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Will Brexit damage Britain’s international art trade?

Toyin Ojih Odutola
Toyin Ojih Odutola, Compound Leaf, 2017. Sold for a record £471,000 at Sotheby's  

Will Brexit damage Britain’s international art trade? At a press conference staged at the House of Lords to announce the British Art Fair at the Saatchi gallery in October, London dealer Peter Osborne voiced severe misgivings about the effect it will have, especially in a no-deal scenario.

Already, buyers were not coming forward because of insecurity about the financial future. The prospect of massively increased paperwork hampering the speed of transactions with overseas clients was daunting, he said. Analysts are also watching the level of consignments made to the main auction houses for their international sales as a measure of confidence in London.

Although the pound is low, encouraging spending in foreign currencies, the value of London’s important sales of impressionist, modern and contemporary art has shrunk by 24 per cent from £1.2 billion in the first half of 2018 (including both the February/March and June series combined) to £910 million this year.

Frank Bowling, Beggar No. 3, 1963. Sold for £695,250

The slide has been most noticeable in the earlier impressionist and modern category where supply is less dependable. The sharpest fall was felt by Christie’s most recent sale, which had the lowest presale estimate since 2009. Its sale total of £36.4 million was down 77.6 per cent from last year.

One angry British art adviser, who did not wish to be named, put the blame squarely on Christie’s, not Brexit,  by quoting Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism: “Failing to prepare is preparing for failure.”  In the press conference, Christie’s brushed aside the B-word, and diverted attention to its successful modern British art sales that saw record prices for Elisabeth Frink and Frank Bowling.

Ironically, they and Sotheby’s both now hold their modern British sales (previously thought to have local appeal only) in the same week as their international impressionist and modern art sales, and claimed that buyers this time came from 16 different countries from four continents.

We can get out of Europe but still sell British art abroad, was the message. In spite of the sense of impending gloom, there were enough bright spots in the London sales to keep the spirits up. One inescapably visible area of growth was in the market for artists of African descent, particularly women working in a figurative vein. 

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Poupées Pascale, Les Sauveteurs, 2007. Est. £250,000-350,000 

At Christie’s, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen publicly welcomed Jose Mugrabi, the dealer/collector who had not attended a London sale for some time. Mugrabi has one of the biggest collections of Warhols and Basquiats in the world, and has been instrumental in driving markets for new artists from four to six figures in rapid time.

Last week, he targeted a 6ft patterned fabric collage by Tschabalala Self, a young African American, which would have cost about $10,000 (£7,900) at her gallery four years ago. Estimated at £40,000, Mugrabi beat off all comers to buy it for a record £371,250.

At Sotheby’s, a self-portrait by 34-year-old Nigerian born American Toyin Ojih Odutola, only recently recognised with an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, triggered competition from America, France, the Middle East and Japan before selling for a treble estimate record £471,000 – nearly double her previous record set in March.

Nina Chanel Abney, Paradise Found. Est. £50,000-70,000

The sale was noticeable for its Middle Eastern bidding, particularly for a group of six crystal figures covered with found objects and decorative textiles by Pascale Marthine Tayou, the Cameroonian. The subject of an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 2015, Tayou is normally sold in African art sales by Sotheby’s where his record of £75,000 was set last year. 

But here he found his home comfortably in international company and set a new record of £312,500. Another artist of African descent to hit the record books at Sotheby’s was 37-year-old American Nina Chanel Abney, whose colourful bathtub scene, Paradise Found, soared five times over estimate to £225,000.

A similar pattern was visible at Phillips where a further collage by Self and a painting by Britain’s Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – due for a solo show at Tate Britain next year – flew over estimates, contributing more than £1 million to the sale total.

These sums may be small compared with those generated by the leading figures in the market like Freud or Warhol, but they are where the action is at the moment. And on the evidence, that action will continue to happen in London, Brexit or not. 

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