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Frieze London fair report: Bling is out, but big is back (though the prices are sober)

The fair drew the major collectors, its quota of celebrities and plenty of students. But the feel was calm, not frenzied

The frozen remains of a Roman art market at the entrance to the Frieze Art Fair was, thankfully, a work of imagination, courtesy of the Cartier-award winning artist Simon Fujiwara. The 173 international dealers inside the tent, meanwhile, were happy to report that the 2010 edition of the fair (14-17 October) showed rather more signs of life than its fictive predecessor.

Things got off to a good start at the upbeat vernissage on 13 October. While there were fewer Americans than in previous years—perhaps due to the weak dollar—“the important US collectors are here,” said dealer Iwan Wirth. The arrival of one in particular set tongues wagging: “It’s my first visit to the fair,” said hedge-funder Steve Cohen as he browsed the booths, chaperoned by advisor Sandy Heller. While other big-name Americans included Chicago’s Stefan Edlis and Miami’s Marty Margulies, the crowd was largely international. Hong Kong collector Richard Chang was seen browsing at White Cube, while Athens’s Dakis Joannou and Dimitris Daskalopoulos rubbed shoulders with UK collectors including Laurence Graff, David Roberts and Frank and Cheryl Cohen. Frieze’s hip reputation was bolstered by rockers including Keith Richards, Jarvis Cocker and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, along with supermodel Claudia Schiffer, who were all seen at the fair.

The celebrity presence, however, was the only thing smacking of boom-time bling. After the hysteria of the market acceleration, and subsequent depression, the mood this year was calm: gallerists were happy to report that things were simply ticking along. The lack of drama was borne out by the stand displays, which were more grown-up than previous years. Gone was the glitter associated with the market’s peak, when booths sagged under the weight of their dazzling baubles. “Galleries have adjusted their spaces and they look less overwhelmed. People are measuring and curating their stands to give them more breathing space,” said gallery owner Maureen Paley.

Bling may be out, but big is back, and bold displays proved popular. Galeria Fortes Vilaça brought an ambitious two-work booth which included the large-scale construction by Los Carpinteros, Reading Room, 2010, which sold to a European collector for E125,000.

Sadie Coles’ stand gained plaudits—winning best booth for her eye-catching display of works, including an Urs Fischer fireplace—and buyers, with sales including a 2010 Rudolf Stingel grey cloth abstract for $300,000.

London’s Ibid Gallery, showing at the fair for the first time, made a statement of intent with its pared-down booth of single, big works—a strategy that paid off: by 5pm on the opening day the gallery reported several sales including David Adamo’s Untitled, 2010, a large, splintered-bark sculpture that sold for £7,000 to a Belgian collector, who is building a private foundation, and Daniel Silver’s Smoking Silver Father Figures, 2010, the rather ominous-looking bronze work in the Frieze Sculpture Park, for £65,000 to an international collector.

“Sculpture is returning to the front row,” according to London and New York dealer Daniella Luxembourg, who added: “They used to be trickier to sell, and therefore were less expensive. Now that everyone is looking for quality in the art market, they may be giving sculpture a second chance.”

But, while works might be big, prices aren’t necessarily large-scale. Long March Space sold most of its stand of works by MadeIn, including the wall-hogging I Love You Passion Fruit Piece (Spread-BO53), 2010, to collector Guy Ullens, with an asking price of $35,000.

After a tough few years, the market seems to be settling. Big-ticket sales, however, were not the norm at Frieze, where the focus is on the primary market and average sales this year were under $100,000. There are, however, always some artists that can be relied upon to generate big-money headlines. Damien Hirst proved, yet again, to be the art world equivalent of Teflon when his large cabinet work, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 2006, sold at White Cube to a private Asian buyer for £3.5m.

Some things do change, however and, now in its eighth year, Frieze is attracting some fresh faces. “We are seeing new clients, particularly Russian and Middle Easterners based in London,” said Ales Ortuzar at David Zwirner gallery, while Scotland’s Richard Ingleby was delighted to report strong sales to “lots of new people”.

Eager to exploit the market for young collectors—and tapping into our cash-conscious times—Frieze encouraged dealers to upload works for offer onto a new iPhone application which allowed visitors to search for works available for less than £5,000. Uptake, while by no means comprehensive, was perhaps indicative more of dealer ambition than the market: only 337 works are listed for less than £5,000, while almost double that amount—587—are logged for sale over £5,000.

The next generation, meanwhile, proved eager to step up, though were more interested in browsing than buying. A record number of ticket sales—despite the whopping £25 price—saw hoards of teenagers traipsing the aisles. “There were almost as many VIPs as students,” joked one dealer as the fair closed, and the art world took flight for Fiac in Paris (see p82).