Market Frieze? More like slow cooling

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Many have been looking to the huge Frieze Art Fair as a barometer of sales, writes Tim Cornwell, and it seems things are slow but still healthy

AT LEAST Damien Hirst has the decency to keep his taxidermy specimens in a tank. The tattooed pig by Wim Delvoye, a Belgian artist, stands pink, bristling and all but alive, its back and backside covered in swirling tattoos that mix butterflies, flowery patterns, and imagery from the Twin Towers, including a New York Fire Department helmet.

“He’s created this pig farm in China because it’s a bit controversial in Belgium to tattoo pigs,” explains the assistant at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin’s stand at the Frieze Art Fair in London. “He’s calling it an art farm. He has to do the work quite quickly because the skin grows so quickly.” The pigs are tattooed, then killed and stuffed, and could be yours for 135,000 (about 106,000).

Not far off, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, a New York gallery, is offering two head-high sculptures by the Edinburgh-born artist Eduardo Paolozzi, including The Twin Tower of Sfinx-State II from 1962, for $400,000 (232,000). Alternatively, you can buy a set of ten Paolozzi screenprints for $75,000 (44,000). “His market is extraordinarily small and depressed,” says the gallery’s Alex Zachary, not exactly comforting news for Scottish collectors and galleries, for whom Paolozzi is a local hero. “The screenprints are in my view totally undervalued for what they are. No-one in America has ever heard of him.”

Last month, Damien Hirst made 111 million at a record-breaking Sotheby’s sale of his work. But at the Frieze Art Fair, which has risen from nowhere to become one of the biggest events on the global art calendar, the Hirst sale was being seen this week as a keen example of the artist’s flair for good timing. For the past 18 months, Frieze and other fairs have been closely watched to see if the soaring art market, and particularly contemporary art prices, are beginning to turn.

Finally, and not surprisingly, it seems that the pace of sales is softening. Dealers are talking up their sales, but Hirst may have ridden the very crest of the market.

It may be, of course, that reports of the art market’s demise are early and exaggerated. Today Sotheby’s and Christie’s kick off a series of major contemporary art auctions timed for Frieze, after reports of a sharp downturn in their recent sales of Asian art in New York. The celebrity shoppers were certainly out in force this week. Gwyneth Paltrow, George Michael and actress Emma Watson, slight and stunningly beautiful as she weaved through the crowds, were among the collectors wandering Frieze’s 200,000sq ft steel-framed tent in London’s Regent’s Park. More vital yet, for art dealers who rely on Frieze to generate a big share of their annual sales, was Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend Dasha Zhukova, who is building the collection for her contemporary art centre in Moscow – the couple recently splashed out 17 million on a Lucien Freud.

Six years after it was founded by the editors of the Frieze contemporary art magazine, this is the UK’s biggest and glitziest art fair, a showcase and a barometer for the trade, ranking with Art Basel in Switzerland in June and Art Basel Miami Beach in December. There are 152 galleries from 27 countries vying for attention here, with the work of more than 1,000 artists; the scale and variety are overwhelming, and you can wander the place for hours. Buyers include the biggest collectors and the leading museums. Prices run from less than 1,000, if you know where to look, to the 875,000 a collector paid this week for Anish Kapoor’s stainless steel sculpture Untitled at the Lisson Gallery. At the White Cube stand, works by Tracey Emin, Hirst, and Gilbert an George are on show.

A stunning circular screen by the Indian artist Raqib Shaw, meticulously embroidered with sequins and gems with designs from a winged cheetah-like figure to spitted babies and squirting phalluses, is on sale for 570,000. “It’s his masterpiece,” breathes an assistant. “I’m surprised it hasn’t been snapped up yet.” The work is titled Absence of God VIII… and his tears of blood will drown the cities of men.

Amid the high prices, however, a number of galleries reported yesterday that buyers were shopping around, taking their time, rather than rushing in and going for established names. David Zwirmer, with a New York gallery, had paintings hanging by Neo Rauch at 1 million each (783,000), and had just sold a work by the California artist John McCracken for $300,000 (174,000). “Last year was very strong for us, it was a total sell-out,” he says. “This is probably not going to be the case this year, though we are already going home with a little profit.” But he insists: “What becomes clear to me is that people do not buy art with borrowed money.”

The Russian oligarchs have been seen as the buyers of last resort in the art market – with the kind of wealth that could buy one of the Duke of Sutherland’s Titians, for example, if ever they came on the open market. But Elena Silena, from Moscow’s XL Gallery, says the Russian market has just stopped. “This market will stop for maybe half a year,” she says. “People have money but they have stopped buying. They are thinking about the crisis.”

At the Galerie Perrotin and elsewhere, dealers are looking to the Asian market, particularly Indian and Chinese, with staff talking up a “shift in direction towards the east”. Prominently displayed there were a painting by Indian Jitish Kallat, a giant splattered portrait, for $135,000 (78,000) and a painting of a Chinese delegation studying a modern sculpture, priced at 100,000 (78,000), by the artist Shi Xinning. It has already sold. The problem, however, is that Chinese stocks appear to have followed the rest of the Asian markets into freefall.

There are four Scottish galleries at Frieze this year, a formidable showing: doggerfisher from Edinburgh, plus Glasgow’s Sorcha Dallas, The Modern Institute, and Mary Mary, the new arrival.

At Mary Mary, director Hannah Robinson is having a good first Frieze. She has just sold a work by Aleana Egan, I should never have picked up the phone, for 4,200. It is a drooping loop of grey-painted cardboard and tape, hanging from the wall. “The impression is, it’s slightly quiet. I have not quite made a profit,” she says. “It’s a really good mix between young and experimental work and the chance to see monumental works. People pull out all the stops for Frieze.”

Not everything is priced so high. At Sorcha Dallas’s gallery, punters have snapped up painted postcards by Henry Coombes for about 1,000. “It’s a bit more slow and considered, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. At the Modern Institute, Toby Webster reports sales across all his artists, including Martin Boyce, recently picked to represent Scotland at next year’s Venice Biennale. “It’s not as crazy as it has been,” he says. “We have sold to people we know.” But all the press wants to talk about is the credit crunch, he complains. “All we have had is journalists asking about it.”

• Frieze Art Fair runs until 19 October. For more information, visit www.friezeartfair.com