Founder eyes tough economy as Frieze art fair nears

LONDON Thu Sep 29, 2011 11:38am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - Frieze Art Fair has quickly become a key event on the art market calendar, drawing the world's top collectors to London each October for a hectic round of viewing, partying and buying.

So far so good. But, in a replay of 2008, the event this year comes hard on the heels of major economic upheaval, clouding the outlook for a week that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

Three years ago it was the Lehman Brothers collapse just before Frieze that put a dampener on proceedings in the giant marquee erected in Regent's Park.

In 2011 it is Europe and America's debt crises and tumbling stock markets that threaten to temper buyer enthusiasm for contemporary works costing from hundreds to millions of dollars.

"It's certainly not unaffected," said Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover, when asked whether broader economic concerns could spread to the art market.

"I think it would be inaccurate to say it has no effect," he told Reuters in an interview this week to discuss this year's October 13-16 fair.

"Our 2008 fair was three weeks after Lehman collapsed, the worst possible time, and I think sales were lower that year than previous years, so of course it had an effect.

"But actually 2009 was quite a good year and 2010 was a better year and so it did come back pretty quickly and very few galleries went under."

While Frieze does not publicize how much art its participating galleries sell each year, more easily trackable auctions showed a slump in volumes and equally rapid recovery.

"The prediction at that point was, okay, there's been this huge boom for the last seven years, uninterrupted, half the galleries are not going to be here next year. It just didn't happen."

More than 170 galleries will be present at this year's Frieze, a cross between a giant marketplace and museum where tens of thousands of people come to look, and, in a small number of cases, buy.

Next year the brand spreads to New York and into the realm of older art with Frieze Masters to be held in London at the same time as the main fair.

Slotover, who with Amanda Sharp set up Frieze Art Fair in 2003 and quickly became one of the art world's most powerful figures, said 2011 could be the "highest quality fair ever.

"The number of solo stands at fairs is often a bellwether because you have to think in advance to do those. Because we've got more of those than ever before, it's a sign that people are taking it more and more seriously."

In terms of business, Slotover said the art market tended to lag behind stocks and bonds, meaning most of the work on Frieze 2011 was done long before recent market volatility.

"It (art) is something tangible and real, and in an age where people are losing faith in paper money, in currencies and in equities, it's one of those assets that people feel, well, at least I've got this actual thing."

He said unlike stocks and property people do not tend to borrow money to buy art.

"If you've still got cash after everything else, that's when you buy art. Imagine if no one had borrowed money to buy property -- there would have been no crash."

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)

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