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After Frieze New York, This Is the Art Market For the Rest Of 2017

What collectors desire the most; what global auction houses do next.

The sixth edition of the Frieze New York art fair (May 5-7) proved two things: that the art market, while not quite bulletproof, is exhibiting a gritty inner steel and that Frieze itself shares some of the qualities of its branding’s battleship grey colour palette.

At the moment, the art market is being played by Clint Eastwood at full squint while the great art fairs are gunships, protecting the precious islands on which their dwindling assets lie. What this means at Frieze is a focus on quality: good for serious collectors and the punter buying a day ticket just to be under the same roof as top-deck art.

At New York this year, the trend was for bankable, box-office stars of 20th-century art, like Robert Rauschenberg, a father of pop art, shown by Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, along with a smattering of hot new names, such as US artist Awol Erizku, whose photo portraits of celebs are drawing attention to his paintings and mixed media work, at Ben Brown Fine Arts.

Demand is there but supply thin because most of the best-performing work is by those maddeningly unproductive dead artists

While Frieze in London has drawn a line between its contemporary fair and its concurrent ancient and modern fair, Frieze New York has a more relaxed reading of that rule which makes for a good singular event. The turnover of galleries from last year could be read both ways: “look at these crazy new cats making art!” and, “let’s not scare the horses, here is my best Matisse from a distinguished European collection.”

Something to help focus Frieze’s mind this year was the appearance of another dreadnought in the port in the form of The European Fine Art Foundation’s New York Spring fair (May 4-8). Frieze could be flattered that the early-May niche it has carved in the crowded art world calendar has been pounced on by such an august and wily old campaigner as TEFAF, but it might also be watchful.

Wise to the push and pull of Frieze and TEFAF was London’s Lisson Gallery – celebrating its 50th birthday this year and now with stunning spaces in New York and Milan, too – which had moorings at both fairs and showed a huge span and scale of work across the city. Lisson presented a dual artist booth with sculptures by Anish Kapoor and Lee Ufan at Frieze; opened Kapoor’s Descension installation in Brooklyn Bridge Park; showed early paintings by Carmen Herrera at TEFAF and opened a Susan Hiller show of paintings, video and installations at the gallery’s 24th Street space.

Alex Logsdail, International Director at Lisson, had perhaps the most full-on week of all dealers. “Yesterday seemed busy and buoyant,” he said of TEFAF’s opening day, on the eve of Frieze NY. “It’s a busy season, but we’re honoured our artists have exciting and important exhibitions around the globe.”

Frieze versus TEFAF may prove to be a heavyweight tussle. While Frieze’s intriguing pitch on Randall’s Island Park, on an island in the East River at the juncture of Manhattan, The Bronx and Queens, made for an unusual and beguiling event (the tent is lovely, the interior design stylish, the food yum), it’s also a problem to get to and from. TEFAF, meanwhile, was slap-bang in the middle of Manhattan, in the Park Avenue Armory a couple of blocks east of Central Park.

Charlotte Burns, senior editor at consultancy Art Agency, Partners, laid it out: “Frieze New York is gorgeous – more so than your typical art fair – but sales are a different story,” she said. “In a city where time is money, travel time matters, Frieze’s isolated position means collectors are less likely to make return visits, which puts a lot of pressure on opening day.” Overall, Burns said, “demand is concentrating around the tried and tested.”

So “bankable” is the key trend for the year ahead more so than any artistic movement. Christie’s, the flagship of the auction house fleet, have their next biggie, the Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 17 in New York and it’ll be a bellwether for blue-chip stuff. Two paintings, Andy Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable), 1962 and Cy Twombly’s Leda and The Swan, 1962 will go under the hammer, the latter with a high estimate of US$55million.

That sounds high, but in fact the global art market has been shrinking since it peaked in 2014 at a value of US$68.2billion. Last year the global art market was valued at US$45-56billion; private sales make accounting tricky. The multi-billion dollar global art market has more in common with tradesmen and London’s cabbies than you think: they all just love a cash job. Predicting this year is tough but the wise bet is on a euphemistic “rationalising” of a formerly wild market.

So, the year ahead will have a focus on quality framed by scarcity. The demand is there but the supply thin because most of the best-performing work is by those maddeningly unproductive dead artists and most of that is in tax-proof storage in Geneva and not (yet) for sale. It will be, though.

Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle and writes on art, media, film and literature. The photograph is from the Frieze Art Fair.