Simon de Pury Reflects on Two Major Art Fairs Taking Place in the Midst of World Turmoil

The veteran auctioneer visits Frieze London and Paris + by Art Basel.

Visitors look at paintings during the Press Preview of the Exhibition Rothko at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris on October 17, 2023 in Paris, France. Photo by Luc Castel/GettyImages.

Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

It is that time in October when the traveling circus that is the art world first sets up its tent in London and then migrates en bloc to Paris, mostly by Eurostar.

With the war in Ukraine giving no signs of abating, massive earthquakes, innumerable fires and floods due to global warming, a new wave of Covid cases, high interest rates and the political discourse everywhere getting more and more polarized, the general mood going into these two weeks was not exactly rosy. Then on Saturday, October 7 the horrendous events in Israel plunged the world into the most dangerous state it has probably been since the Second World War. In the context of the events unfolding since, what is happening in the microcosm of the art world seems totally futile and irrelevant.

On October 10, PAD the small but fine fair devoted to art and design opened as in previous years in a marquee on London’s Berkeley Square. Its scale and the quality of its exhibitors always makes it a satisfying experience for the visitor. I love the beautiful large plane trees that were planted on the square in 1789, which are the oldest trees in Mayfair. The marquee for PAD always has to be built around them. They often look more beautiful than any of the pieces of furniture or sculptures exhibited next to them.

Les Enluminures, Frieze Masters 2023 Photo by Michael Adair. Courtesy of Frieze and Michael Adair.

Les Enluminures, Frieze Masters 2023
Photo by Michael Adair. Courtesy of Frieze and Michael Adair.

On the next day both Frieze London and Frieze Masters opened their doors at opposite ends of Regent’s Park. To make the walk between the two even more pleasant, there is Frieze Sculpture. To avoid the hoards of visitors competing to be the first to get into Frieze London that is entirely focusing on Contemporary Art I prefer to start at Frieze Masters. Seeing the vast differences in quality that the exact same amount of money allows you to buy whether you acquire old masters, Impressionists, modern art, postwar, contemporary art, Asian, African or European works of art, silver, porcelain, jewelry or ceramics always fascinates me. I love art from all eras, civilizations and regions and a visit through Frieze Masters gives you that feeling of time travel.

I loved in particular the booth of Luxembourg + Co. with its one man show devoted to the fascinating Katsumi Nakai, a Japanese artist who chose to live in Milano for a substantial part of his life. He became a friend a.o. of Lucio Fontana, Enrico Castellani and Agostino Bonalumi. You can actually unfold his unique works that are painted in primary colors. On the evening of the same day I attended “Dreamland Sirens,” the exhibition of super talented Charlotte Colbert at Fitzrovia Chapel. I had the pleasure to curate it together with UTA artist space. The combination of Charlotte Colbert’s work, the music composed for the occasion by Isobel Waller-Bridge and the special atmosphere of the hidden gem that is Fitzrovia Chapel, offered a welcome moment of respite and introspection in a time of unsettling news.

Luxembourg + Co, Frieze Masters 2023 Photo by Michael Adair. Courtesy of Frieze and Michael Adair.

Luxembourg + Co, Frieze Masters 2023
Photo by Michael Adair. Courtesy of Frieze and Michael Adair.

During the week Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips all held auctions and previewed some of the spectacular highlights of their upcoming New York sales. In terms of exhibitions, it was the extraordinary show devoted to Marina Abramovic at the Royal Academy which was mentioned most often.

On the weekend most gallery owners, curators, collectors and art lovers moved to Paris, temporarily transforming St. Pancras Station into a giant art world happening.

The choice of exhibitions to see in Paris this autumn is simply beyond sensational. The Nicolas de Staël exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris is breaking all attendance records of that institution. I was particularly struck by the color combinations and the beauty of the works done during the last two years before the untimely death of the artist. The Musée d’Orsay is exhibiting the deeply moving works done by Vincent van Gogh during his last months in Auvers-sur-Oise.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton just opened what promises to become the ultimate blockbuster this year, the largest retrospective devoted to Mark Rothko so far this century. Even in the age of Instagram nothing can convey anything near the spiritual experience that awaits you when you enter the rooms where one better work than the other is hung side by side. Finally the Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection shows Mike Kelley, “Ghost and Spirit.” Bizarrely the common denominator of these exhibitions is that all four artists died by suicide. In these days when we feel heavy sadness and helplessness, when parts of the world are already in a pre-apocalyptic stage, dark thoughts can make us fear that the collective suicide of humanity may not be that far off.

Yet it is precisely art that can bring about a better understanding between people and can lift us to the highest levels that a human can attain.

Applicat Prazan at Paris + by Art Basel. Courtesy of Paris+ by Art Basel.

Applicat Prazan at Paris + by Art Basel. Courtesy of Paris+ by Art Basel.

I am writing these lines after having spent most of the day at Paris + by Art Basel. It is taking place for the last time at its not so impressive premises before integrating the fully renovated stunning building of the Grand Palais in Olympic year 2024. By then it will probably have become the globally most important art fair, the one for which all exhibitors will hold back their most important works.

I was born in Basel and probably owe my passion for art to that fact. When I heard last year that Art Basel had acquired what used to be the FIAC I felt that they had just acquired what will overtake Art Basel in Basel as the world’s premier fair. The richness of what Paris is offering culturally coupled with the number of prime venues in the hospitality field whether it is hotels or restaurants is simply on a different scale. I am meant to leave Paris tomorrow and have only seen a fraction of the other sensational exhibitions taking place in the many museums and commercial galleries of the French capital.

Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi Courtesy of Paris+ par Art Basel

Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi. Courtesy of Paris+ par Art Basel.

Now does all of this mean that the art world does not care about the infinitely more important real world? Is it unable to look outside of its privileged bubble? I am not convinced. Every conversation I have had with colleagues, clients, artists, curators and collectors has focused on the deeply worrying global developments.

At the fair yesterday morning I had a coffee with Masha Isserlis, the super smart young curator of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. She is a Ukrainian Jew. I shared with her that having been super optimistic for most of my life, I felt that with the advent of social media, which should have brought the world closer together, the exact opposite had happened.  A Pandora’s box was opened and reawakened the worse demons of the 20th century. This led me to becoming for the first time quite pessimistic. She implored me to stay staunchly optimistic since with the way energy works and spreads our sole hope and solace will come from never giving up.

I have taken her advice to heart. Let’s focus our energy on empathy, soft power, positivity, love, compassion and tolerance.


Simon de Pury is the founder of de PURY, former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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