A Look at the Frieze Masters

The Financial Times takes a good look at the Frieze Masters fair and notes how the dealers are mixing the old with the new.  It also looks at the prices for old master works, and notes how even though expensive, they do not compare to what is happening or the prices found in the contemporary market. The article also states how the number of old master dealers have declined, being made up with the addition of more antiquarian book dealers and manuscript and print dealers.

The Financial Times reports on the Frieze Masters
After dealer Helly Nahmad raised the presentation game at last year’s Frieze Masters by creating an imaginary collector’s apartment in the Paris of 1968, rivals at this year’s fourth edition have risen to the challenge. Dickinson’s bravura Cubist display centres on Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie de L’Effort Moderne, while Luxembourg & Dayan’s “Microsalon” offers a heartfelt homage to another seminal Parisian gallerist, Iris Clert. Not to be missed is newcomer Richard Nagy’s Viennese salon of around 1910. As for Nahmad, her reimagining of the clinics and sanitoria that inspired Dubuffet’s Art Brut promises to be the fair’s talking point.

No less striking is how dealers have doubled up to mix works from different periods, media or cultures but it is not always an illuminating exercise. “It is a challenge,” says Old Master dealer Fabrizio Moretti, who has joined forces with Hauser & Wirth. In all these collaborations, however, there is one glaring yet invisible distinction between the old and the new: price.

 So far at least in the 21st century, the recent reigns triumphant. As a result, world-class or museum-quality older works of art can be found for sums that might astound collectors of classic modern or contemporary.

Take the spectacular Etruscan bronze votive warrior god dubbed the “Cernuschi Warrior” by Ariadne Galleries. There is simply nothing quite like it in terms of scale or the quality of its incised decoration. It is a marvel. The piece was acquired by the banker Henri Cernuschi before he left Italy for Paris in 1850, and passed down in his family before being sold privately in 1987. It now appears in public for the first time, bearing a price tag of £975,000. It is hardly a negligible sum, but what does a million buy on the modern and contemporary market?

Etruscan bronzes are known as a source of inspiration for Giacometti, and the Swiss sculptor sprang to mind when admiring another gem, a Geometric Greek horse of around 750-730 BC shown by Rupert Wace Ancient Art. The bronze has characteristically long legs, pronounced angular joints, and strong shoulders and hindquarters joined by the slenderest of torsos. Turned face on, it is so elegantly attenuated that it almost disappears. These stylised proportions often seem gauche but here the modeller has captured with great clarity the beast’s essential power, grace and nobility of bearing, head held high and ears pricked. He has a presence that belies his diminutive 8cm. Sold from the collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney in 1999, it now emerges out of another private US collection and is priced £480,000.

Hardly less powerful or diminutive at 10cm high is the Okvik female figure at Donald Ellis Gallery, carved from marine mammal ivory and engraved around 200BC-100AD. This is one of the finest extant examples of a “Madonna” figure from the ancient Okvik Culture of the Bering Sea, Alaska. No other example is known with a flat back, bent legs and hanging feet — a position, Ellis believes, suggestive of birthing. Price: $145,000.
As for the Madonna in western art, Richard Feigen flourishes a recently rediscovered and affecting gold ground panel by the distinctive 14th-century Sienese master Luca di Tommè. This $1.6m tempera painting emerged out of the Siena of Duccio, Simone Martini and the brothers Lorenzetti, in whose workshop di Tommè probably trained. Here he combines the elegant, sinuous line and ornamentation beloved by the Sienese with convincing emotion. We feel the love of this mother for her child. As he holds his mother’s gaze, the Christ Child also clutches a goldfinch, which is pecking at his thumb, an allusion to the Passion.

Jump to 14th-century Cologne and the stand of Sam Fogg to find a dazzling panel of a slender stained-glass lancet window. In exceptional condition, and depicting refined architectural details, it has parallels in museums in Aachen, Nuremberg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It costs £60,000 — considerably less than medieval stained glass as reinterpreted by Gilbert & George. Not so very far removed from the work of Brâncuși is the streamlined form and polished sandstone of a Khmer torso of a male divinity. Carlton Rochell Asian Art is offering the 11th-century Baphuon-period figure for $650,000.

The grisly and quirky have always sold well at this fair. Firmly in the latter category comes the rare 18th-century articulated mannequin or artist’s lay figure, confected out of wood, cork, bronze, horsehair and leather. In fact, it is so rare that the only other example known was made and used by the sculptor Roubiliac and is in the Museum of London. That survives with two sets of clothes and wigs, one set male, the other female. Despite its rarity, Kunstkammer Georg Laue offers this equally androgynous but compelling skeletal mechanical figure for €68,000.

Unashamedly outrageous as well as wonderfully surreal is James Gillray’s 1791 caricature of William Pitt the Younger, then British prime minister, as “An Excrescence, a Fungus, alias a Toadstool upon a Dunghill”. To mark the 200th anniversary of the death of this biting satirist and master of line, Andrew Edmunds is offering more than 100 of his prints, with prices from £400. This uncoloured etching and engraving is marked £2,000.

Frieze Masters has not proved an easy fair for the Old Master dealers, and as their number has reduced, the quota of antiquarian book, manuscript and print dealers has risen. Manuscripts, miniatures and incunabula (early printed books) remain an area in which it is still possible to acquire works of museum quality. For the last three of four years, Dr Jörn Günther has found himself with a growing clientele among modern and contemporary art collectors. His knock-out, museum-quality piece is the “Livre des faits du bon chevalier Jacques de Lalaing”, a 15th-century ode to Burgundian chivalric society here illuminated by the great Simon Bening and his workshop in around 1520. Included is a superb large portrait of Toison d’Or, the King of Arms. Take a magnifying glass and you will even see his dirty fingernails. Price: €3.8m.

The works on paper hardest to resist for pure bravura and spontaneity are, of course, drawings. Le Claire Kunst offers a calligraphic chalk, pen and ink and wash drawing by the 18th-century Venetian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Incredibly fresh given it remained part of an album until the 20th century, this £140,000 sheet is striking for its freedom of line and brilliant use of the reserve.

Arguably the canniest or most catastrophic approach to collecting, depending on your point of view, is to buy the downright unfashionable. Perhaps most out of sync with today’s tastes are the grand salon or exhibition paintings of the 19th century. Stair Sainty Gallery offers “Galatée” by David’s pupil Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson. This study of a head, adapted for the artist’s last masterpiece, “Pygmalion et Galatée”, is painted with almost lapidary perfection. While the finished painting exhibited in the Salon of 1819 is now in the Louvre, this refined and recently discovered study can be yours for £150,000.
Source: The Financial Times

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