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African art breaks records at Sotheby’s


African art breaks records at Sotheby’s

Plus: Frans Hals dispute partly settled; a cartoon for our times

Hassan El Glaoui’s ‘La Sortie du Roi’, which sold for £110,000 at Sotheby’s this week

Sotheby’s fourth dedicated African Modern and contemporary art auction in London this week made a total £1.9m (£2.3m with fees, est £1.5m-£2.2m) and created 11 new artist records, as this area of collecting attracts sustained interest.

Among the record-breaking works was a Morocco celebration painting, “La Sortie du Roi” by Hassan El Glaoui, which sold for £110,000 (£137,500 with fees, est £80,000-£120,000). His daughter is Touria El Glaoui, founder of the 1:54 art fair for African art. She says that she doesn’t focus so much on the prices of works made by her father, who died last year, “as much as hoping that the piece was bought by someone who will enjoy it”.

In the auction catalogue, Touria El Glaoui also pays tribute to the British prime minister Winston Churchill, who encouraged her grandfather, the last Pasha (leader) of Marrakesh, to let his son become an artist. “A painter himself, Churchill showed that you could be a statesman and still ‘paint on the side’,” she says. She has also organised a major solo show of her father’s work that opened at the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat last week (until August 31).

Just before going to London’s High Court on April 2, Sotheby’s and the dealer Mark Weiss reached what was described as an “amicable settlement” over the auction house’s $10.75m private treaty sale in 2011 of a portrait believed to be by Frans Hals ($11.2m with fees). The sellers, equal owners of the work, were Weiss — through his solely owned business Mark Weiss Limited (MWL) — and an investment vehicle, Fairlight Art Ventures, owned by the hedge fund manager David Kowitz.

A portrait, believed to be by Frans Hals, which is at the centre of a now partly settled legal dispute over its authenticity

Suspicions were raised about the work in 2016 and forensic tests by Orion Analytical — a business that was subsequently bought out by Sotheby’s — concluded that the Hals was a forgery. Sotheby’s therefore refunded the buyer, a Seattle property developer. Weiss, meanwhile, did not accept that the work was a fake, so Sotheby’s announced it would take the sellers to court to get its money back. On April 1, Weiss and MWL announced that they had agreed to pay Sotheby’s $4.2m without any admission of liability. Weiss “remains convinced of the authenticity of the work based on his own expert’s independent scientific testing”, a statement from Weiss Gallery says. The trial between Sotheby’s and Fairlight went ahead, however, and was ongoing at time of writing.

“The online art market plods on with steady growth” is about as excited as Robert Hiscox, head of art and private sales at the specialist insurer Hiscox, can get about the findings of his firm’s seventh annual report on this area of trade. According to research conducted by ArtTactic, sales made online were estimated at $4.6bn in 2018, up 9.8 per cent on the previous year, but marking the third consecutive year that the growth rate has fallen. Between 2013 and 2015, the comparable growth rate is recorded at around 20 to 25 per cent.

Certainly a high number of so-called “disruptive” businesses that have tried to enter this space have quietly disappeared, and Hiscox finds that the marketplace is still “overcrowded”. Those that remain have proved their worth mostly as aggregators or alternative sales channels that ease some of the art market’s creaky logistics.

Social media is still of huge importance: 80 per cent of 706 art buyers surveyed say that they use Instagram to discover new artists and 55 per cent of millennial buyers find online sales platforms via social media. Artists are proving the main beneficiaries — Banksy added 3.5m followers in 2018, mostly on the back of his shredding stunt at Sotheby’s in October. “For younger talents, Instagram could be a real game-changer,” the report finds.

The niche category of British portrait miniatures, offered by men and women as private keepsakes, is making a comeback. London’s National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition dedicated to two miniaturists, Nicholas Hilliard, who died 400 years ago this year, and his pupil, Isaac Oliver (Elizabethan Treasures, until May 19).

“Portrait miniatures have been undervalued for some time,” says Emma Rutherford, a specialist in the field and consultant for London’s Philip Mould. She is behind the gallery’s current loan exhibition of 28 early portrait miniatures from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Jewel in the Hand, which includes some by Hilliard and Oliver (until April 18). Rutherford says a decent Hilliard can still be bought for under £50,000, and puts the price ceiling for the finest pieces at about £200,000 — though in 2016, an Oliver miniature of the British peer, Baron Herbert of Cherbury, sold to the National Trust for £2.1m.

She notes that miniatures are a similar size to today’s phone screens, on which we keep photographs of our nearest and dearest, perhaps contributing to their resurgence in relevance.

London’s Chiswick Auctions took Britain back to a parallel universe at its sale of a collection of some 60 political cartoons on March 28. Included among the 19th- and 20th-century fare was a signed cartoon by Joseph Lee, most likely made for the Eastern Daily Press in 1974-75. This was inspired by the split of opinion in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labour party over the only previous referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Community (the forerunner of the EU). Lee’s original cartoon, which sold for £190 (£237.50 with premium), riffs on an image used by the British record label HMV to reflect “His Master’s two voices”. Much of the politics chime with today, but for the fact that in the 1975 referendum, the electorate voted 67 per cent in favour of European membership.

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