Art market Report

Phil Clark profile image

Phil Clark, Partner

Phil joined Wilkins Kennedy as a Partner in March 2019 and leads our Arts and Media sector.

June 17, 2019

Head of Arts and Media sector Phil Clark reflects on the art market this Spring

As the dust settles on New York Frieze , TEFAF and the spring auction sales, and before the art world descends on Basel, it is a good moment to reflect on the state of the market; what is selling and what trends that are coming through.

The New York Times  reported* that “Impressionist and modern art tends to yield few surprises at auction these days, now that most wealthy buyers prefer to purchase contemporary pieces. But spectacular results can still be achieved for works that have crossover appeal to the two collecting camps”.

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale realised just under $350m, with eye catching and well reported sales for Claude Monet’s Meulles at $110m, and two fine Picasso’s fetching $20m and $54m. The Contemporary art evening auction on 16 May realised $341m, with prominence going to works by Francis Bacon and Mark Rothco.

Perhaps few real surprises at the very top end of the market.  However, is this really representative of art world behaviour and are there any surprises left to discover?

Frieze New York

From its beginning in in 2012, visitor numbers in 2018 were reported to be up 22% at 41,800 over the event. However, at a time when talk is of whether art fairs have peaked and if there is an element of fatigue with the growing proliferation of fairs around the world, it was interesting to see how it performed this year.

Of course it’s not just footfall but sales that are important as galleries need to cover their costs. There were reports of significant sales to institutions in Sharjah, China and other museums and  eye catching contemporary pieces were at the forefront; that is, afterall, what Frieze is about. Galleries from Taiwan, South Korea and China brought variety and many Latin American artists on show widen the appeal to collectors.

It was good to see a section devoted to newer galleries (less than 10 years old) alongside a revised pricing structure to encourage newer exhibitors, and a return by Allied Editions, including Camden Arts Centre and Whitechapel Gallery, featuring more affordable works.

The lifeblood of the fairs is not just those buying on behalf of large institutions or the super-wealthy collectors. Whilst they may grab the headlines, it is the ability to encourage new collectors to make a start, forge links with galleries, investigate and come back that drives the future.

My sense was of a vibrant fair with pieces to suit a variety of pockets and tastes. Contemporary is at the forefront, celebrating diversity and crossing boundaries.


The Spring fair is in its third year in New York and is an event of some complexity; refined not experimental. Many major galleries are represented, some concentrating on the work of just one artist. Some artists predominate, for example there were Picassos on several stands along with strong interest in cubism and minimalism.

Was there a “style” this year? As you would expect at TEFAF several classics; modern and impressionist and several stands devoted to one artist (Lichtenstein, Klee, Dubuffet.). Contemporary America was represented by Ed Clark, Robert Ryman, Tom Wesselmann and Jenny Holzer among others while British artists were concentrated in a few stands. A wall of Bridget Riley 1960 studies was a star of the show and rightly gained much attention; set alongside Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. Thoughtful and well curated stands like this appealed to collectors, encouraging them to reach beyond normal buying lines and enhance collections through new discovery.

At the end of the day I venture that’s what it is all about. 

My sense was that the opening day was pretty frantic, but it calmed down after that. Nothing particularly unusual in that pattern. In talking to galleries it is clear that there has been a slow start to the year with potential buyers taking their time to consider purchases. Galleries are looking for evidence of sales through which to reemphasise the importance of the fairs and to justify the cost. Footfall seemed strong but, of course, that does not always translate into sales – nevertheless those I talked to seemed positive and were satisfied with the outcome.

So were there any headline surprises? Well probably not, but between the two fairs artists from household names to newer talent were represented. Art can bring different cultures, thoughts and media into view and for those prepared to be surprised there was plenty of opportunity.

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