Mind the (shrinking) gap: Paris gains on leading London

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The international art fair circus is on the move again, testing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the world’s premier cities as places to see, buy and sell serious contemporary art. After Frieze Seoul in September, October’s major stops are the 20th anniversary edition of Frieze London, followed the next week by the second iteration of Paris+ par Art Basel.

For decades, London has been the undisputed capital of Europe’s art market. A year ago, opinions were split on whether the city’s momentum was flagging. But now, seven years on from Britain’s momentous vote to leave the European Union, art market momentum is fixated on Paris, even as international wealth still largely favours London.

The Paris gallery scene is clearly gathering strength. Since Brexit, David Zwirner, Gagosian and White Cube have all opened branches in the City of Light, boosting its primary market. Hauser & Wirth is next; it will debut an imposing four-floor, 400 sq. m gallery there in October. Even cutting-edge British dealer Stuart Shave will expand his gallery, Modern Art, to Paris this month, although the new space will stage only three shows a year and operate by appointment for now.

“I see Paris as the capital of the European art market, or at least its primary market,” says the respected Paris-based dealer Jocelyn Wolff, who is also celebrating his business’s 20th anniversary this year. “We have a bigger local clientele here, and bigger institutions that buy art,” he adds, alluding to the purchasing power of museums like François Pinault’s Bourse de Commerce and the large pool of collectors who spend at least €10,000 a year on art in Paris.

But leading London dealers Pilar Corrias, Stephen Friedman and Alison Jacques are all opening prestigious new spaces in Mayfair during Frieze. Corrias, who represents several international women artists with lengthy waiting lists, says that “the discrepancy in business between London and Paris is still huge”. For her, London is a more “outward-looking” city whose dealerships and institutions attract a “proper international audience”. As for Brexit, she adds: “I don’t see it as a problem at all.”

Shave is sensitive to the nuances in the debate over Europe’s art capital. He agrees with Wolff’s view of the Parisian market, saying: “I love the city and its energy. It has some of the most ambitious private collectors today.” But, like Corrias, he also contends that Brexit “has not discernibly affected sales in London”; it has only disheartened him personally and made his registrars’ jobs more difficult.

Not every sector of the British art trade concurs. In a July filing with Companies House, Sotheby’s blamed the resulting welter of extra taxes, administrative costs and other red tape incurred in Brexit’s aftermath for having “a negative impact on the appeal of selling property in the UK”. The auction house’s profits in Britain fell a bracing 24% in 2022, according to the filing. Sotheby’s plans to inaugurate a new flagship salesroom in Paris in 2024.

Sotheby’s results probably surprise readers of the most recent Art Basel and UBS Art Market report, which ranked the British trade second in the world in 2022. The report found the UK amassed an 18% share of all sales by value, dwarfing the 7% accrued by fourth-place France. Reliable data on private dealer sales remains elusive, making meaningful comparisons between the nations’ art trading difficult. However, these figures reflect the continuing strength of London’s high-end auctions, even during a significant down year for one of the two most consequential sellers.

Energy versus power

So, is London’s auction market losing steam, or is it still the most lucrative in Europe by a comfortable margin? Is Paris’s gallery scene the most energetic around, or is a substantial charge still needed before it becomes the consensus choice for the region’s most powerful? Has Brexit meaningfully diminished returns even for some of London’s top art sellers, or do outside observers tend to overestimate its real costs to the British market overall?

What makes it so difficult to sort London and Paris in the art market hierarchy is that it is possible to answer yes to both sides of every question above without contradicting oneself.

The cities have been moving in opposite directions in the art-fair sector lately. In January, the Swiss-based MCH Group, owner of Art Basel, the organiser of Paris+, announced that it was scrapping London’s upscale Masterpiece fair in June, citing “escalating costs and a decline in the number of international exhibitors”. The Art & Antiques Fair Olympia, held annually since 1972, axed its summer edition later the same month.

Meanwhile, last October’s inaugural edition of Paris+, replacing the long-in-the-tooth FIAC as France’s flagship fair, created positive mood music. Former FIAC stalwart Galerie 1900-2000 sold 10 works priced between €3,000 and €100,000 within the first two hours of the fair. Mega-gallerist David Zwirner, who had previously told the media that Paris had been an underperforming fair venue for him, found a buyer for a Joan Mitchell painting priced at $4.5m en route to $11m in opening-day sales, adding that these were “certainly numbers that we weren’t able to achieve here in Paris in the past”.

Frieze London and Paris+ are of course the centrepieces of much bigger weeks offering high-quality satellite fairs, dealer exhibitions, auctions and museum shows. But more and more market players are behaving as if Paris itself, not just “Paris+ Week”, is a worthier competitor to London than ever.

Heather Flow, a New York-based adviser who specialises in emerging artists, will be visiting Paris with clients in October—but not London. “Paris is a convenient city for the rest of Europe, and it’s more affordable. I’m there not so much for the galleries but for pop-up spaces doing weird stuff,” she says. But what about London? “There are so many barriers that make it difficult to transact,” she adds. “I know more artists who have moved to Paris than London.”

“Sadly, Paris will probably take the place of London,” says Cyril Moumen, the French founder of Gallery Nosco. “It’s easier to deal with the rest of the world in Paris. There are more up-and-coming galleries. It’s a hot spot,” he adds.

Before relocating to Marseille in 2019, Gallery Nosco, which is now based in Brussels, showed international contemporary artists in London for 23 years. “Things became very complicated with shipping and temporary importing,” says Moumen, who will at least return to London for Frieze Week to exhibit at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair and hold a pop-up show in Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia. At last year’s edition of 1-54, Gallery Nosco sold out its stand of impastoed paintings by the French Algerian artist Isabelle.D, priced from £4,000 to £15,000. For a smaller gallerist like Moumen, who says that 70% to 80% of his sales come from art fairs, London still has its occasional uses.

It also has a firm lead among the well-heeled. A huge amount of international money still pauses or resides in London, directly or indirectly underpinning businesses that sell high-value art. According to Statista.com, London currently has 87 billionaire residents, the fifth highest concentration of any global city; Paris has just 49. So it was little surprise that London was the venue for Gustav Klimt’s 1918 portrait Dame mit Fächer (lady with a fan) to set the record for the priciest work of art ever auctioned in Europe, when it sold for £85.3m at Sotheby’s in June.

Europe in flux

Apart from the Klimt record, however, London’s auction dominance has been tempered by signs of a Europe in flux. Eyebrows were raised around Britain when Sotheby’s announced its forthcoming sale of 300 works of contemporary art and design owned by the Manchester-born collector Pauline Karpidas would be held in its Paris auction rooms. A renowned supporter of young artists, Karpidas bought the works for her idyllic home on the Greek island of Hydra, where she entertained names like Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. The material will be offered in an evening and day sale on 30 and 31 October and is expected to raise at least €11m.

A Sotheby’s spokesperson insists red tape and taxes have nothing to do with the house’s choice of sales venue for the Karpidas collection. “Though there are some great British names in that group, the bulk of the value lies in Pauline’s extraordinary collection of Lalanne,” they say, referring to Karpidas’s holdings of the quirky creations of the French designers Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, whose market pivots on Paris.

Nonetheless, the sight of so much Young British Art being auctioned in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, opposite the Élysée Palace, will leave many thinking that this is yet another example of Paris’s ongoing Brexit dividend, whose value continues to climb.

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