Greeks buying gifts
Nov 1st 2008
Can regional auctions buck market trends?
SOTHEBY’S held its first Greek sale in 2001. It was part of an auction-house-inspired trend of sales dedicated to particular countries or regions, such as Scandinavia, Arabia and Iran, and South Africa—add-ons to the traditional Old Master and Modern and Contemporary sales. Regional-sale buyers shared a taste for the work of local artists and the money to satisfy it. Since 2001 Sotheby’s has sold £50m ($82.4m) worth of Greek art, and Constantine Frangos, Sotheby’s Greek specialist, explains why: “Seeing them sold on the international market, they feel more confident in their own artists.” A large majority of the bidders at the Greek sales are Greek or of Greek descent; Sotheby’s hopes they spend around £8.5m.
Interest in Greek art has become strong enough to support two London sales early in November, starting with 169 lots at Bonhams and moving on to Sotheby’s 201 lots the next day. But you don’t have to like Greek art to be curious about the outcome. Some markets continue to do well during a downturn, and these sales might show whether dedicated nation sales can buck the trend of falling prices in the Modern and Contemporary departments.
Greek art before the 19th century mainly consisted of icons; gradually it connected with the European mainstream. Families in Athens and Piraeus bought the work of local painters, and tended to hold on to it. Some of the most sought-after paintings in these sales have not been seen for decades. “Greek collectors tend to be private,” explains Mr Frangos. His highest hopes in the Sotheby’s sale rest on a painting that has not been seen since it was bought from the artist in the 1880s.
Constantinos Volanakis grew up in Piraeus, where his father was in shipping. When he showed a talent for painting he was shipped off to art school in Munich. Volanakis was destined to be a marine painter, and he combined his experience of the sea and ships with Greek nationalism. The main lot is a large narrative painting titled “The Arrival of Karaiskakis at Faliro”—a critical moment in Greece’s war of independence in 1827. Paintings like this are more satisfying to national pride than artistic genius, but they can be compelling.
Mr Frangos, who says he has had his eye on this Volanakis (“the property of a lady, Athens”) for a long time, was so certain of a sale to a Greek buyer that he did not exhibit it in London. It went on show in Athens instead. Sotheby’s estimate is £1.5m-2m, and if it fetches a little more than half the lower estimate, it will beat the previous record for a Greek 19th century painting at auction (£769,000 in November 2006 for a Nikiforos Lytros).
There are six more paintings by Volanakis at Sotheby’s and three at Bonhams, who are fondest of a family group by Dimitri Galanis, which attracts their top estimate of £200,000-300,000. This was painted in Paris in the 1920s, when many of the Greek painters whose work is being sold lived abroad, in France, Germany, Austria and Denmark.
No less than seven paintings by Alecos Fassianos dominate the Modernists, but Bonhams have sneaked in an Andy Warhol, presumably because his subject was a Greek named Alexander. Bonhams’ crowd-pleaser is Presidential Rolls Royce, a black Silver Shadow built in 1971, one owner, yours for £100,000-200,000.
Darker shadows hang over both sales: the gravy days in the Greek shipping business look to be over. “The current economic climate leaves a big question mark,” says Julian Roup, Bonhams’ spokesman. “We’re still optimistic that markets like this will hold up, but it would be a brave man who made predictions. We’ll have to watch this space.”
Bonhams’ Greek sale is on November 10th at New Bond Street. Sotheby’s sale is on November 11th, also in New Bond Street.