From the shredder to the metaverse – Financial Times – Melanie Gerlis
Aerial Basket Ball paintings
1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair
The courtyard of Somerset House. Strand, London WC2R 1LA
14 – 17 October 2021


London’s season of contemporary art auctions revealed a speculative market hungry for the next story to tell. The return of Banksy’s semi-shredded painting, known as “Love Is in the Bin” since its remotely operated stunt in 2018, generated much of the pre-season excitement and did not disappoint in the Sotheby’s sale room on October 14.


Auctioneer Oliver Barker, who in 2018 had brought the gavel down just before the shred, confessed nerves as he did so again, but this time there were no surprises, other than it hammered down for £16m against an estimate of £4m to £6m. With premium, the work sold for £18.6m, having made £1m in its previous, pristine form and marked an auction record for the anonymous artist. Sotheby’s confirmed that the buyer was an “Asian private collector”, a dominant trend this season (of which more below). 


Excessive record prices appeared elsewhere, notably for untested twenty- and thirtysomething artists. At Sotheby’s, a painterly work made last year by the London-based Flora Yukhnovich (b1990), “I’ll Have What She’s Having”, sold for £1.9m (£2.3m with fees, est £60,000-£80,000), a jaw-dropping, and unsustainable, price for an artist whose work was selling for four figures just a few years ago. Phillips’s auction the next day saw Yukhnovich soar again to £420,000 for her “Tondo” (2018, £529,200 with fees, est £40,000-£60,000) while other youngsters including Jadé Fadojutimi (b1993) and Serge Attukwei Clottey (b1985) also reached beyond healthy expectations. 


Christie’s sale on October 15 had fewer extremes but did field the only NFT of the evening series. With just one bid, a trio of Bored Apes, the latest craved collectible created by Yuga Labs, sold to the Bulgarian crypto-investor Kosta Kantchev, standing at the back of the saleroom, for £800,000 (£982,500 with fees). Kantchev, co-founder of Nexo, told the Financial Times that he planned to pool at least $25m into a fund for NFTs. “My clients live in the metaverse, with virtual living rooms,” he said.


Overall, and thanks to the Banksy, Sotheby’s evening auction came in above its presale estimates to make £55.5m (£65.9m with fees), while Christie’s and Phillips totalled within estimate, respectively at £54m (£64.6m with fees) and £20.5m (£25.3m with fees). Combined, the hybrid evening sales were up 27 per cent on last year’s equivalent auctions — held online-only — and also nudged ahead of their in-person 2019 totals, according to ArtTactic. 


Travel restrictions are still in force through much of Asia but buyers from the continent are increasingly visible on the market. All the auction houses moved their “evening” sales earlier this season — at Christie’s London this meant 2pm — to help capture demand. It seemed to have worked: Christie’s confirms that Asian buying accounted for 35 per cent of lots, with its Hong Kong desk taking works including George Condo’s “Heads and Toes” (2011) for an above-estimate £2m (£2.4m with fees). The artist currently has a solo exhibition in Shanghai’s West Bund Long Museum (until November 28). 


Online bidding from South Korea was a marked feature for the overheated artists at Phillips’s London sale, where 38 per cent of lots sold to Asian buyers. Korea was much in evidence at the coinciding Frieze fairs too. Several galleries brought work by the country’s artists, including Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin and striking works by the country’s Dansaekhwa (monochrome) painters at PKM Gallery. Frieze also announced that Patrick Lee of Korea’s Gallery Hyundai would be director of its new fair in Seoul. Lee joins next month and the first Seoul fair is due to be held in September 2022. 


Next week marks the opening of 52 Walker, a Tribeca gallery owned by David Zwirner, but operating in a different way to the norm. “It was important to rebrand because you’re not going to get the same thing as in another David Zwirner space,” says director Ebony L Haynes. Rather than the usual quick turnround of shows, Haynes plans just four exhibitions a year, to allow a more in-depth showing of more difficult or conceptual work. “It’s not for everyone but I want to move away from the online and QR code explosion. If shows are on for longer, then there is more of a chance that people will sit in front of art,” Haynes explains. The gallery will also have a lending library, underlining its more research-based approach. 


The first show, set to open on October 28, is of work by the Los Angeles-based Kandis Williams, who takes the history of dance to explore “how bodies move in space and whose space it is,” Haynes says. Collages, sculptures and a video will be on view, and Haynes does not shy away from the gallery’s commercial intentions — “selling the art is important,” she says. Works by Williams range from $24,000-$55,000. 


Offering art by contemporary African artists couldn’t hit the market’s sweet spot better at the moment, and London’s 1-54 fair had all the hallmarks of the place to be last week (October 14-17). Shifting its start to the day after the Frieze fairs opened meant that the same VIPs made their way to Somerset House, joined by a younger and more diverse crowd. Now in its ninth edition, the quality of work fielded by the fair’s 47 galleries was still varied but is on the up.


Swift sales were reported by exhibitors from Africa and elsewhere. Cape Town’s Ebony/Curated gallery reported the sale of an embroidered work by the South African Kimathi Mafafo (“Infinity”, 2021, £13,000) to a European foundation, and Nairobi’s Circle Art Gallery sold several curvaceous wood sculptures by the Ugandan artist Donald Wasswa (£3,500-£4,500). London’s Vigo Gallery brought a courtyard installation of 20 brightly coloured, new “basketball paintings” by the Ugandan-British artist Lakwena Maciver, which also served as places to sit in London’s rare autumn sun. Vigo reports that 11 of these sold (at £20,000 each) while all 12 of Maciver’s flag works that hung through the West Wing of Somerset House quickly found buyers at £12,000 each.

21 October 2021
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