Cultura Basel at a crossroads as Antiquities and Asian art lead the field

Cultura Basel '02 fair report


Cultura, held in Basel, Switzerland, from 11 to 20 October, is definitely at a crossroads. Now in its third year, the event is held in a city strategically close to France and Germany and credited with a huge head-count of millionaires, so ideally placed to attract collectors.

But while it remains the leading event for antiquities and is strong in Asian art, it has lost its main sponsor, Swiss UBS, although this is partly compensated by the arrival of an angelic Swiss collector who has stumped up SFr 1 million (£450,000) to keep the fair going.

Co-chairman Miklós von Bartha sees this as an opportunity: “UBS, to whom we are naturally very grateful, took up a large part of the exhibition area and prevented us doing other projects. Now we can make a number of changes.” He is planning to tighten up the fair to just 50 exhibitors (as it is, a number did not return this year, particularly in the Tribal and antiques sections). The idea is to increase the quality while retaining just 50 dealers, focusing on archeology, Asian art and modern design.

These were the areas that did best at this year’s edition, and where the best quality could be seen. Rupert Wace had some stunning pieces including a rare Hellenistic gold wreath of oak leaves, dated about 350 BC, priced about $40,000, and a Sumerian weight in the form of a duck with a remarkably contemporary feel (2000-1500 BC), priced about $60,000. Both were bagged by the same collector immediately. Dr Bigler sold one of his star lots, a man’s head from the late 5th dynasty, to a private collector for about SFr 140,000; “It’s going well,” he reported just before the final weekend.

Asian art was well represented, among others, by Vanderven and Vanderven and Ben Janssens, who sold an 11th-century Khmer head of a Buddha to a European private collector for around SFr 40,000. With 20 sales, “I am shocked”, he said, “I didn’t expect it to be so good in this economic climate.” He did note that buyers were mainly Swiss nationals this year.

The Modern design section, which had been beefed up this year, reportedly saw good sales. However the more tangental sections struggled. It will be interesting to see what will emerge after the fair’s revamp next year.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'At a crossroads'