‘It’s anthropology,’ said my New York friend over for Frieze Week in London.
‘What do you mean?’ I responded.
‘We’re observing a certain breed in their environment.’
‘And isn’t it fascinating?’ I said.
We were strolling around Frieze Masters, the grown-up cousin to Frieze London. A Murillo hung in a booth abutting Rothkos, Freuds, Giacomettis and an exquisite corner dedicated to Matisse. This is where the greats (or at least the tried and tested in the market) are on display this week in London; the newcomers, the à la mode are in the tent next door, and who knows what their legacy will be.
The real enjoyment came in the observation of who came to these fairs to actually look at the art: who were the genuine collectors? Who were the social surfers just interested in riding the crest of the art wave? Who were there to pose and be seen? And who were there, shockingly, to really look at the art?
As a bronzed Valentino and his companion Giancarlo Giammetti walked past (pictured below), I wondered what this symphony of champagne-flute-clinking served. It is, without doubt, about social mobility and being a player in the global market, with the added bonus that if you’re smart you are acquiring a rising asset.
The rich don’t waste their time with futile investments. A G5 private jet may go down in value but it serves a purpose while doing so, whereas a work of art hangs on your wall, and while it may give pleasure to those who own it and their guests who see it, its primary purpose for most buyers is to increase in value.
It’s not dissimilar to those who invest in the high-end property market in London. If you wander around Belgravia and Knightsbridge you’ll notice that very few lights are on – and that’s because no one lives in these properties. And so they are holding vessels, a useful place for international money to park their money and watch prices increase by up to 10 per cent per annum. That’s not a bad return, particularly if you can spend four to six weeks per year using and enjoying these bolt holes.
The globalisation of London as an uber-wealthy capital benefits some, particularly if you’re a believer in the Adam Smith trickle-down theorem – but in other ways it has created a schism and the possibility that London will, in time, only become a city accessible to the extremely wealthy.
As I walked around this show of extraordinary art, it made me think that shouldn’t happen, for we live in a great city, so desirable in so many ways – above and beyond being a global financial centre. Beauty is accessible for all in our national galleries and the parks. We have world-class restaurants, theatre and culture galore. The much-maligned climate is moderate compared to, say, Moscow.
And we have liberty – the freedom to express our thoughts and emotions and sing them out loudly. Art is an aspiration to beauty and that’s what our capital is full of.