Ai Weiwei's Lego art and rare relief from Assyria

Fragile times seem to be behind a renewed appetite for art with a political message. The latest major acquisition by Washington DC’s Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum is Ai Weiwei’s monumental “Trace” (2017), a 1,200-plus ft installation comprising 176 portraits of activists, political prisoners or advocates of free speech made out of more than 1.2m pieces of Lego. Most of those immortalised in bricks, including Chen Wei and Chelsea Manning, have been detained in some way, as Ai was in China in 2011; the work was originally made to show in the former prison in Alcatraz.

Lego may seem a childish material for such heavyweights but, as Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, points out: “They were inspired by his son’s play, but Ai also realised it was difficult to get high-resolution images through the internet and the idea of a pixelated picture can be rendered well through Lego.” In 2015 Ai’s bulk order of Lego, initially refused, prompted the Danish firm to reverse its “no politics” policy.

Nicolai Frahm, who represents Ai, estimates “Trace” at $1.5m: “This type of art is not surprisingly growing in popularity [and] urgency in our current climate of global political flux.”

It’s all superlatives at Christie’s where one of the earliest known antiquities to have reached America is offered for the highest price tag in this category next month ($10m-$15m, October 31). The 7ft relief from the Northwestern Palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (c883BC-859BC) was excavated in the mid-19th century at Nimrud, south of what is now Mosul in Iraq, by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard. In 1859, an American missionary bought the relief from Layard on behalf of the Virginia Theological Seminary, which is now selling it to underwrite a scholarship fund.

Assyrian gypsum relief of a winged genius (c883BC-859BC) from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II © Christie’s

Max Bernheimer, Christie’s head of antiquities, says that such items are so rare on the market that “the sky’s the limit”. The most recent example, which had been on a wall in Canford School in Britain, sold at Christie’s for £7.7m in 1994. The two figures on the Canford relief were preserved only from the waist up, whereas the winged deity that Christie’s offers this time is preserved “head-to-toe”, Bernheimer says, adding to its potential value. Nimrud materials in museums around the world include some 65 stone panels from the same palace in the British Museum’s collection. Bernheimer says he isn’t ruling out interest from a new museum in East Asia or the Middle East. The Nimrud site is believed to have been almost destroyed by Isis in 2015.

The art market rumour mill went into overdrive as industry newsletter The Baer Faxt included the cryptic question: “Prime gallery spaces are available in St Moritz: will the megas go for one more?” The answer, I can reveal, is yes. Fittingly the Swiss-born mega, Hauser & Wirth, is taking on the three-floor, 4,500 sq ft Palace Galerie space in central St Moritz and will reopen it in December after a redesign by architect Luis Laplace. Hauser & Wirth, now in nine international locations, started in 1992 in Zurich and co-founder Iwan Wirth says St Moritz “speaks to our DNA as a Swiss gallery”.

The building previously housed Gmurzynska gallery, which prompts the question of why Gmurzynska shut its swish ski-resort space after 15 years. Mathias Rastorfer, co-founder of Gmurzynska, says it’s about “changing habits”. He is freeing up time, and presumably money, to open a space on New York’s Upper East Side, opposite art market watering-hole Sant Ambroeus, as well as to focus on the gallery’s second space in Zurich and on re-joining art fairs such as Tefaf, Maastricht, all of which seems to make commercial sense.

Hollywood actor and art buyer Leonardo DiCaprio may have moved his environmental foundation’s annual benefit auction to a Sonoma vineyard this weekend but the mood seems more sober than at its previous St Tropez setting. The benefit dovetails the Global Climate Action summit in San Francisco and will be a “zero waste” event: for example, bars and tables have been made from repurposed materials. The excess has come out of the art too. When once as many as 50 works were offered, this time only 14 go under the hammer with bids already coming in online via Invaluable. The works are topped by a large “Mountain Split” painting (2011-17) by Wayne Thiebaud (market value given as $4.5m).

“As opposed to other charity auctions which typically offer things that will be worth zero after the event, even though they sell exorbitantly high, we have tightened up our offerings,” says DiCaprio’s art adviser Lisa Schiff, who has organised the sale. Last year’s event raised $30m.

Thiebaud will get honoured with an environmental award, as will Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace gallery and chairman of the educational African Environmental Film Foundation.

Will the main man be buying? “I’ve been keeping my eye on three specific lots,” DiCaprio unspecifically tells me.

And finally . . . It’s not often that art market writers get to quote the rapper Drake, but the gallerist and colourful Instagrammer Matt Carey-Williams, who joined Victoria Miro last week, has given me the chance. The move marks his fourth senior art market role in as many years: to Phillips auction house from White Cube gallery in 2015 and then to Blain|Southern in 2017. He says in his own words that this latest role is “something I hope to do for a long time”. Then comes an excerpt from Drake’s 2012 high-school graduation speech, rather more mild-mannered than his song lyrics: “Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.”

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