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Mercury Rising: What’s Hot and What’s Not in the Art and Ultra-Luxury Market

Bernadette Rankine

Bernadette Rankine

Bernadette Rankine runs BR Consultancy, an art and luxury consultancy, and serves as an advisor to the Family Office For Art. Previously, she held the position of Director for Southeast Asia at an international auction house.

In early March this year, as the VIP preview of The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) concluded, I found myself in the Eurostar queue next to the ‘Delphic oracle’ of the art world. Seizing the moment, I enquired about prophecies for 2023. The response I received was intriguing. "Look out for women artists, artists of color, and Africa! Wet paint art is in for a bit of a rough ride ahead." This was foretold in Art Dubai a month earlier and would be seen in the Spring auction seasons globally.

The royal treatment: Everyone is a VIP

Earlier in February, I was surprised with an e-invitation and itinerary from Art Dubai. With the Louvre Abu Dhabi just down the road and the city’s reputation for luxury, glamor, and money, one would expect the fair to pander to the rich and famous. International collectors (part of my group) from China, Egypt, Germany, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, and the USA were generously hosted at the Al Qasr palace of Madinat Jumeirah, a stone’s throw away from Art Dubai. Yet the fair itself was a champion of ‘the other’.

It was down to earth and inclusive with a refreshing vision dedicated to art outside the Western canon. Pablo del Val, the fair’s Artistic Director stated, “Art Dubai is a place where non-traditional, non-Western practices can be showcased.” This was an opportunity to access, buy, and collect works from the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania), which would be challenging without a devoted platform.

Four paintings hung on a gallery wall

In the aptly named Bawwaba (Arabic for gateway) section, Yavuz, a gallery based in Australia and Singapore, sold all works by Indonesian artist Zico Albaiquni (born 1987). One work titled ‘The Anthroporn: Swim in the Pool of Myth, 2023’ — a critique of the Western male gaze — had to be kept out of sight in the storeroom. Despite this, it was sold along with everything else exhibited. Latitude 28, a contemporary gallery from New Delhi, India sold a set of 22 works titled ‘My Piece’ by Gopa Trivedi (born 1987) on opening day to a collector in our group from Asia.

Art from Japan with its kawaii cuteness and spotty pumpkins was notably absent at the event. However, at the home of one of the emirate’s most important patrons and collectors of North African and Middle Eastern art, a large Yayoi Kusama ‘Infinity Net’ greeted me discreetly at the entrance.

“Waka waka: It’s time for Africa!”

TAFETA, a gallery specialising in 20th-century and contemporary African art had sold or reserved over 80% of its works ahead of the final weekend at TEFAF to both private collectors and institutions at the fair. Works shown comprised a curated selection including sculpture, installation, and work on paper by so-called ‘older mature’ artists such as British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare CBE, RA (born 1962), Sudanese Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930), Ivorian-born American Ouattara Watts (born 1957), Nigerian-American Victor Ekpuk (born 1964), and others. No fear of repatriation for collectors or museums here…

A younger stable of more affordable artists was found in Dubai. Efie Gallery, managed by a group of young Ghanaians, caught my attention as an exceptionally large El Anatsui (born 1944) dominated its stand. Yet standing just as tall beside the master’s work were the satirical colorful portraits and figures by Isshaq Ismail (born 1989). Also represented were the irreverent graffiti works by Nigerian-British “con artist” Slawn (born 2000). We may yet see these young talents internationally soon, so now is an ideal time to acquire their work. Collectors from South Korea to New York cannot get enough of the work of Ivorian artist Aboudia (born 1983). His prices, with a range from USD 50,000 to over USD 500,000 have soared by 103% in just five years. For those of us with shallower pockets, Marks & Spencer had British-Nigerian artist Yinka Ilori design a lifestyle tote bag — made from 99% recycled plastic. More than 700,000 bags have sold since it launched in January this year for slightly less than USD 10.

Cultural professionals, art market movers, and even corporations are determined to give prominence to creations from the second-largest continent in the world. The main theme of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale is 'The Laboratory of the Future’, with Africa as the focus. Lesley Lokko, a Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic, and novelist and the curator of the event, emphasized that “we are not only talking about Africa — we use it as a place in order to try and understand everything everywhere.”

The pumpkin and the king of fruits

Further east in April, Yayoi Kusama’s enormous sculpture of a pumpkin sold for USD 7.98 million over the telephone at Sotheby’s, a world record for a sculpture of the artist. Sitting in the auction room and watching the bustling activity at the phone bank and online sales was a dissimilar and disappointing experience compared to pre-pandemic times, when there was more drama, excitement, and paddle waving in the room. Has the internet killed the auction room?

Nevertheless, whether bought in cyberspace or on a mobile, Queen Kusama reigns ahead of Cézanne and Van Gogh in terms of turnover. In 2022, Kusama ranked 12th in the world (according to Artprice), and as of writing and with the year not yet out, she has leapt ahead to 6th position. Her pumpkins and infinity nets are money-making subjects, yet the art world always surprises — in May, Christie’s sold one of her floral canvases in Hong Kong for a very respectable USD 7.46 million.

‘The king of fruits’, the durian was the subject of the much-sought-after Singaporean artist Georgette Chen’s (1906–1993) work of the same name. This published still life was sold for USD 1.83 million by Christie’s in Hong Kong. In Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Auction, held in Singapore in July this year, the top hammer prices were taken by women artists Georgette Chen, Yayoi Kusama, and Christine Ay Tjoe. Chen and her fellow Singaporean artist Liu Kang (1911–2004) have found a new following with collectors from China, especially new residents of the city state. Liu Kang’s prices have increased by 34% over the past five years.

Rare works fresh to the market with strong provenance will always command top dollar, even when the art market is in a period of adjustment. The current geopolitical and economic climate with the evil twins of inflation and high interest rates has been challenging. Only USD 184.2 million was spent on ultra-contemporary art (artists born post 1974) at auction by the end of May, 25% down from the same period in 2022. The resale auction market for ‘flipped’ young art (wet paint) in London also experienced a decline. For wet paint art (that is, works that are auctioned within two years of production) well, let's just say it might be time to dry out. Taking all this and ArtTactic’s RawFacts Auction Review into account, we saw the global auction sales for the big three international houses decreased by 18.2% during the first six months in 2023. So where has the money and interest moved? Numbers indicate that luxury and collectibles saw continued growth.

Luxe legends: A king, a queen, and a princess

The luxury category at Christie's achieved impressive first-half results in 2023, its highest ever first-half total in the sector. Sales reached USD 590 million, marking a significant 43% increase compared to the same period in 2022. In May, its watch sale in Geneva sold 98% by lot and achieved USD 29.72 million.

Registrations came from 47 countries of which 27% were new clients. Bidding and buying were global, with 52% from Europe and the Middle East, 15% from the Americas, and 33% from Asia.

Geneva watch sales by the top three houses in May exceeded expectations, totalling USD 108 million. Phillips sold a Rolex Daytona: ‘The End Game’ for USD 4.1 million. The Sultan of Oman’s rare Daytona chronograph, one of six specially made, was sold by Christie's for USD 1.28 million. Threatening economic clouds have not dampened deep pockets for the rare and, in some cases, the quirky.

More recently, a red Seiko watch, catalogued as a plastic and stainless steel digital chronograph wristwatch (circa 1982) and which can be purchased on eBay for less than USD 100 was sold by Sotheby’s for USD 43,500! Provenance and star power helped with the high hammer as it belonged to none other than Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury.

In 1985, Freddie Mercury said, “I won't be a rock star. I will be a legend.” In 2023, his estate selling his most personal of items netted a cool USD 50.4 million. Mercury’s Tiffany moustache comb (estimated at USD 400–600) sold for USD 189,000. His graffiti-covered garden door, described to be in a distressed condition with splits and losses and not a functional object, was sold for more than USD 450,000.

If there is one underlying trend from my observations in the first half of 2023, it would be that individuality reigns. Despite challenges, the art market continues to evolve and adapt to the changing and challenging landscape, offering new opportunities for artists and collectors alike. Even for those with millions in the bank, like centi-millionaires who hold over USD 100 million in investable assets, they buy what speaks to them and are not a herd of sheep following the crowd. This is the reason Princess Diana’s ‘One Black Sheep’ sweater, with holes and stains throughout, sold for just over USD 1.14 million last week on 14 September 2023.

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