When one of the two battling collectors finally conceded defeat, the gavel banged and the victor bagged Peter Doig's colorful painting White Canoe for $11.3 million. Not only did it sell for more than five times the Sotheby's estimate, the painting also set a new record for the work of a living European artist. The biggest surprise, however, was that it was sold not in New York but in London.
Followers of the American art market are accustomed to seeing prices skyrocket at the Manhattan auctions, but until very recently such coups were unheard of in England. Times have changed. White Canoe wasn't the only record-breaking work in London's most recent round of modern and contemporary art sales. Highs were set for more than 40 artists. The oil painting Study for a Portrait II, by Francis Bacon, was sold for $27.5 million. Andreas Gursky's 99 Cent II, Diptych went for $3.3 million, promptly becoming the world's most expensive photograph.
Once considered a backwater of crusty Old Master dealers, London is now a contemporary art powerhouse, with more creative and commercial clout than anywhere outside New York. British artists are the new household names. The world's most influential art dealers—like Gagosian in New York, and Zurich's Hauser & Wirth—have opened galleries in the capital. Dozens of new spaces have surfaced in edgy East London. Every October international collectors flood the city for the Frieze Art Fair, organized by the London-based international art journal Frieze.
Even if they're not one of the heavweight collectors on Larry Gagosian's speed dial, art enthusiasts are quickly pulled into the whirl. "London has everything—great museums, great galleries, and great artists," says Matthew Slotover, copublisher of Frieze and codirector of the art fair. "There's an amazing range of shows on at any one time."
Take this month. You can catch the last few days of the Tate Modern's retrospective of the films and photomontages of London icons Gilbert & George, and, on June 1, the opening of its summer blockbuster on Salvador Dalí's work in cinema. There are more Dalís in "Surreal Things," the Victoria and Albert Museum's survey of surrealism and design. "Renoir's Landscapes" is on at the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery mounts photography shows, including "Four Corners," a look into London's cultural diversity. And if you're curious to see how 16th-century Virginia looked to intrepid English explorers, there's the exhibition of John White's watercolors of Native Americans at the British Museum.
Comparably diverse exhibitions are on view at smaller public art institutions. The Hayward Gallery is presenting a show devoted to one of Britain's most popular contemporary sculptors, Antony Gormley. The films of the Dutch-Brazilian artist Pablo Pijnappel, exploring the boundaries between fact and fiction, are showing at the Whitechapel Gallery. And in July, Londoners look forward to the summer pavilion in Hyde Park, an annual commission by the Serpentine Gallery—this year designed by Danish conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson and Norwegian architect Kjetil Thorsen.
Then there are the latest additions to the London art scene: the commercial galleries. Andreas Gursky's work is the focus of two shows this month: one in the new gallery opened by the German dealers Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, in an 18th-century building on Grafton Street in Mayfair; the other nearby at White Cube's new space, a glass box in the middle of Mason's Yard. At Coppermill, its cavernous project space in East London, Hauser & Wirth is presenting an ambitious show of new works by the Turner Prize-winning British conceptual artist Martin Creed.