This year has started even more quietly than usual in the art market as most of the trade’s regular events have been postponed until late spring, when the Covid-19 vaccination programmes will hopefully kickstart a fresh season.

Running through these quiet early months is a new collaborative project that pools 21 commercial art exhibitions from around the world, grouped under the name Galleries Curate (galleriescurate.com). Individual shows with a shared theme will overlap and open approximately one week apart between now and May — where possible in real life as well as online. The first series is based around water and called Rhe, from the Greek for that which flows.

Galleries Curate emerged out of an informal WhatsApp group of about a dozen contemporary art dealers helping each other out in the pandemic’s early months. Its opening exhibition is co-ordinated by Clément Delépine, co-director of the cutting-edge Paris Internationale art fair.

Rhe’s first show is at Jan Mot gallery in Brussels and is of works by Francis Alÿs (price range €30,000-€90,000), Giovanni Anselmo and the Moroccan-French artist Latifa Echakhch (until January 16). Coming later is a collaboration within a collaboration: London’s Sadie Coles, one of the founders of Galleries Curate, joins forces with Tanya Leighton in the latter’s Berlin gallery to present a group show called Tempest.

The specifics of the signed trade deal between the UK and the European Union have still to filter through to the art market, although there are concerns about additional duties and import VAT as free circulation within the zone comes to an end. Auction house executives say that business between the UK and EU is relatively small but, notes the art economist Clare McAndrew, the wider trade’s proportion of intra-EU sales could be as high as 25 per cent. “It’s a minority share for sure, but still important for some businesses that source and sell to and from Europe,” she says.

Details such as country of origin and exact points of sale will probably prove grey areas for some of the trade and there will certainly be more red tape. “We expect some disruption in the short term with moving artworks between the UK and the continent, as the shipping agents and customs authorities come to terms with the new paperwork required,” says Stefan Ratibor, director of Gagosian in London. David Preston, general manager of the logistics firm Crown Fine Art, reassures that “The more established fine art shippers are well set up to operate very quickly out of Europe and have been for a while.”

Systems in place include the ability to clear goods in their warehouses, rather than stopping at various borders, he says. The pinch points are still unknown though. “The proof of the pudding will be once the wheels of the market actually start turning again,” Preston says.

Ratibor remains hopeful. “We feel London is well placed to retain its position as a main hub for the art market in Europe,” he says.

Meanwhile, a report by ArtTactic shows that Hong Kong overtook London as the second-biggest auction centre in 2020, with a 23.2 per cent market share, up from 17.5 per cent in 2019. New York again topped the charts, accounting for 41.6 per cent of the total sales realised at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips last year, with London at 22.7 per cent. Pricey modern and contemporary works boosted business in Hong Kong, with three Chinese-French artists — Sanyu, Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun — accounting for 38.4 per cent of this category last year.

Auction sales by location (%)

The dramatic impact of Covid-19 meant that auction sales overall declined by 26 per cent to $7.4bn for the year, the report finds. Public sales fared worst at Christie’s — down 38.4 per cent for the year — with Sotheby’s and Phillips falling 14.4 and 11.8 per cent respectively. Sotheby’s grabbed the all-important top spot in market share, with 50.2 per cent of public sales.

Online-only auctions helped stem the flow and grew nearly six times in value from $168.2m to $1bn across the three auction houses last year. The average price paid online rose from $8,157 to $20,926. “The traditional price ceiling in the online art market has been broken,” the report finds.

The picture was similar outside of the three main international auction houses. At the Paris-founded Artcurial, which specialises in high-end cars as well as fine art, sales fell 26 per cent to €149.2m in 2020. Its top lot was a 1963 static steel sculpture by Alexander Calder that sold for €4.9m (with fees) in July. China Guardian reports that its autumn auction series fell 9.5 per cent on the previous year, although these were up 45 per cent on its spring sales.

Tate and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art are among the institutions that have bought works from an exhibition of the so-called “Gee’s Bend quiltmakers”, mounted in London’s Alison Jacques Gallery. The works, in their first dedicated show ever in Europe, were made by three generations of African American women from the remote Alabama River community of Gee’s Bend. “These quilts have got something to say, they are steeped in a rich history of fighting for the rights of a community,” Jacques says.

Tate has acquired three pieces from 1950 to 2003 and made by Aolar Carson Mosely (1912-99), her daughter Mary Lee Bendolph (b1935) and Annie Mae Young (b1928). LA Moca has bought a two-sided quilt from 1973 by Essie Bendolph Pettway (b1956), Mary Lee Bendolph’s daughter.

The exhibition of works by 12 artists, priced between $25,000 and $50,000, was organised in partnership with the non-profit Souls Grown Deep Foundation. It was only open for a few weeks in December, until London’s lockdowns struck, but Jacques says she hopes to extend the show. In the meantime, two of the artists participate in a virtual talk on January 19 and the works are on view at alisonjacquesgallery.com.

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