There is only one place to be this week if you are anyone, or aspire to be anyone, in the arts – the Frieze Art Fair. The showcase of contemporary art, held in a marquee in Regent's Park, central London, begins on Thursday and has grown in just four years to become one of the most important and glamorous events in the world's cultural calendar.
Not only will the cream of Britain's young artists and fashionable gallery owners, such as Jay Jopling, Larry Gagosian, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin be visiting the 150-odd exhibitions and partying into the small hours, so will a host of art-loving Hollywood stars, models, musicians and, of course, buyers. These include anybody from George Michael, one of the UK's biggest art collectors, to the new wealthy oligarchs from Russia and industrialists from China.
Such is the draw that the top auction houses time their sales of contemporary work to coincide with the arrival in London of big spenders from Britain, Russia, China and America. And breathtaking masterpieces have been flown in from New York to be showcased before they are auctioned in the Big Apple next month – these include works by Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin that haven't been seen publicly for a generation.
Yet, behind the glamour and glitz, there is nervousness. Few doubt that next week is crunch time for the art market. For weeks the talk has been whether the record-breaking prices seen over the past couple of years can be sustained in an atmosphere of economic gloom. Yet, amazing works, representing once-in-a- lifetime opportunities, are still arriving on the market. Depending on who you listen to, we'll see more world-record prices for artists, or a catastrophic correction.
Such is the strength of the art market up to now that optimists predict £100m-worth of art will change hands in London, with records smashed for figures such as Lucien Freud, briefly the most expensive living British artist during the summer's sales. He was trumped by Damien Hirst's Lullaby Spring the following day, which fetched £9.6m.
Sotheby's will be showcasing the finest Gauguin ever to come on to the market. Unseen since 1949, Te Poipoi, or The Morning (pictured above), is one of the artist's earliest works. Many of his paintings deteriorated in the humidity of Tahiti, but this was brought back to Paris early in the artist's career to fund his travels. It is expected to sell for around £30m in New York. Another gem exhibited in London this week for the New York sales is The Fields (Wheat Fields), Van Gogh's final work, valued at £19m. There will also be two rare Picassos. La Lampe, painted in 1931, has been with the artist's family ever since, and is valued at £18m. Tête de Femme, a 1951 bronze said to be the artist's finest, is valued at £15m. In all, the New York sale is expected to realise more than £200m.
There will be work for sale at Frieze too. As well as galleries selling work of up-and-coming British artists, there are auctions of contemporary art by Christie's and Sotheby's. Christie's is selling work valued at £77m, including Study from the Human Body, Man Turning on the Light by Francis Bacon, which he gave to the Royal College of Art in lieu of rent in 1969. It will raise around £9m for the RCA.
But Charles Dupplin of Hiscox, the specialist insurance firm, argues that the shaky international financial situation will make many buyers nervous.
"The credit crunch will have brought a lot of City bonuses down," he said. "So they won't be spending big at the sales... [Buyers] may well be looking for a bargain. My sense is that there could well be a correction."
Robin Woodhead, CEO of Sotheby's International, is convinced the art market will remain buoyant as buyers are no longer concentrated in America and Europe, but come from all over the world, in particular the new rich of Russia, China, India and the Middle East.
"Art is the new religion," he said. "If you think about every significant building constructed over the last 20 years they have been art galleries. It used to be cathedrals. We are selling 10 times the value of art we did five years ago."
Pilar Ordovas of Christie's added: "Our sales in October are much bigger than last year ... The market is stronger and deeper than ever. Frieze is immensely important. It pulls more collectors into London than ever before."
The Brit pack
Britain's top gallery owners will be exhibiting at the Frieze – Jay Jopling of White Cube, Simon Lee and Larry Gagosian
Among the super-rich looking to add to their art collections will be George Michael, Elton John and Frank Cohen
The Hollywood crowd
Stars descending on Regent's Park in London this week – Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunst and Rob Lowe
The Brit artists
Tracey Emin is expected at the Frieze, as are the Chapman brothers – Jake and Dinos – who will be sitting at the White Cube Gallery stall
Sashaying to the galleries are Claudia Schiffer, Laura Bailey and Australian model-turned-businesswoman Elle MacphersonReuse content