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Frieze Art Fair Opens In London Amid Recession

The British capital's cutting-edge art sale kicks off Thursday, but cautious collectors may be cutting back.

Although London's annual Frieze Art Fair has all the usual weirdness _ works include a ghostly white tree, molten red computer mice and garlands with breast-shaped balloons _ exhibitors say the fair has lost much of its former frenzy.

"It's a different style of spending," said Javier Peres, of the Peres Projects gallery, which has locations in Berlin and Los Angeles. "It's a much more thoughtful process of acquiring works."

Frieze is one of the biggest events in the world of contemporary art _ along with Art Basel in Switzerland, Art Basel Miami Beach and the Parisian art fair FIAC, which begins next week.

Gallery owners shell out serious money for a stall at the fair _ largely seen as "a sign of recognition," according to Andreiana Mihail, whose eponymous Romanian gallery is displaying at Frieze for the first time.

The fair also generates a motley assortment of off-venue events and parties, ranging from the Zoo Art Fair _ which tends to draw younger galleries _ to the Free Art Fair, where artists give their work away to members of the public. Auctioneers are also capitalizing on the crowd of collectors flocking to Frieze by holding lucrative contemporary art sales.

Often surprising, sometimes bizarre, the fair embraces a wide range of art.

A particularly popular piece, a big bronze trumpet plugged into a giant snow white ear, played Beethoven to passers-by. Nearby, a model's bare arm periodically poked out of a hole in a white wooden panel, lazily scratching out pencil marks before bemused visitors.

One work, a metal ziggurat made from recycled window frames, towered over the other exhibits. Lithuanian artist Mindaugas Navakas would not be drawn out on its meaning.

"There is no clear message," he said. "I'm not interested in clear messages."

But the message from buyers seems to be that they're on a budget. Many of Frieze's fringe events have disappeared, and the Free Art Fair says this year will be its last. Zoo has traded its stately home at the Royal Academy near Piccadilly Circus for grittier surroundings in East London's Shoreditch neighborhood and is experimenting with a less commercial feel.

Auctioneers are bracing for some of their worst October figures in years. Christie's expects sales of up to 23 million pounds ($37.2 million) at its two contemporary art auctions this weekend _ a drop from 2008 and less than half of the 51.8 million pounds that changed hands at the same events in 2007.

Sotheby's is also preparing for lower sales at this weekend's contemporary art and 20th century Italian art auctions. The two events collectively made more than 60 million pounds in 2007 _ but this year Sotheby's only expects sales of up to a third of that amount.

With fewer works being put up for sale, Sotheby's condensed its day and evening auctions into one.

Christie's spokesman Matthew Patton said contemporary art sales volumes are down across the auction world.

First-time exhibitors at Frieze were under no illusions.

"To be honest, it might be hard to recoup the money" spent on renting out a stall, said Olga Chatzidaki, whose Greek gallery AMP is only a year old. But she liked the exposure at one of the world's top art events.

The sentiment was backed by Mihail, whose modest white stall was dominated by a large red banner reading: "Long Live and Thrive Capitalism."

"It's worth it, even if I don't sell," she said. "Image is more important than money."


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