What a difference a decade makes. Given the buzz surrounding London as an international art hub, one that encroaches on New York’s hegemony, it is a bit of a shock to recall that, as recently as the early woos, there was no such lively scene to speak of. “People don’t remember that London didn’t have a dedicated contemporary art museum,” says Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts, who was a managing director of Lisson Gallery from 199 6 to 2005. “In the U.K., there was no intrinsic belief in contemporary art.” That’s not to say there was no demand: Rumor has it that when Tate Modern opened in woo, the fledgling institution ran out of toilet paper in its early days, attendance having far outstripped expectations.
“We were hesitant to do a fair in London initially because everyone always said to us it wasn’t a destination city for art,” says Amanda Sharp, cofounder, with Matthew Slotover, of both Frieze magazine and the eponymous fair that takes over Regent’s Park with its signature white tent every October. The tide turned, she says, the evening of the Tate Modern opening in May woo: “I realized that if you did something that was a spectacle and had scale, people would definitely travel for it.” She and Slotover launched their fair in 2003, and within two years the major auctioneers were organizing a new series of contemporary art sales to coincide with the annual influx of buyers.The first October contemporary sale at Christie’s London, in 2.005, took in £5,987,200 ($10.6 million). Last October the house brought in £27,788,900 ( $44.9 million), and Sotheby’s realized £21,459,000 ($34.3 million).
Today, the combination of a globalizing market, friendly tax policies, and a scene that offers everything from Old Masters to cutting-edge contemporary has made London the highest common denominator for dealers and collectors alike. International galleries have invaded the posh neighborhoods of Mayfair and St. James’s, as well as the less established Fitzrovia in Central London, to open ambitious spaces and cater to the growing traffic of art collectors passing through the city. According to the London Luxury Quarter, a service that tracks retail real estate in the city, as of September 2003 there were 89 art galleries occupying some I65,000 square feet of space in the compact network of 42 streets spanning Mayfair, St James’s, and Savile Row alone.
Cork Street, of course, has long been a bastion of dealers devoted to 20th-century British art and older genres, enfolding in its environs Pyms Gallery, Gimpel Fils, Karsten Schubert, and Richard Green. The original guard of contemporary galleries—Anthony d’Offay,White Cube. Sadie Coles, Victoria Miro, Maureen Paley—enjoyed a galvanizing decade in the 1990s as purveyors of such YBAs as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Chris Ofili. But Iwan Wirth, a principal of the global juggernaut Hauser & Wirth, with multiple bases in Zurich, NewYork, and soon Somerset and Los Angeles, made his the first international gallery to move to Mayfair in 2003, opening in a 19th century converted bank with a splashy show by Paul McCarthy that utilized the building’s basement vaults as a nasty mise-en-scene for the artist’s figures.
“With that show, we might have changed the rules,” sari the dealer, ” and we did it again in 2000 when we opened our Savile Row location with Louise Bourgeois.”The reasoning behind the move? “We think London is the most international city in Europe and the most interesting in terms of collectors,” says Wirth. “The museum landscape is unique here, with so many institutions working on the highest level, and the press is hugely interested in the cultural industry. Back in 2003 it was still pretty much a blank canvas, and much has changed since then.”
Many others have followed suit. Pace president Marc Glimcher says it was not a question of whether the 5 4-year-old American gallery would make the leap. “It was more like, what took us so long ?” He leased a modest office on Lexington Street in Soho and, after a hunt, unveiled a decidedly massive operation on Burlington Gardens that opened in September wiz, taking up the back side of the Royal Academy of Arts in Mayfair (once occupied by Haunch ofVenison). As proof of the soundness of the decision, Glimcher says that in the first six months of operation, ” there was no crossover” with his New York buyers. “Every client was a client new to Pace.”
“Our artists wanted to show their work in that art community,” notes Glimcher. His U.K.-born director, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst—who brought Hirst to Gagosian and New York in 1996—may have had something to do with it too. “Unless you have a gallery in London, you can’t have access to those incredibly talented people who live there,” Glimcher says. “They have relationships with artists, collectors, museums, and curators that you can’t have if you’re living in NewYork.”
Some note that the gallery culture in London is different .om what one finds in America. “It’s a much smaller pool,” tys Angela Choon, a senior partner at David Zwirner who Loved from New York to develop the Grafton Street space, [ an 18th-century town house renovated by Selldorf Architects, which opened in October 2002. “It’s cyclical ld not as frenzied as New York. People don’t rush to the Dening. They want to take their time, look at the work. hey want to be able to understand it and really have a dialogue about it. In New York, people come, they look and ok how much is it, negotiate, and it’s done.” And while her Illery has prospered, she adds,”You can’t expect a New York kind of activity here.”
A home-court advantage was noted by the Istanbul dealer Yeşim Turanli of Pi Artworks, who opened her street level space on Eastcastle Street between Pilar Corrias and Carroll/Fletcher in October 2013, becoming the first Turkish gallery in London.
“What I’ve been realizing in the past five years is that all my clients are somehow passing through or living or virtially living in London,” she says. Turanli says she considered other markets, like Dubai and Hong Kong,” but ‘eh like everything was crossing over from London.” She says her first six months of U.K. operations “has proved me” and expressed satisfaction with the foot traffic, citing event called Fitzrovia Lates, which takes place on the last thursday of the month, when 2.7 of the neighborhood’s -plus galleries open their doors for evening tours and social events. “I am very happy to be in this part of it,” says Turanli.
Not everyone buys the hype.”People think it’s all rosy in London,” says Bernard Jacobson, the seasoned Cork Street dealer who also maintains a gallery in New York’s Upper East Side,” but I still thinks the main art ticket is New York. The English don’t really buy art and don’t really like art and they don’t get.” It’s not just access to a diversified buyer base that dealers after, but also inventory. Offering a major London show an artist who is shared among galleries can lock in dealers—and profits. “It’s the quest for an investment in artists who generate income for them,” said Glenn Scott Wright, a co-director at Victoria Miro, which opened a second London venue in Mayfair on St. George Street last October with Yayoi Kusama’s white “Infinity Net” paintings. Wright points to Zwirner’s debut, with work by Luc Tuymans, and the Marian Goodman Gallery outpost coming this fall in Golden Square, where the dealer’s opening salvo is a solo show by Gerhard Richter. “It’s a no-brainer,” says Wright. “If you get a big show out of a star artist to open your new space, you can finance the gallery for a long time without needing to sell another thing.”
London is also well suited for galleries specializing in the secondary market, such as Luxembourg & Dayan and Ordovas on Savile Row, and Eykyn Maclean on St. George Street near Christie’s Mayfair, used for private exhibitions, and Si, the gallery space run by Sotheby’s, which has beefed up its slate of shows this year. Daniella Luxembourg points out that her dual locations are a boon both for consignments and for visibility: “We source a lot of material from Europe, so it gives us better access being [in London], close to the people who want to sell and those who want to buy.” After the charmingly esoteric recent exhibition “A Not So Still Life: Naked Portraits by Lucian Freud,” which also included single works by Marcel Duchamp, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and the underappreciated Neue Sachlichkeit artist Eugen Knaus, the gallery is doubling its space.
Aside from access to deep-pocketed international buyers from countries with long-standing ties to the Commonwealth, Luxembourg raises another very important reason that London is king for moneyed dealers and buyers. “The government here is not interfering in the economic structure of the citizens,” she notes. “Having this respect and support is a very important factor in making it the capital of markets.”
Especially for so-called non-domiciled individuals—or “non-doms”—who claim permanent residence outside the United Kingdom, the advantages are considerable. Instead of being taxed on worldwide yearly income, levies apply only to the amount of cash or property that is brought into country during the tax year. Gains from overseas investments and income that does not enter the U.K. are out of the tax collector’s reach (not so in the United States, where citizens are taxed on worldwide gains no matter where they reside). But since 2008, non-doms have been required to pay a levy of £30,000 ($50,000) if they have called the U.K. their primary residence for seven out of the previous nine years, and £50,000 ($84,100) for those who have lived there for at least 12 of the last 14 years—still less than what one might pay in buyer’s premium for £900,000 ($841,000) artwork at auction. London also has the advantage of a slimmer import tax, or value added tax (VAT}—currently pegged at 5 percent—than does the rest of Europe, where the standard VAT is 18 to 20 percent.
“London is pretty impressive these days,” says Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the London-based Fine Art Fund Group, which manages $300 million in assets for its global members. “Whatever deals are going on in New York, you can pretty well access through London, and there’s fantastic activity going on here.The Chinese and Russians prefer it and are buying homes.” According to property advisers JLL, Russian and Ukrainian buyers spent approximately 8o million ($303 million) in the London housing market in 20’3. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee counts 852. Russian and Chinese millionaires who have invested £i million ($1.7 million) in exchange for residency rights since 2008.
London, site of the Great Exhibition with the famous Crystal Palace, is also attracting temporary visitors with a slate of art fairs throughout the calendar year. In 2012 Sharp and Slot over added Frieze Masters, mingling blue-chip modern and antique pieces from 130 international galleries, to their October dates. The following spring saw the launch of the Citi Private Bank-initiated Art 13 fair of emerging-market galleries, held in early March at the Olympia Grand exhibition hall in West London. This month marks the fifth editions of both the luxury lifestyle-minded Masterpiece London Art, Antiques, and Design fair on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea; and Pinta, the modern and contemporary Latin American fair at Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre.
In the auction arena as well, London is returning to center stage, a position it last occupied in the late 1980’s during the Impressionist art bubble driven by the Japanese. Houses are sprinkling their big hits on both sides of the Atlantic. In February, Christie’s London sold Juan Gris’s Cubist masterwork Nature morte a la nappe a carreaux, 1915, for a record £34,802,500 ( $56.9 million ),and Sotheby’s sold Camille Pissarro’s rare and restituted Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinee de printemps, 1897, fora record £19,682,500 ($32.1 million). That same month in the contemporary evening sales, Sotheby’s sold a fresh-to-market 1964 Cy Twombly, Untitled (Rome), for £12,178,500 ($20 million), an auction record for a Twombly painting, and Christie’s sold Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Talking, 19 for £42,194,500 ($70 million)—the most expensive contemporary artwork sold at auction in Europe.
Phillips has struggled for years at its state-of-the-art facility at Howick Place in a problematic (read: rather far from Claridge’s) location near Victoria, but that is soon to change. Mercury Group, the house’s Russian owner, has sunk $16o million into a 52,000-square-foot refurb on Berkeley Square in the heart of Mayfair that is expected to open next year. Prospects leaped further this spring with the announcement that Edward Dolman, the British former chief executive of Christie’s and most recently chairman of the Qatar Museums Authority, would take the helm at Phillips this summer as chairman and chief executive.
Not to be outdone, Bonhams, the striving Georgian-era house that has lately found success with vintage race cars, Old Master pictures, and jewelry, has revved up its own profile on New Bond Street with a recently completed £30 million refurbishment of its headquarters. Offering more frequent sales than any of its larger rivals, via a secondary salesroom in Knightsbridge (plus three others throughout the country), the firm realized its best result ever for a single lot with Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 18th-century “fantasy” portrait of Francois-Henri, the fifth Duc d’Harcourt, when it went for £46,035,000 ($27.9 million) in December.
“London has become a global hub,” says Francis Outred, head of postwar and contemporary art for Christie’s Europe,” not just for all the expected nationalities—the Russians and Middle Easterners—but also [for] a lot of the Europeans now coming from where the local economies are struggling.” He mentions Portugal. Spain, Italy, Greece, and even France in the wake of the election of the Socialist Francois Hollande. He adds,”My feeling is, the balance between New York and London is about to attain equilibrium again after being slightly distorted over the past one-and-a-half to two years. The big question is, will you be able to attract enough of the global buyers to your city for your sale?”
The answer certainly appeared to be in the affirmative at Sotheby’s London contemporary evening sale last June, which drew buyers from 7 5 countries. According to Cheyenne Westphal, co-world head of Sotheby’s contemporary art,”We always used to say that in London, we’ve got Asia, we’ve got the Middle East, we’ve got Russia. But what we’ve seen recently is an increasing number of South American buyers. In our October 2013 Frieze sales, we had a huge influx, and six works sold to clients from Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina.” In London, adds the German-born Westphal,”You never get treated as a foreigner. You’re part of London, and that’s a very good feeling.”