Pop Culture

What Does the Future Hold for Frieze?

The VIP hour of Frieze New York opened last Wednesday morning, with the normal crush of advisers and billionaires and art-adjacent celebrities fumbling through old emails to find the QR code that serves as a ticket. Anderson Cooper ducked into the Hauser & Wirth booth, where a painting by Henry Taylor sold for $750,000. Kesha and Chelsea Clinton stopped by—okay, fine, they weren’t together, but at least Kesha spent some time lounging on the Franz West furniture at the David Zwirner booth. Even in this economy, yes, there was a smattering of sales. Two different works by Ed Clark sold for more than $800,000, and Pace sold out a booth of Robert Mangold and Arlene Schechet. (A year ago, Hauser was selling Jack Whitten paintings at this very fair for $2.5 million.)

But discussed behind the scenes by a few in-the-know insiders was the deal that Frieze’s parent company, Endeavor, struck in April with private equity titan Silver Lake Partners to take the company private after three years of its much-discussed IPO—and how that deal could affect Frieze. Recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings said explicitly that Endeavor would be required to “use their reasonable best efforts” to shed some of its holdings—a diverse assemblage that includes the likes of Frieze, the world’s marquee mixed martial arts outfit, and a professional bull riding concern. The deal is currently scheduled to close Q1 2025.

The agreement notes some exceptions in the portfolio, saying that Silver Lake won’t sell off Endeavor’s stake in TKO, the company that consists of WWE and UFC. WME, the talent agency synonymous with Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, is also protected. What’s more, Emanuel and Endeavor president Mark Shapiro could get bonuses that would start at $25 million and $20 million, respectively, once a certain tranche of offloads is achieved, according to the filings.

Emanuel’s love for art and Frieze is palpable—he knows his stuff, convincingly, and lavishes praise on this relatively small part of his massive holdings. He was present at the fair this week, and he just beefed up the brand’s fair holdings by buying Expo Chicago and the Armory Show. But the company is expected to be controlled by the private equity gods by next year, and perhaps it’s a brand that doesn’t quite fit into the classic sports and entertainment company that Silver Lake’s Egon Durban is looking to create. Sources indicated that Frieze could in the future be one of the entities the company explores selling. (Both Endeavor and Silver Lake declined to comment for this story.)

So let’s play a hypothetical game: Who might be a buyer for four Frieze art fairs on three continents? It could be another agency. UTA has long had a thoroughly programmed gallery space in LA, and it has recently opened in Atlanta and has a pop-up in New York. Or, of course, it could be François Pinault and his family, the French luxury dynasty (and mega-collectors) who last year acquired their own blue chip Hollywood agency in CAA for $7 billion. Or you could point to another diversified sports and entertainment conglomerate run by an art-collecting billionaire. It’s hard to not think of the obvious one: James Murdoch, son of Rupert and founder of Lupa Systems, who sits on the board of Dia and happens to own all the other art fairs as majority owner of Art Basel and its mini constellation of programming. Why not get rid of the competition and gobble up Frieze?

Sources say that even if it ever is put on the block, it’s too soon to predict what would be an outright monopolization of the global art fair circuit. There’s also the hurdle of convincing the Swiss cantons, which still own a hefty chunk of Art Basel’s parent company, to expand the purview of the company even farther beyond their beloved Rhineland environs.

A few days after Frieze opened, but before the bellwether May auctions had gotten underway in earnest, the public view at Christie’s was humming with potential, with specialists and traders all salivating at the prospect of multi-comma sums being exchanged for pieces of art. Noah Horowitz, the global CEO of the Art Basel expos, walked through with the auction house’s director, Barrett White, as his colleagues Alex Rotter, Alex Marshall, and Ana Maria Celis breezed through with clients. David Nash, who spent decades building the modern department at Sotheby’s before opening the gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash, stood in the contemporary wing, near a mighty Basquiat stretcher-bar stunner that could fetch $30 million. Down the hall were works from the collection of the late Rosa de la Cruz, the prize picks from artists who have defined the past few decades of connoisseur-level patronage: Wade Guyton, Laura Owens, Rashid Johnson, Peter Doig, and her favorite artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

But it was not actually business as usual—or what has constituted “usual” in recent years. The de la Cruz collection is one of the few prominent sales to come to auction this May, and it’s only estimated to bring in $30 million. Compare that to the big collection to hit the block this time last year, works from the estate of Emily Fisher Landau, which brought in more than $420 million. A year before that, the global art market hit what might have been its all-time peak, after a decade of increasingly dizzying surges in the prices people would pay for trophy-worthy paintings. In May 2022, the two weeks of sales netted $2.5 billion for the three major auction houses. That November, Christie’s sold $1.5 billion—not over the course of a week but on a single night, just from the Paul Allen collection.

That is all over now. All signs point to a softening of the global art market, at least for now. Instead of two weeks of auctions, this year we will have only one, and instead of $2.5 billion, the sales are estimated to bring in less than half that.

Call it auction season, hold the froth.

“The number of participants has shrunk dramatically from the post-Covid boom, when there was a feeding frenzy in 2021, after the lockdowns and everything,” said Hugo Nathan, cofounder of the global art advisory firm Beaumont Nathan, a guy who’s often popping up his paddle at sales on behalf of clients. “I think people can be selective, they can be patient, and they can be tough on price. There are some people who are reluctant to sell because they’re being offered prices or estimates below their ambitions.”

In some ways it’s just bad timing. Estates usually come to auction for one of three reasons: Death, Debt, Divorce. Paul Allen dies, the Macklowes divorce, Ron Perelman has debt—their masterpieces head to the auction block. With major collectors flexing their vitality, marital fortitude, or financial strength of late, houses have had to chase down prospective sellers and convince them to part ways with their treasures. Collectors don’t want to do that right now. The wars in Europe and the Middle East, the uncertainty of an election season in the US, the still-high interest rates—-they’ve created an environment in which no one thinks it’s a good time to sell art, or they have a desired figure that will never be met. They’re keeping their powder dry.

“I think being in two wars and having a former president on trial and wobbly political circumstances on America’s campuses—a lot of that is pretty destabilizing for people,” said one former auction executive who requested anonymity because they are still active in the sales. “Certain really flagrant loose discretionary selling might be gone for a little while, and on the buy side those who were throwing care to the wind and spending like crazy on emerging things or dropping their whole Wall Street bonus on one or two pictures—there’s a little more carefulness at play. And interest rates play a part in that too.”

It’s also a time of major change at the houses. Sotheby’s is getting set to move its operations into the Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, formerly the home of the Whitney and then, briefly, the Met and the Frick. It spent a little more than $100 million for the brutalist stack, and the house’s telecom magnate owner, Patrick Drahi, has taken on considerable debt. Sotheby’s own place on the block has been a common rumor.

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