At the Sotheby’s contemporary art sale in London next week there are no million-pound Basquiats or £500,000 Hirsts – it is aimed at what it terms the lower end of the market, i.e. art under £20,000 and for as little as £200. It is the latest in a series of sales designed to attract buyers into the market.
One of the ploys used is to invite successful figures, from the world of fashion, for instance, to select works from the sale, printing interviews with them in the catalogue and making videos for the website.
This gives the sale added kudos and credibility with novice collectors who might be influenced by celebrity taste. Recent selectors, rather grandly called “guest curators” by Sotheby’s, have included Erdem Moralioglu, the fashion designer and Caroline Issa, Tank magazine fashion director, and Telegraph Luxury expert. Each one, according to Sotheby’s, introduces new clients to the company.
The next “guest curator” is Mark Hix, who owns a dozen restaurants, bars and a hotel between east London and Lyme Regis – all stuffed with art.
Hix knows a thing or two about art and food. After spending 17 years as chef director at Caprice Holdings – owner of the high-class, art-adorned restaurants Le Caprice and The Ivy – he saw how his employers, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, blended contemporary art into the gastronomic experience.
The art you looked at, in their case by Bridget Riley, Howard Hodgkin, Allen Jones and Peter Blake, was intended to be as stimulating as the food that you ate.
It’s an old formula that Hix traces back to the Parisian cafes of the early 20th century where artists gave pictures in exchange for food and drink. Think of Picasso and the Lapin Agile. Among the more famous recent art-loving UK restaurateurs is Peter Langan, first at Odin’s and then at Langan’s Brasserie, where Corbin achieved his breakthrough in catering.
Langan would often accept art as payment from those whose work he appreciated. After he died, in 1988, Christie’s sold more than 200 works from his collection by David Hockney, R B Kitaj, Patrick Procktor and others for around £2.5 million.
Another great art-loving restaurateur from that generation is Michael Chow, who opened his eponymous restaurant, Mr Chow, in London in 1968 and hung it with works by fashionable British artists of the day including Blake, Jones and Patrick Caulfield. The art, it was said, was as big a draw as the food, and, having mastered the relationship between art, fashion and food, Mr Chow has never looked back.
While working for Le Caprice, Hix, who lived in Shoreditch during the Nineties, became caught up with the blossoming of the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs). He bought art from them and socialised with them. Sometimes they would give him art in return for a spot of party catering.
By the time he set up on his own in 2008, they were successful enough to pay their restaurant bills. Hix’s restaurant displays read like a “who’s who” of the BritArt boom of the Nineties, from Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin to Mat Collishaw, Michael Landy and Tim Noble and Sue Webster.
When Sotheby’s approached him to guest curate a sale, and he agreed, it went out sourcing works by artists that it knew he liked and collected. If it hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been so sure what to select, he says. As it is, every work he has “curated” would look at home in one of his restaurants.
One is a photograph of Landy's Semi-detached, his exact replica of his parents' Essex house, which was installed in Tate Britain in 2004. (The photograph, which has a reserve of £7,000, is of Landy and his family, in front of the exhibit.)
Other works include a classic silhouette self-portrait using piles of rubbish and light projectors by Noble and Webster (£25,000), and a graphic painting of a fan by Michael Craig-Martin, the godfather of the YBAs (£6,000).
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
More expensive is Banksy’s spray-painted Smiling Copper (£30,000). Hix says he “apparently” met Banksy once, but never got to buy his work at the outset, which he regrets.
An unexpected choice is a sculpture by Lynn Chadwick, the Fifties British star (£70,000). The explanation is Hix’s friendship with the artist’s son, Dan, also an artist and part of the YBA set, whose country house is surrounded by his father’s majestic sculptures.
What is interesting is how Hix’s selection will perform in the unforgiving conditions of the auction room. The market for Chadwick is consistent, and currently booming for Banksy, but the YBAs have been going through an extended lull. Sotheby’s will be hoping that the Hix imprimatur can both bring new buyers in and reinvigorate the old ones.