Post-Brexit, the British aren’t buying big ticket art

New York - As the pound dropped to levels unseen since the mid-1980s, a line of several hundred people snaked out of London’s Frieze Art Fair minutes before the VIP opening on Wednesday. Overheard were French, German, and American speakers, but British accents were few and far between.

“We’ve had interest from quite a few Americans and a few Europeans,” said Angela Westwater, whose gallery, Sperone Westwater, had a booth in the main fair. “No British so far.”

As the first day of Frieze came to a close and dealers inside the fair tent in Regent’s Park began to take stock, it became increasingly clear that English art buyers were not coming out in force.

“They’re not buying,” said the dealer Cornelia Grassi, whose London gallery, Greengrassi, also had a booth in Frieze’s main tent. “But that’s not a new situation,” she added.

“We sell to people who mostly live abroad, or people who aren’t British nationals who live in England.”

A 15-minute walk away in the Frieze Masters tent, where decibel levels were lower and prices higher, Christophe Van de Weghe, a New York dealer, stood in front of a $6.9m painting by Roy Lichtenstein depicting Donald Duck with dollar-signs in his eyes. “People are buying a lot,” he said.

 “But mostly Americans, Europeans, and Asians.” Everything in his booth, he said, was priced in dollars. “I’m a New York gallery so I price in dollars, but you know the art market is all in dollars, so it doesn’t affect us.”

Of course, some art is priced in pounds, but dealers have found ways to balance major fluctuations. “We price things in the same currency that the artist receives the money,” said Grassi, the London dealer.

“Any [artist] who lives in America, we quote dollars, and any artist who lives in England, we quote pounds.”

Still, Grassi has a fall back if one of those currencies plummets: past precedent. Two sculptures in her booth by the British artist David Musgrave were priced at $15 000 and $18 000, respectively, and come in editions of three.

One of those editions had sold already in the US at New York's Luhring Augustine Gallery, “so we convert from pounds to that amount,” she said. “There’s a precedent.”

Some of the fair’s biggest galleries also priced works in a mishmash of pounds, dollars, and euros. At David Zwirner’s Frieze booth (it had booths at both the Frieze and Frieze Masters tents), where a bright blue metal sculpture by Carol Bove had sold for $375 000, most of the works were priced in dollars while a few were in pounds.

At Hauser and Wirth’s Frieze Masters booth (it also had installations at both locations), where a small stabile by Alexander Calder sold for $600 000, there was a mixture of pounds, dollars, and euros.

Overall, the first day of the fair was busy but lacking in the kind of heady frenzy of years past. “People don’t run into galleries anymore saying, ‘I want this, I want that,” said Daniel Wichelhaus, whose Berlin gallery, Société, was in the fair’s Focus section for smaller, up-and-coming galleries.

“It’s gotten a bit back to normal, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily.”

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