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European collectors dominate, Americans in short supply at Art Basel

Strong buying at this year’s fair, but good works are getting harder to find

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Collectors from continental Europe emerged as the strongest buyers at Art Basel this year. Several dealers reported fewer Americans and fewer US museums buying at the fair than last year. This year it was European museums that were the prominent institutional purchasers.

“Normally, my sales at Basel are 80% to American buyers; this year it’s 80% to European,” said Per Skarstedt, a Manhattan dealer, echoing a number of his colleagues.

The weak dollar, record spending at May’s New York auctions, which may have exhausted the budgets of major collectors, and the number of art-related events in Europe this summer—the Venice Biennale (p31), Documenta (p30) and Münster—all conspired to divert Americans from Art Basel this year, said many dealers.

Despite this, Art Basel reported another successful year for the 300 participating galleries. It said this year’s record attendance was 60,000 visitors (up from 56,000 in 2006), and 2,300 media representatives (up from 2,000 in 2006). It also said it had more museum groups than ever from the United States (although organisers did not provide numbers), and that new patrons groups visited from China, Russia and India.

The record prices made at the May auctions in New York (at which paintings by Warhol and Rothko sold for over $70m), also had an impact on the supply of top-quality works at the fair. “The auction houses are sweeping up nearly everything,” said Andrew Fabricant, director of US gallery, Richard Gray. In the race to secure the best works, some dealers are even introducing the guarantees that auction houses use. David Nash of New York’s Mitchell-Innes & Nash admitted: “I don’t like doing it but sometimes I have to give a guarantee on works these days.” Bob Mnuchin of L&M Arts in New York concurred, explaining that he had negotiated a tiered deal with a consignor whereby the gallery will pay $5m for a work, then take the first 10% of any additional sum above that, with the remainder split between the gallery and the vendor.

Despite the challenge of finding consignments, dealers say their established relationships with collectors is one advantage over the auction houses in the heated market. Furthermore, discretion—traditionally the preserve of dealers—still exists: not everything brought to the fair was on display, some works were only shown to selected clients.

Stockpiling works and revealing them at fairs is also effective, although it can be tough to achieve in today’s market. Helly Nahmad from the eponymous international gallery did manage it, and devoted his stand to over 18 late Picassos.

Buying started as soon as the private view opened on 12 June. “The frenzy surprised me,” said Paris dealer Jill Silverman Van Coenegrachts of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. It sold several works shortly after the ­opening, including a E375,000 ($487,500) Baselitz, Olaf Wieghorst im Schnee Remix, 2007, which went to a private collector buying for a European museum. The gallery also sold an Alex Katz—Jessica, 2007—to the Albertina in Vienna for $190,000 and a 2006 Antony Gormley to the Kunsthalle Rotterdam for an undisclosed amount.

One-third of New York-based Luhring Augustine’s stand, which featured works by George Condo and Albert Oehlen, was sold or on reserve within the first 40 minutes, the gallery said. Most of those sales were to Swiss or German collectors.

Meredith Harper, director of New York’s Van de Weghe Fine Art, said the fair—at which it was exhibiting for the first time—was “an exceedingly successful experience” with “old faces, but also a lot of new faces from Europe. We had very good sales in all price categories.” The gallery showed works including Basquiat’s Donut Revenge, 1982 (which sold for $3.2m); a small red and yellow 1968 untitled Rothko ($4.85m); and Bacon’s Two Figures, 1961 (price undisclosed). The latter works were not sold at the fair, but the gallery is in discussions with clients who saw them in Basel.

Dealers also said that despite recent excitement surrounding collectors from emerging economies such as India, China, and the newly-rich business­people of Russia, these were in short supply early on. This phenomenon was typified by New Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery, which sold out at the vernissage, but made only one sale to an Indian buyer; all the rest were sold to Europeans, including Bharti Kher’s fibreglass elephant, The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, which went to a Swiss collector for E250,000 ($325,000). But later in the week, dealers saw a market increase in buyers from Asia and from Russia, particularly from museums.

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