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October 16, 2007 > World's art collectors descend on London

World's art collectors descend on London

By Jill Lawless

LONDON (AP), Oct 12 _ Want to snap up a Francis Bacon, get your hands on a Damien Hirst or discover the next art world sensation? This week, London is the place to be.

As affluent art collectors descend on the British capital for a whirlwind of fairs, gallery shows and major auctions, some worry that the global credit crisis is cooling the boiling-hot art market.

``High-end modern and contemporary has been very hot for a number of years,'' Charles Dupplin, head of the art division at specialist insurer Hiscox, said Friday.

He cautioned that the current mood ``does feel quite a bit like the early '90s to me, when things did correct quite sharply.''

In October, London is the center of the global art world. This week both Christie's and Sotheby's auction houses are holding major sales of contemporary art that together could take in 150 million pounds (US$300 million; euro215 million).

Sotheby's on Friday was offering works by David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Hirst. On Sunday, Christie's is auctioning works by Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Peter Doig and Bacon, whose ``Study from the Human Body, Man Turning on the Light'' is expected to fetch 7 million to 9 million pounds (US$14 million to 18 million; euro10 million to 13 million).

Uptown is the Frieze Art Fair, a giant marketplace for contemporary art that has taken over London's Regent's Park until Sunday. Inside a temporary tent city are works by more than 1,000 artists, from Julian Opie's portraits of Kate Moss to Richard Prince's revolving Dodge sports car. With thousands of potential buyers on hand, sales could amount to 300 million pounds (US$600 million; euro430 million).

``October has totally been transformed in the last couple of years, thanks to the appearance of Frieze,'' said Pilar Ordovas, head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's. ``It has made London the most exciting place to be in October.''

The success of five-year-old Frieze has spawned smaller rivals with names like Zoo and the Free Art Fair, and the design fair, Design Art London.

Public collections and private galleries across the city were also showing off their best work for the international crowd. One night this week, the pocket-sized galleries in London's affluent Mayfair district heaved with well-dressed, well-heeled patrons sipping champagne and nibbling canapes while inspecting works by Opie, Louise Bourgeois, Gillian Ayres and a host of lesser-known artists. Prices ranged from hundreds to tens of thousands of pounds (dollars; euros).

``It's a bit nuts, really,'' said Ben Roberts, a photographer who is parking his mobile gallery _ a blue van lined with his work _ outside galleries throughout the week. ``I drove past Zoo and you could see the money, just from what people are wearing.''

For many of the global rich, modern art has become a must-have investment. Insurer Hiscox says the value of contemporary art sold at auction rose by 55 percent in the year to June. Sale-price records have tumbled with increasing frequency.

In August, Hirst's diamond-encrusted platinum skull ``For the Love of God'' sold to an investment group for an undisclosed sum widely reported at 50 million pounds (US$100 million; euro72 million). In June, Hirst's sculpture ``Lullaby Spring'' sold for 9.6 million pounds (US$19.5 million; euro13.8 million) _ a record at auction for a living artist.

A May sale at Sotheby's in New York broke the record for a postwar painting when Rothko's ``White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)'' sold for US$72.8 million (euro51.4 million).

Many of the buyers driving the sales frenzy have made fortunes in hedge funds and private equity. Others are from emerging markets like China and _ especially _ Russia. Last month Sotheby's called off a sale of works owned by the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich after Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought the whole 20 million pound (US$40 million; euro29 million) collection.

This week's sales are a test _ the first big international auctions since the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis rattled financial markets and sparked belt-tightening on Wall Street and in the City of London.

``The credit crunch might knock out quite a few of the financial services whizz kids, because bonuses are not up for most of them this year,'' Dupplin said.

Over the next few months, ``you could see the beginnings of a correction,'' he said.

Christie's Ordovas, however, remained confident.

``I think the results will speak for themselves,'' she said. ``The market is as strong as it has ever been.''

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