International art advisor Diane Abela, from art advisory and appraisal group Gurr Johns, talks about the reopening of public viewing, and offers insights into the best ways to start collecting and investing in art
I’ve recently arrived back from Art Basel in Switzerland, which was the first major art fair able to go ahead in real life since lockdown across Europe began in March 2020. It made me realise how much I’ve missed attending fairs, as Art Basel is the greatest contemporary art fair where all the participating galleries show the best of the best. The fair was very well attended and there was an incredible energy as people connected and were able to enjoy art together again.
It was wonderful to see peers from the international art world! I met collectors who had flown in especially and I also had the opportunity to meet new people. For me, nothing replaces seeing art in person and having those all-important conversations in front of the works.
I welcomed collectors from Europe and the Middle East who all joined me at Art Basel. Galleries send previews of their curated booths at the fair, which means I have access to previews, and can offer my clients the first view of artworks ahead of the opening. From this, I can secure some key sales ahead of the opening of the fair to VIPs, but I can also put some works on hold. If I know that a collector is particularly interested in an artist then I can liaise with the dealers to ensure that we are able to make a decision together when we are standing in front of the work.
But the best part of the fair is the journey of discovery – there are always so many beautiful works and artists to explore.
Rising to the challenge
The incredible thing, reflecting on the past 18 months, is realizing how the art world adapted so quickly and efficiently to the lockdown era. Many companies invested heavily in technology, propelling their business plans forward by years in a matter of months.
Bidding platforms were improved at auction houses, and from art fairs to commercial galleries, online viewing rooms allowed clients to access works from home, while increasing pricing transparency, which could be very difficult to access previously. This resilience and level of investment has definitely paid off, and reassuringly, the art market has not been impacted by the pandemic.
This bounce-back for the art market reflects its strength as a strong global contender where artworks are viewed as an opportunity for investment internationally. This is true at all price points and collectors are as interested in discovering new artists as they are in investing in blue-chip names.
You need only look at the autumn art fair programme in London to see that alongside the Frieze art fair, and 1-54: The Contemporary African Art Fair, both of which returned earlier in October, together with Frieze Masters – plus the new flexible gallery spaces such as Cromwell Place or Number 9 Cork Street – the appetite to acquire works across the full spectrum of the market is as strong as ever, if not stronger.
Speaking to the world
Art is such a powerful tool of communication, historically and politically, connecting communities as well as geopolitical ideologies. As we’ve all been through such an intense period during the pandemic, I think art is allowing us to express our emotions, bringing us together. It’s not just based on money but on educational longevity and building a strong ecosystem within the art world, and this is what I have been working on in the Middle East since joining art advisors Gurr Johns.
I encourage passionate collecting strategies by nurturing a depth of knowledge on the artists and movements that we select together. I work with a range of clients in the region, including museums and private collectors, and they are keen to develop extensive and broad collections. I advise them on acquisitions, sales and a strategy for building a collection for the long term.
Discretion is key and I will act on their behalf by liaising with galleries, auction houses and exploring private selling opportunities, ensuring that I can provide independent, market-savvy advice.
I’m passionate about ensuring that my clients have the best access to whatever focus their collection is taking and can tap into my network to garner the finest expertise available. At Gurr Johns, we offer unparalleled insight into the art world and the market behind it as we have experts in all areas, such as Old Masters, Impressionist and Modern Art, Post War and Contemporary Art, Islamic Art and Jewellery among many others. Apart from our art advisory skills, we offer appraisal services and every year we value around $10 billion worth of art across all categories.
How to start collecting
If you’re considering building an art collection for yourself, then the first thing I would say is to buy what you love. There are so many ways of experiencing and discovering art and artists, from commercial galleries and museums and foundations, to art fairs as well as auction houses where you can often see a vast range of works from antiquities to NFTs [non-fungible tokens, for example digital art]. This is the joy of setting out, or indeed expanding your tastes, there are so many ways to discover the next direction for you.
Once you have decided which artists to pursue, I would recommend that you thoroughly research them. Research what it is that draws you to their work and ask questions. Galleries, auction houses and art advisors love the opportunity to talk about art. We can offer you advice or we can journey together as we identify what it is that really draws you in.
What makes the art world so unique is that learning is lifelong. I am there for my clients to ensure that when they have questions, I have the answers and the international network to bring their collection to life.
I am now looking forward to London coming alive again with museums unveiling commissions, artists presenting their new artworks and collectors arriving back after nearly two years. I can’t wait to welcome my clients back to the city I call home, where it will be at its very best.
– Diane Abela is the London-based Director for the Middle East at international art advisory and appraisal group Gurr Johns.
Image at top of page shows Diane Abela standing by Le Soleil Toujours by Etel Adnan, 2020 which comprises 136 handmade and hand-painted ceramic tiles. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery