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KEEP AN EYE ON HUNGARIAN AND SLAVIC ART

The Wall Street Journal Europe

Jiri Svestka, a dealer in modern and contemporary art in the Czech Republic, says he was somewhat put out when a visitor to his stand at ArtBrussels in early April greeted him with, "Welcome to Europe".

As if his country hadn't been an important factor in the heart of Europe. As if his country hadn't been an important factor in the heart of Europe for more than 1,000 years. "Sometimes I have had the feeling at these international fairs that we are seen as a thirdworld country," says Mr. Svestka, who runs a major gallery in Prague. "Entry into the EU should help do away with such mental barriers."

Though joining the EU also will remove customs barriers and ease the flow of artworks between countries, many see the less direct impacts as more important. Vita Zaman, a co-director of the lithuanian gallery IBID Projects of Vilnius (which has a branch in London), hopes low-fare airlines now will take an interest in Lithuania, where flying can be expensive. Increased mobility will boost the Baltic art market, she believes. Slovenian dealer and curator Gregor Podnar of Ljubljana suggests that EU membership could help his country's art scene attract more international attention. "It's always difficult for small countries," he says.

But changes won't happen overnight. Sotheby's and Christie's don't hold auctions in the region, though both have offices in Prague. Both say they will continue to monitor the EU newcomers and will respond as markets develop. Historically, auction houses in Vienna have the closest outside ties to the region through the Habsburg monarchy. Dorotheum, Austria's largest auction house, has long term plans to expand into the enlarged EU. (Since 1992, Dorotheum Managing Director Martin Böhm says he expects the incoming countries to prosper longer term and the number of collectors their to grow.
Meanwhile, in-the-know collectors are discovering what could become a boom area of Central and Eastern European art: 19th-century and classical modern painting. At the London auction houses, Hungarian art is on the move. Sotheby's started concentrating on Hungarian and Slavic works in 2001. Since then, says Adrian Biddell, who heads Sotheby's continental-paintings department, the market gradually expanded until at an auction last June, it moved to a significant size - the Hungarian and Slavic works in the sale took in more than 1 million GBP, or 1,5 million Euro. "Hungarian artists were under appreciated and therefore undervalued. Now more buyers and more property are coming into the market, "says Mr.Biddell. "Hungarian art is ripe for development."

Strict Controls

At the moment, the art sold at London auctions is coming from collections outside the Central and Eastern European home country. Eh current customs barriers aren't the problem. While contemporary art long has moved easily across the borders, classical modern works and antiques are a different matter. Unlike with contemporary works, Central and eastern European countries usually require export permits for art works more than 50 years old. These national laws won't be affected by EU membership. Hungary is particularly strict, with a license required for all objects dating back over half a century, regardless of value. Once again, auction houses are hoping for an indirect effect. Says Vera Mayer, office manager at Nagyházi, an auction house in Budapest, eralized as Hungarian bureaucrats realize open borders make such strict regulations hard to control.

In Hungary, there are also an extraordinary number of works that are protected, meaning they can't leave the country. This must change, says Budapest auctioneer and collector Tamas Kieselbach, "I don't expect that it will happen immediately, but gradually, when Hungary is part of the EU and officials here then realize that good Hungarian art outside the country is an ambassador for us," he says. Mr. Kieselbach, 40 years old, started collecting Hungarian art 20 years ago and is considered the leading authority on Hungarian painting form 1850 to 1950. His auction house holds auctions of this art three times a year, and it is also regularly exhibited in his gallery. He has published a number of superbly illustrated books on Hungarian Modernism from 1892 to 1950 in English.

"I am passionate about Hungarian art, which I believe has been neglected," Mr. Kieselbach says. Hungary was cut off from the international art market for so long during the 20th century that its artists weren't given the attention they deserved by major museums, he says.

Christie's Continental picture specialist Edward Plackett believes that EU entry will broaden the base of collectors for Czech and Hungarian painting and demand will mount. Current buyers come from the Central and eastern European region, other European countries and the U.S.

On June 15, Sotheby's holds its next 19th-century European paintings sale with works by Hungarian, Czech, Polish and Slovak painters. Highlights include "By the Stream" (circa 1885), an idyllic, wooded scene by Hungarian Mihaly Munkacsy (estimate: 120,000-180,000 GBP and "Au Café Concert" (1907), a depiction of an elegant society get-together by Poland's Alfons Karpinski (estimate: 30,000-50,000 GBP). Christie's sale of 19th century European art on June 16 will feature an Italian lake scene (1863) by Hungary's Karoly Marko the Younger (estimate: 15,000-20,000GBP, or 180,000-269,000GBP.

The Conemporary Corwd

Meanwhile, contemporary artists in the newly joining EU states have been hard at work since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nevertheless, names of young artists are known mainly in insider circles.

Poland has a young scene that regularly appears with representatives at biennales and fairs. Take Katarzyna Kozyra, a former representative of Poland at the Venice Biennale, whose video installation "Boys".
(2001-02)- young boys in a medieval cellar sparring with spears like ancient warriors-presently plays in Berne at a festival of art from the incoming EU members. Another artist to watch is Warsaw's Monika Sosnowska, whose corridor at the Venice Biennale 2003 invited visitors to work into a strange, empty space where one's room to breathe became smaller and smaller.
Also exciting is Lithuania's Arturas Raila, whose videos of night time in northern villages have a mysterious attraction; or fellow Lithuanian Laura Stasiulyte, whose videos illustrating the everyday life of young ladies of today brings one back to earth.

Prices for works from these countries are usually reasonable. For example, popular paintings of everyday articles by Poland's Wilhelm Sansal cost between 5,000 Euro and 20,000 Euro to 30,000 Euro; and Polish artist Marzena Nowak's videos and drawings of childhood dreams go for 300Eur to 5,000Eur. Works by Mr Raila can be had for 1,000Eur to 8,000Eur Ms. Kozyra's many-channel installations cost around 30,000Eur. The Czech Republic has a number of up-and-coming photo artists, such as Jitka Hanzlova, famous for her female portraits, selling between 2,500Eur and 4,500Eur. And then there is the Czech object sculptor Kristof Kintera whose "Talkmen" series (1999) sold out at international fairs.
The figures of businessmen made of metal and rubber with a moving electro installation cost 8,500Eur each.

How does a collector get to know this contemporary art market? Mr. Svesstka, who represents artists such as Ms. Hanzlova and Mr. Kintera, says it isn't so easy. There are few Central and Eastern European galleries at the major international fairs. Specialized art magazines write articles, such as January cover by the Hamburg-based "Art" on the Polish young art scene, but such articles aren't frequent. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty - especially when it comes to buying - it is necessary to visit the region, he says. Local galleries will organize visits to artists' studios if given sufficient notice; and, of course, they have examples of their artists' works on hand.

Margaret Studer

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