350,000, she said.
But again, Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union are casting a shadow, even over successful dealer shows. Josh Lilley, a dealer based in the Fitzrovia district of London, has transformed his gallery into a garishly colored “Bad Land,” with videos, sculptures and neon pieces that aim to evoke the loneliness of today’s consumer culture.
The works in that display are by Alex Da Corte, a Venezuelan-American multimedia artist based in Philadelphia. Mr. Da Corte featured in four museum shows in America and Europe in 2017, giving international collectors the confidence to spend as much as $65,000 on his distinctive neon works.
In the case of the Friedman and Lilley exhibitions, gallery prices for the new works were above the current auction highs for both Mr. Wiley and Mr. Da Corte, according to Artnet. But those highs were achieved late last year, suggesting that the resale market for both artists has upward momentum.
“Brexit makes a difference,” said Mr. Lilley. “Some of my wealthiest clients are spending less time in London and more time in places like Monaco.” But, he added: “The geography isn’t going to change. Any successful person is going to come through London. I’m just going to see them less often in the gallery.”
Ms. England, who sold the Burra watercolor, also represents the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña. On Jan. 14, England & Company announced on Facebook that it had sold Ms. Vicuña’s 1972 portrait of Karl Marx, from her “Heroes of the Revolution” series, to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which confirmed the acquisition in an email.
Ms. England recalled that she originally made contact with the Chilean artist when they were both in London in the early 1970s.
“In those days, London had a generous creative spirit,” Ms. England said. “It was a place for citizens of the world.”
The fear now is that changes like Brexit could damage that spirit, diminishing Britain as a hub — for national and international art.
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