Changing tastes are driving sales shifts at Frieze Masters

At the inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul last month, the longest lines at the fair were not for the contemporary art on offer, but for the galleries exhibiting at Frieze Masters. This flourishing of older art — “perfectly polished gems amidst a sea of ​​diamonds in the rough,” as Frieze Masters director Nathan Clements-Gillespie described it — captivated Korean audiences. However, their curiosity and enthusiasm didn’t translate into a spending spree, traders say.

This discrepancy between critical acclaim and commercial success has haunted the graceful paces of Frieze Masters from the start. The event was conceived as a re-launch of the Encyclopedic Art Fair, an exhibition of selected works representing the arc of civilization from Antiquity and the Middle Ages to the Old Masters through the late 20th century. Organizers and exhibitors worked to entice contemporary art collectors to open their eyes to the rich spectrum of art that was once contemporary. As the London fair prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, there hasn’t been a dip in ambition, but the changing exhibitor roster and the evolving types of art they bring reveal the reality that Frieze Masters hasn’t all sold well.

One veteran exhibitor who has stuck to its original conception over the decade is medieval art specialist Sam Fogg. “We’ve always done well here,” he says. “It is without a doubt our best trade fair in the world. You’re more likely to see American museum curators in Maastricht, but if you want to meet someone you didn’t know existed, Frieze Masters is the place to be. It’s a hackneyed statement, but this is where you’re most likely to find crossover customers.” For the first edition, for example, two artists featured at Frieze London traversed Regent’s Park buying paintings and sculptures. In 2019, he sold a 13th-century life-size Christ sculpture: “Not what you would sell to a private collector.”

Bodhisattva in gray slate, 3rd/4th cent. Century from Gandhara © Courtesy Carlton Rochell Asian Art

Orange sculpture of a man with very large eyes

South Arabian alabaster head of a man (3rd century BC to 1st century AD) © Courtesy Ariadne Galleries

Fogg is preferred because the raw emotion, clean lines and bold colors of so much medieval art appeal to modern sensibilities – it also pairs well with minimalist and abstract pieces. Classic Antiques dealers have a similar advantage. Rupert Wace, for example, had been selling to contemporary art collectors long before his stone Mesopotamian duck weights flew off his stand at the first Frieze Masters. In 2012 he was the only specialist exhibitor in this area. Now there are five, including newcomer Charles Ede. Ariadne Galleries, for example, have put on spectacular exhibitions of museum-quality material and have been rewarded with significant sales. Now, Carlton Rochell Asian Art joins the fray by bringing a classic figure of a Bodhisattva in gray slate from the third/fourth century Gandhara in what is now Pakistan.

For similar reasons, Johnny van Haeften is drawn to the almost naive genre scenes of the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder. J. from the early 17th century, stories of everyday life full of incidental details. A great rediscovery was sold to a collector flying in from New York after seeing a reproduction in this newspaper. Such a painting could have been found anywhere, but both Van Haeften and Salomon Lilian have sold all but one Dutch or Flemish painting here every year, often to new buyers in the industry who also collect contemporary art. “There are 45- or 50-year-olds entering the Old Masters market, but you have to be aware of changing tastes,” warns Salomon Lilian’s Boedy Lilian. This year De Jonckheere flourishes with three round panels by Pieter Brueghel the Younger depicting the seasons.

Painting of a man in shadow pointing to a man's chest wound, lit by candlelight

“The incredulity of St. Thomas” (1599/1600) by Matthias Stom © Courtesy Salomon Lilian

Gold-framed Old Master paintings and intricate bronze and marble sculptures present more of a challenge, especially since there are no accompanying auctions in London that attract international collectors. While Clements-Gillespie points out that the ratio between dealers offering modern art and older art has remained constant at around 60:40, the statistic does not reflect how exhibitors offering both fared in the 19th or 20th . In 2012, for example, Robilant + Voena presented Italian view paintings from the 18th century and only two masters from the 20th century. Over the years, this dynamic has reversed. Their “crossover”, according to Edmondo di Robilant, is that customers of old masters are now buying modern art.

At Agnews it’s a similar scenario that will feature a dash of Old Masters while focusing on works like The White Door (1888), the first of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s eerily empty interiors. “Over the years we’ve figured out what works,” says drawing dealer Stephen Ongpin. “Most of what we are now bringing with us dates from the 19th and 20th centuries, but when we do a thematic hanging, such as when buying Tiepolo drawings, that also worked very well.” For Andreas Pampoulides from the Sculpture and Painting Gallery Lullo Pampoulides “All pre-19th century art has to be strong – cruel or sexy. It’s about telling work with good stories.”

Painting of a dark empty room with yellow walls.  The door is open to another white door

‘Den Hvide Dør’ (The White Door) (1888) by Vilhelm Hammershøi © Courtesy Agnews

Storytelling is key to bringing the old or unknown to new audiences. This is emphasized this year by the Frieze Masters initiative Stand Out: Global Exchange, for which Luke Syson, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, has highlighted art objects of all media (or in the case of Axel Vervoordt, in the case of Axel Vervoordt, the whole booth). “Global encounter is embedded in textiles, ceramics and metalwork, unlike in paintings and drawings,” he says. “It’s hard to think of a more compelling story than the way they interact as objects are created.”

Textile designs are reflected in armor (Peter Finer), while the gold and silver vessels of Tang Dynasty (618-907) China in Gisèle Croës reflect Central Asian influences. Amir Mohtashemi presents Chinese and Iznik ceramics made specifically for the Indian and Islamic markets, as well as 19th-century Indian Company School paintings commissioned by Europeans as records of local flora and fauna.

Watercolor of a duck's head looking quite cheeky

Detail from a company school painting of two ducks (19th century)

Watercolor painting of two ducks

Company school painting with two ducks (19th century) © Courtesy Amir Mohtashemi (2)

This fair has always cleverly positioned all of its exhibits, regardless of their medium, as art with a capital A. The other A-word – antiques – is probably not even whispered in the organiser’s office, although, as Clements-Gillespie admits with a smile, the event has become an arts and antiques fair in all but name. Even furniture that was once forbidden is now allowed – on pedestals, of course. Dealer Richard Nagy, for example, promises a total work of art of the art and design of the Vienna Secession. For Frieze visitors and exhibitors, the decorative has been taken out of the decorative arts.

12-16 October,

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