The gentle awakening of a European pearl
Eastern Europe tiptoed its way confidently into the art market, but without ruffling feathers. The market is non-aggressive, with a softer persona compared to other emerging, even fully-emerged, markets, notably Chinese and Russian.
For example, rather than mind-boggling prices there is a reassuring progression. It is a soft approach appropriate for an area that did not suffer the isolation endured by other emerging countries just beyond the former iron curtain. Over time, Warsaw, Cracow, Prague or Budapest have kept a vibrant, although submerged, level of cultural activity, which has benefited from the international influx of the last quarter-century.
It is fair to say that the works of Czech artists are certainly not overcrowding the auction houses, but when they do turn up, they dominate the competition. Examples are Jakub Schikaneder’s painting ‘A Street Corner in Prague’, which sold at Sotheby’s for a record CHF 385,000 (US$ 410,000). Another painting with a Prague motif by the same artist was auctioned off by the Stockholms Auktionsverk auction house: ‘Night in the Harbour’ from 1896 sold for CHF 82,470 ($88,000), about triple the estimated price. Furthermore, ‘A Portrait Au Chapeau Rouge’ by František Kupka, the most expensive Czech artist, was auctioned off by Grisebach for CHF 377,000 (US$ 400,000), about twice the estimated price. One of the most important events in recent times was the auction of four paintings from the early 1960s by Josef Šíma, offered by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Paris. All four paintings sold for prices ranging from CHF 278,000 (US$ 295,000) and CHF 400,000 (US$ 425,000) each.
Over the past ten years art sales have seen nearly unprecedented growth. Having little connection to the fluctuations of the stock market, art has become an intriguing investment. Consequently, even the Czech Republic now has an art fund called The Pro Arte Fund, supervised by the Czech National Bank and managed by the investment company Avant. The fund’s aim is to invest specifically in paintings and sculptures from the early 20th century. Over its three-year existence, the fund has acquired over 200 pieces, starting with CHF 4 million in capital; its value now stands at CHF 5.5. The fund buys mostly from foreign galleries and auction houses and, often, directly from the artists.
Of course, not all bids made in foreign countries are successful. For example, because of the excessively high prices for Czech standards, the Pro Arte Fund was unable to buy Kupka’s Portrait ‘Au Chapeau Rouge’. The Fund’s underlying ethos is the desire for a dynamic market.
Speaking to Jan Skřivánek, editor in chief of the specialized magazine Art Plus, Pro Arte Fund Director Pavel Chalupa says that, “All works owned by the fund are primarily for sale. We don’t want to keep them in storage.
We want to work with them further, appreciate them, put them on show, loan them, give them some life and send them out into the world.
We have works for which entire books could be written and that could easily hang in the National Gallery”.
Has the Czech art market changed since the 2008 crisis? The reality is that the art market is one of the few sectors to actually have benefitted from it, at least partially.
Mária Gálová, director of the Dorotheum auction house since 2002, says that “Many affluent people, whose confidence in financial products was shattered, now constitute a new group of buyers looking for an alternative. Higher demand for quality artwork, mostly paintings, has resulted in higher, often record-high prices, which have, of course, positively affected the overall turnover. On the other hand, the crisis adversely affected the medium- and lower-price categories. Many of those who used to indulge in buying art for pleasure have relegated it to the category of non-essential needs, and have stopped buying, at least for the time being”.
In actual fact, 1989 was a watershed year for the country, particularly for Prague. A precious pearl right in the heart of Europe, Prague is exciting, buzzing and exudes vitality. However, for decades it lay silent beyond the iron curtain. It needed the fall of communism and the rise of capitalism to bring it back to life. Since 1989, the city has asserted itself by reviving the color and energy it had lost. Petr Kucera, Czech architect who for the past three years has co-owned the Kvalitar multifunctional Jiri concept store, says that, “during Communism, only a small community of artists had access to infrastructure. Since 1989, even the most outcast of artists has been able to find a spotlight”.
The year 1989 was the start of a new era. Camille Hunt, together with Katherine Kastner, owns Hunt Kastner Artworks, a niche art gallery specializing in contemporary works, with the objective of promoting budding artists. “Before 1989, there were very few possibilities to legally exhibit or sell works of art,” she says. “Only a restricted elite could access certain services, and this excluded the great artists. Indeed, the great artists were outsiders. There were some underground exhibitions and active groups of artists, but these certainly had no commercial viability.”
Prague is a cultural centre of breath-taking beauty, seemingly born to inspire art. But what does it really offer a young artist? One young artist, NataliePerkof, who was only a nine-year old girl in 1989, says with no uncertainty that, “In the past 10 years, Prague has seen the birth of many art galleries, some of which are referenced and active in backing young talent, even financially. The most active art galleries and auction houses are those that benefit from financial backing of blue chips such as PPF Group, FIM Group, and CPI Property Group.
Camille Hunt believes that “in addition to being a beautiful and inspiring city, its relatively small size might be an advantage for young artists who want to immerse themselves in the local art scene, meet other artists etc.…”. However, Prague can neither be compared to places such as Berlin in terms of the intertwining flow of artists nor the Berlin model as a whole. Hunt explains: “It is still a growing reality. There is a high concentration of talented artists but, in terms of infrastructure, there is still much to do. The market for contemporary art has only recently taken off, so there are still very few high-profile galleries. Sadly, these are outnumbered by the more commercial galleries that are only really there to attract tourists.”
Kucera doesn’t mince words. “The touristy galleries sell substandard works at irrelevant prices and destroy the reputation of Czech art. Czech art has so much to offer, but it needs to be understood and sustained, adequately divulged. Generally, the big galleries are not placed strategically throughout the city, which is in itself worth considering.” So, how does one move in this labyrinth of galleries and, above all, works of art? An art index has been published to help collectors find their way. Determining the value of a piece can be difficult, but the index monitors an artist’s career and establishes his degree of success. The top spot in this index is currently held by Jiří Kovanda, followed by Kateřina Šedá, and Eva Koťátková. It is worth noting that of the 100 artists ranked, 70 are not yet in their fifties. The best-selling artist is Václav Špála, followed closely by Emil Filla.
Prague is a treasure trove of precious art and culture. It maintains its fashionable air of old-Europe, especially in the eyes of the United States and the East. It has now become an object of pilgrimage (or, as some would say, touristic invasion). The touristic success of this city, the city of Wenceslas, Charles and Rudolf, is overwhelming, with crowds of visitors filling its lanes and squares. Ultimately, Prague endures what it cannot cure, so it counters this high demand with a diversified range of supply. There is the pop-Prague, which sells its soul to the tourism devil and the more puritan Prague that resists such temptation and, on the contrary, seeks higher standards, such as those of the nearby Vienna, Saltsburg, or Dresden. The city continues to tread carefully and make the best of what it has to offer.
Article by Piera Anna Franini