British art market continues to grow

By Emily Johnston, The CA magazine

25 February 2015

With the UK art market buoyant and interest in British works high, it's a good time to invest in art, says Emily Johnston.

The buzz of the art market is hard to beat. The high prices we have seen since the market revival in 2010 are dizzying, especially in contemporary art and at the top end of the market. Even at a more modest level, where the majority of the business is done, the passion of collectors and the expertise of specialists in the field make it a compelling environment to work in.

The UK, famed for its cultural heritage, is the third biggest player in the global art market, accounting for 20 per cent of the market by value, with only the USA (38 per cent) and China (24 per cent) ahead. The impact of a thriving art market extends well beyond the auction house or gallery walls into the cultural and charitable sectors. Many dealers and auction experts have a closer relationship with potential lenders and patrons than museum curators. This has fostered increasing collaboration between the commercial and public spheres and has led to outstanding museum exhibitions, loan shows in commercial galleries and charitable auctions.

Modern British art

Interest in 20th century British art has been rising steadily in recent years. Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore are truly international names in this field with Moore's Reclining Figure: Festival making £19m at auction in 2012.

Modern British art undoubtedly deserves to have a greater international reputation but from the perspective of collectors or aspiring collectors it is a rewarding area on which to focus with museum-quality paintings and sculptures regularly appearing on the market, often for the first time, at relatively modest prices, by comparison with European and American equivalents. The St Ives School dominates the modern British arena with many of the artists in this group, such as Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, using abstraction to reinterpret the British landscape. From the School of London, Frank Auerbach has the potential to become an international name. His portraits share Lucien Freud's love of texture and David Bomberg's rich earthy colours. Sculpture is also an area of strength with Elisabeth Frink and Lynn Chadwick gaining recognition and achieving seven-figure prices.

Post-war and contemporary art

The TEFAF Art Market Report 2014 estimates that the global fine art market was worth £36.2bn in 2013/14. Post-war and contemporary art accounted for 46 per cent of the fine art auction market by value. Leading British artists in this sector include Francis Bacon (the only British artist to appear in the list of top 20 most expensive artists ever to have been sold with Three Studies of Lucien Freud making $142m), the sculptor Anish Kapoor and Scottish-born painter Peter Doig. Doig's large-scale landscapes, mainly set in Canada and Trinidad, are imaginative and painterly and herald a new phase in contemporary art.

At Contemporary Art Week, which takes place in mid-October, the London auctioneers hold a series of day and evening sales, galleries show their best art and art fairs such as Frieze attract more than 60,000 visitors. For the collectors who fly in from across the world it is a heady week of back-to-back parties, statement fashion and art of every form imaginable. It is easy to question the wisdom of the prices paid for emerging artists, but as Jonathan Jones from the Guardian puts it... "the art market is conservative and canny. It is looking for smart investments and so listens to the critics. Generally, it knows good from bad. Then it adds a few noughts."


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