5 Standout Works, From Warhol to Banksy, at the Masterpiece Fair That Dodged a Brexit Bullet

Fair management could breathe a sigh of relief when the proposed Brexit date came and went without incident.

Phyllida Barlow's pom-pom installation at Masterpiece London 2019. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

It’s easy to forget that the UK’s outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May pledged that Britain would leave the European Union by June 30. But the managing director of Masterpiece London hasn’t forgotten. Lucie Kitchener sounded understandably relieved yesterday, as the fair opened to invited guests, that the deadline was pushed back to Halloween, and she did not have to cope with the Brexit fall-out.

The 10th anniversary edition of a fair that has always been a swellegant affair gets off to a riotously colorful start thanks to Phyllida Barlow’s bravura installation at the entrance. The artist’s big fabric pom-poms on stilts no doubt helped her works sell like hotcakes at Hauser & Wirth’s booth. The sole mega gallery on the exhibitor list chalked up 10 early sales, which included Luchita Hurtado’s Vertigo (1973), an abstract text painting priced at $285,000. Barlow’s recent solo shows at the Royal Academy of Arts and Hurtado’s at London’s Serpentine Galleries no doubt helped whet collectors’ appetites.

Other dealers arnet News spoke to had gotten off to a more sedate start. Martin Clist, the managing director of London’s Charles Ede gallery, said it had sold half a dozen small antiquities on the preview day. “Not enough to retire on,” he quipped.

Kitchener has been encouraging dealers to include the prices of works on wall labels so that casual buyers do not feel intimidated. In a first for the gallery, Hauser & Wirth has included them, up to a point. The price point is £100,000 ($127,000) or below. Anything above is price on request. Senior director Neil Wenman tells artnet News that the gallery wanted to make the booth approachable and buying easy for people, many of whom would probably never set foot in its Mayfair spaces.

Other contemporary galleries have followed a similar policy. The Edinburgh-based gallerists Florence and Richard Ingleby are making their Masterpiece London debut this year. Their elegantly installed booth includes a painting by Alison Watt from a series of canvases inspired by Ruben’s Venus Frigida (1614). The Scottish artist’s Iris (2014-15) is clearly priced £30,000 ($38,000), plus sales tax. Richard Ingleby says the downside to showing prices is that it can mean people do not ask any other questions about the booth. Florence Ingleby also says some collectors assume that seeing the price on a label is an invitation to ask for a discount. But Blain/Southern, which has two booths at the fair, one for Anthony Caro and the other for the Mexican artist Bosco Sodi’s work, has stuck to its guns. Gallery co-director Adrian Sutton said that when it included prices on Q-coded labels at a Shanghai fair, no one talked to them, they just snapped away on their smart phones. Worse, the gallery couldn’t get anyone’s contact details.

Masterpiece may be partly owned by the Swiss fair Art Basel’s parent company, MCH, but the fair retains its Maastricht TEFAF look and feel. There are seafood-and-champagne bars in the main aisle, and plenty of fine dining opportunities elsewhere. Floral designers have been busy.

Dealers we spoke to said that MCH’s financial stake has not made a noticeable difference in terms of management, which many praised for its friendliness. The Masterpiece brand’s expansion to Asia seems to have been scaled back, however. Kitchener is organizing a miniature version of Masterpiece in a “pavilion” with 24 exhibitors in Hong Kong during the Fine Art Asia fair in October. She says the “bat phone” to MCH in Basel has been very helpful both with Brexit and the situation in Hong Kong over the controversial extradition bill and the mass protests it sparked.

Back in London, it is business as usual in the big tent in the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital by the Thames. Here are our top five treats from the booths.

Roman Marble Venus, 2nd Century

Charles Ede

Photo by Javier Pes.

“You can have an Yves Klein [Venus] but this is the real McCoy,” says Martin Clist, the managing director of Charles Ede, about the second-century Roman marble sculpture that takes pride of place on its Masterpiece London booth. Expertly vetted by the 150-strong committee that checks all the dealers’ stands ahead of opening, this Venus is a particularly fine example of the goddess emerging from the sea. Look closely on the back of her amputated leg, and you’ll see where a dolphin once supported the statue. From a French private collection since the 1950s, it is on offer for £380,000 ($482,000).

Max Ernst, La Forêt (1925)

Die Galerie

Courtesy of Die Galerie, Masterpiece London 2019.

Max Ernst’s 1925 painting brought German Romanticism into the 20th century. The Dada pioneer was in the right place at the right time to become a pioneer Surrealist. Painted in Paris, La Forêt dates from the time when the ink was still fresh in André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto. This early canvas from one of Ernst’s most creative periods is on offer for £348,000 ($440,000). Thyra Mecklenburg-Solodkoff of the Frankfurt-based Die Galerie, says it has returned to Masterpiece even though its debut year at the fair in 2018 “was not that good.” Ernst also had mixed fortunes in the British capital. He met and fell in love with Leonora Carrington at a dinner party, but they had to flee when her wealthy family learned she was the mistress of the German-born artist. The rest is Surrealist history.

Andy Warhol, Pentagon with Virtues (1980)

Long-Sharp Gallery 

Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Long-Sharp Gallery, Masterpiece 2019.

Who knew Andy Warhol was in to pentagrams? This graphite drawing from the artist’s estate is on offer at Long-Sharp Gallery for $35,000. The Indianapolis gallery and Masterpiece London stalwart always brings Warhol treats but this curious diagram is in a league of its own. Is it a peace-nik subversion of the Pentagon the year before Ronald Reagan arrived at the White House riding into town with a so-called moral majority? Warhol was nothing if not plugged in to the zeitgeist. Gallerist Nicole Sharp says that so far her researcher has drawn a blank as to why Warhol created this work although she thinks the misspelling of “Strenght” could have been a deliberate nod to human flaws and frailty.

Luchita Hurtado, Vertigo (1973)

Hauser & Wirth 

Copyright Luchita Hurtado, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Luchita Hurtado included Vertigo in the solo exhibition she organized at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles in 1974. The abstract geometric and text painting includes the elements—air, fire, water, and earth—on the outside circle. Look closer at the center and you can just make out the word “Abyss.” There is a terrific photograph of the artist posing in front of her power canvas, which forms a halo around her head. The work sums up the many sides of the Venezuela-born, US-based veteran artist, who is a painter, poet, ecologist, feminist, and activist. Priced at at $285,000, it was snapped up on the preview day.

Banksy, Kissing Coppers (ca. 2005)

Geoffrey Diner Gallery

Photo by Javier Pes

Expertly vetted and with a copper-bottomed provenance, Banksy’s spraypainted kissing policeman is not authenticated by the artist or his company Pest Control. (No surprise there.) It was sold by the Brighton publican who was able to revamp the Prince Albert with the proceeds of selling the piece of street art on its wall. The work is now owned by Geoffrey and Maureen Diner. They tell artnet News that it is on sale “to the right buyer upon application.” The gallerists, who are based in Washington, DC, have also offered to contribute a percentage of the proceeds “to a charity of the artist’s choice.” So far, it’s been radio silence from Pest Control. (Again, no surprise.) Seeing the work has left a few visitors familiar with Brighton on the south coast of England scratching their head. They thought it was still there. In fact, the one in Brighton is a replica Banksy. Protected by Plexiglass, many tourists and locals assume it’s the original.

Masterpiece London, June 26 through July 3, Royal Hospital Chelsea, London. 

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