Changing Tastes Drive Changes in Sales at Frieze Masters

At the inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul last month, the longest queues at the fair were not for the contemporary art on offer but for the galleries exhibiting at Frieze Masters. This bloom of older art – “perfectly polished gemstones amid a sea of ​​rough diamonds”, as Frieze Masters director Nathan Clements-Gillespie described it – intrigued audiences Korean. Their curiosity and enthusiasm didn’t translate into a buying frenzy, however, dealers say.

This disconnect between critical acclaim and commercial success haunted the elegant alleys of Frieze Masters from the start. The event was conceived as a new take on the Encyclopedic Art Fair, an exhibition of selected works representing the span of civilization, from Antiquity and the Medieval world to the Old Masters through to the end of the 20th century. century. Organizers and exhibitors have endeavored to inspire contemporary art collectors to open their eyes to the wealth of art that was once contemporary. As the London fair prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, there has been no diminishing of ambition, but the changing list of exhibitors and the evolving types of art they bring reveal the reality that all does not sell well at Frieze Masters.

A seasoned exponent who has clung to his original design over the decade is medieval art scholar Sam Fogg. “We’ve always done well here,” he said. “It is without a doubt our best 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 trivial thing to say, but this is the fair where you’re most likely to find cross-customers. During the first edition, for example, two artists featured at Frieze London walked through Regent’s Park and purchased paintings and sculptures. In 2019, he sold a 13th-century life-size sculpture of Christ on the cross: “It’s not the kind of thing you would expect to sell to a private collector.

3rd/4th century gray schist bodhisattva from Gandhara © Courtesy Carlton Rochell Asian Art

Orange sculpture of a man with very large eyes

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

Fogg is favored because the raw emotion, pure line and strong color of so much medieval art speak to modern sensibilities – it can pair well with minimalist and abstract pieces alike. Classic antique dealers have a similar advantage. Rupert Wace, for example, was selling to contemporary art collectors long before his Mesopotamian stone duck weights flew from his stand at the first Frieze Masters. In 2012, it was the only exhibitor specializing in this field. There are now five, including newcomer Charles Ede. The Ariadne Galleries, for their part, have staged spectacular exhibitions of museum-quality material and have been rewarded with significant sales. Now Carlton Rochell Asian Art is joining the fray bringing the likes of a classic gray schist Bodhisattva figure from third/fourth century Gandhara to modern Pakistan.

For similar reasons, Johnny van Haeften did well with the almost naïve genre scenes of early 17th-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger, accounts of daily life full of incidental detail. A major rediscovery sold to a collector who came from New York after seeing it reproduced in this newspaper. While such a painting would have been bought anywhere, Van Haeften and Salomon Lilian have sold Dutch or Flemish pictures here every year but one, not infrequently to buyers new to the field who also collect contemporary art. “There are people in their 45s or 50s who are entering the old master market, but you have to be aware of changing tastes,” warns Salomon Lilian’s Boedy Lilian. This year, De Jonckheere flowers three round panels by Pieter Brueghel the Younger representing the seasons.

Painting of a man in the shadows pointing to a man's chest wound lit by candlelight

‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (1599/1600) by Matthias Stom © Courtesy Salomon Lilian

Old Master paintings of the gilt-framed variety and fine sculptures in bronze and marble pose more challenges, especially as there are no accompanying auctions in London attracting international collectors. While Clements-Gillespie points out that the ratio of dealers offering modern to old art has remained constant at around 60:40, the statistic does not reflect how those exhibitors selling both have gravitated towards the 19th or 20th centuries. In 2012, for example, Robilant + Voena presented 18th-century Italian views and only two 20th-century masters. Over the years, this dynamic has reversed. Their “crossbreeding,” according to Edmondo di Robilant, are clients of old masters who now buy modern art.

It’s a similar storyline to Agnews, which will show a dash of Old Masters while focusing on the likes of ‘The White Door’ (1888), the first of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s hauntingly empty interiors. “Over the years we’ve discovered what works,” says design dealer Stephen Ongpin. “Most of what we bring in now is from the 19th and 20th centuries, but if we do a thematic hanging, like when we bought Tiepolo designs, that worked really well too.” For Andreas Pampoulides of the sculpture and painting gallery Lullo Pampoulides, “all art from before the 19th century must be strong, horrible or sexy. It’s about working with good stories to tell.

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

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

Storytelling is key to making the old or the unknown accessible to a new audience. It is highlighted this year through the Frieze Masters Stand Out: Global Exchange initiative, for which Luke Syson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, highlighted works of art from all mediums on 10 stands throughout of the fair (or, in the case of Axel Vervoordt, the whole gallery). “The Global Encounter is rooted in textiles, ceramics and metalwork in a way that paintings and drawings are not,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine a more compelling story than how they interact in the creation of objects.”

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

Watercolor of a rather sassy duck head

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

Watercolor of two ducks

Company School Painting of two ducks (19th century) © Courtesy Amir Mohtashemi (2)

This fair has always cleverly positioned all of its exhibits, regardless of medium, as art with a capital A. That other A word – antiques – is probably never whispered in the organizer’s office, even if, as Clements-Gillespie admits with a smile, the event has become an art and antiques fair. apart from the name. Even furniture that was once forbidden is now allowed – on skirting boards, of course. Dealer Richard Nagy, for example, promises a Gesamtkunstwerk of Viennese Secession art and design. For Frieze visitors and exhibitors, the decorative has been taken out of the decorative arts.

October 12-16, frieze.com

Sallie R. Loera