Fairs Switzerland

Preview sales defy all expectations

Galleries say that speculators have gone, but stalwart collectors turned up—and bought

Movie star Brad Pitt, moderately concealed behind oversize aviator sunglasses and a beige cap, zipped around Art Basel yesterday during the day-long VIP preview. He checked out stands and attracted a throng of giggling admirers. He paused long enough to purchase Neo Rauch’s 10-foot wide 1998 Etappe, from Zwirner Gallery (2.0/R4), depicting an otherworldly green, rust and grey universe with men racing cars and hoisting microphones. The asking price was just under $1m.

For the first time in around a year, there was a palpable energy at a contemporary art fair as collectors unleashed pent-up buying power. Deals closed fast and furiously, both on the ground floor, amid million dollars price tags, and upstairs where the newer art commanded around $20,000 to several hundred thousand. Economists would have been mystified at the spending patterns of the art collecting elite. It was as if the worldwide recession was a thing of the past, or at least momentarily forgotten.

“I’m not saying the bull market is back,” said art adviser Sandy Heller, who works with Steve Cohen and other hedge fund collectors. “But I’m saying the art market needed a good fair and this is it.”

Dealers, collectors, advisors and curators agreed that exhibitors had brought out their most tantalising material, plucking the best of their inventory and prying top, fresh goods from artists resulting in a fair flush with prime works.

“People have brought their best things,” said London dealer Helly Nahmad (2.0/Q3). “Are you going to throw in the towel and say I’m not going to show good work? No.” Nahmad presented a solo Joan Miró show. A densely painted 1968 Femme et Oiseaux dans la Nuit sold for $6m to a Swiss private collector.

The fair got off to a strong start as collectors poured into the boxy industrial convention hall promptly at 11 am. A chic, mostly European crowd, wearing the latest in tans courtesy of the Venice Biennale, dashed for the stands.

“In the first half hour of the fair, I’ve seen the best stuff I’ve seen all year,” said private dealer and art market newsletter publisher Josh Baer, standing on the ground floor, soon after he began walking the fair. “Every booth so far had something great.”

Collectors were intent on buying, not merely browsing. “We’re hoping to see something that grabs us,” said Miami collector Norman Braman, who hit the floor with Colorado collector Bob Magoon.

Europeans overwhelmingly outnumbered the Americans, including German collector Friedrich Christian Flick and Swiss pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann. Russian Roman Abramovich, who recently funded a Moscow museum for his partner Dasha Zhukova, visited Swiss dealer Bischofberger (2.0/J1) three times to check out the 11-metre long $74m Andy Warhol Big Retrospective Painting, 1979, including the artist’s signature flowers, Marilyn Monroe and soup cans.

Major Americans did arrive, including Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and New York financier Wilbur Ross and wife Hilary. New York private equity mogul Stephen Schwarzman—dressed down in khakis and a blue plaid shirt—hung around the Gagosian stand (2.0/G2) chatting with proprietor Larry Gagosian.

“This defied my expectations,” said New York dealer David Nash, of Mitchell-Innes & Nash (2.0/T4). “A lot of people said they weren’t coming.”

“This is better than last year. We sold the more expensive things,” said Nash’s wife and partner, Lucy Mitchell-Innes. “People are looking to buy things they know, things that are proven.” A grey Cy Twombly painting, Venere Franchetti, 1963, sold for $1.5m to a European collector. Other sales included an architectural Enoc Perez painting and Jean Tinguely—the Basel native-sculptor.

Sales were also clipping along on the upper floor (2.1), where the most recent art is presented. London dealer Sadie Coles (2.1/A6) sold John Currin’s 2009 Grey Girl, depicting a fair haired, bare-breasted woman, for $450,000 to an unnamed American collector. “Everyone was nervous yesterday, but the fair has gone extremely well today,” says Coles. “It will boost everyone’s confidence.”

Buyers noticed the action. “There was high quality material on the primary market and active trading going on,” said New York advisor Allan Schwartzman. “A number of things I was interested in were on hold or sold.”

Also on the second floor, the South African Goodman Gallery (2.1/U4) sold a 1993 Marlene Dumas—the recent subject of a MoMA retrospective—The Blonde, for over €100,000.

As opening day progressed, with bursts of sunshine alternating with light showers, collectors, dealers and the rest of the opening day crowd chomped veal bratwurst dipped in mustard, puffed on cigarettes and traipsed around art-jammed stands. Dealers remarked that the speculators had gone, leaving only the die-hard collectors behind. “The people who are here are not the ‘stuff’ buyers,” said Nahmad.

Dealer David Zwirner (2.0/R4) hustled around in shirtsleeves, racking up the sales. Besides the Rauch, he sold a tough 2005 Michaël Borremans of a young man with sticks pushed up his nose, and paintings by Francis Alÿs and the calendar-obsessed On Kawara. “It’s a rarefied market,” said Zwirner. “Connoisseurs are taking advantage of the current cycle in the market.”

Financial conditions weren’t a deterrent on opening day. “We are far enough into this new economic cycle that people are comfortable spending again,” said Allan Schwartzman.

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