Contemporary Art Market: Exhibition sales head for third consecutive fall

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SALES from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which have dropped about 10 per cent a year for the past two years, appear to be heading for their third consecutive cut. Demand for more conservative contemporary British art has been hard-hit by the financial problems of Lloyd's names - formerly a rich catchment area of collectors.

Most of the academy's business is done during the exhibition previews and the total sold during the preview days was down from pounds 909,510 in 1992 to pounds 772,393 this year. Another pounds 220,000 or so has been added to the sales figure since then; it had reached pounds 999,407 at the last count. In 1992 sales totalled pounds 1,189,046; an all-time high of pounds 1,507,136 was recorded in 1989. The fall is quite modest, however, compared with other fields such as American contemporaries or Impressionists, where market turnover has dropped to a half or one- third of 1989 levels.

This year, the president and council gave the Charles Wollaston Award for the most distinguished work in the exhibition to a bronze by Eduardo Paolozzi entitled Road to the Isles; it depicts three railway cars carrying bits and pieces of sculpture, like hands and feet. Despite its quite manageable size - just over 2ft - it has found no buyer at pounds 17,625.

Equally, the huge John Bellany oil, Sunset Song, which won the Korn/Ferry Award for the picture of the year, has found no taker at pounds 35,000. In contrast, Rita Smith's large watercolour, The Studio, which won the Guinness Award for a first-time exhibitor, has sold at pounds 900. She has painted the interior of her studio, with a white overall hanging on her easel in the foreground, in finely controlled colour washes. As usual, inexpensive but attractive figurative paintings have been the big sellers; high- priced items, even by famous names, do not appeal to the academy's clientele. There has been no taker for Mimmo Paladino's Il Respiro della Bellezza at pounds 94,000, or Anselm Kiefer's emulsion, acrylic and lead devastation titled Yggdrasil; if you want to know its price, you have to apply to the Anthony D'Offay Gallery.

The impressionist evocations of the jumbled corners of English greenhouses by Olwyn Bowey, reputedly a brilliant gardener as well as a Royal Academician, are typical of what the visitors love. The Artist's Greenhouse has found a buyer at pounds 4,000, Asparagus Fern at pounds 3,000, while a litle picture of Snowdrops and Catkins in the Small South Room went for pounds 700.

It is the densely hung walls of the Small South Room that traditionally attract a stampede of competitive buyers on the first day. All the paintings are very small, and mostly priced around pounds 500 or less. But high prices put people off. Edmund Fairfax-Lucy's small Parrot Tulip and other Flowers looks too expensive in this context at pounds 4,800. However, his shimmering, intimate canvases are so popular that he usually has a waiting list - and has no reason for dropping his prices at the academy.

(Photograph omitted)