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Roman Abramovich keeps spirits high and dealers rely on old favourites: Art Basel 2008

While the known and bankable sold at a steady rate, Abramovich was the name on everybody's lips

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Visitors to the preview day of Art Basel’s 39th edition on 3 June included star collectors more usually associated with its Miami edition. Film star Brad Pitt and US hedge-funder Steve Cohen were there as was Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar. But it was the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich who generated the most excitement when he arrived with his partner Daria Zhukova at what is believed to be the couple’s first appearance at an art fair.

Abramovich bought Alberto Giacometti’s Femme de Venise I, 1956, for $14m from Krugier. The purchase came less than a month after he spent $120m in New York on a Bacon and a Freud.

Despite the excitement created by the stars, many dealers said that buyers were banking on the safety of blue-chip works of art. And mindful of the turmoil in the financial markets, dealers also played safe, bringing established artists to Basel. However this was in keeping with the fair’s reputation. “Generally I feel that the works on offer at the fair are quite conservative and predictable, not very adventurous; this is Basel, it’s solid and high quality,” said Glenn Scott Wright of Victoria Miro gallery.

Dealers also felt pressure to show great works of art to compete with the recent spate of high prices achieved at auction. “It sticks in my throat to say it, but the quality of the works that just sold at auction was extremely high,” said Marc Glimcher of Pace Wildenstein. “It wasn’t so long ago that it was inconceivable that works of such quality would come to auction—people would think it was a distressed seller if it wasn’t on the private market. But now it has become a status symbol to sell at auction.”

On the ground floor, Acquavella sold two Lucian Freud portraits ($12m, right, and $1.8m)—but overall dealers found buyers more picky than usual. “There’s less urgency,” said Josh Baer, a private dealer who publishes the Baer Faxt market report. “If last year they sold nine things in the first two hours, now [it’s] six things in the first two days.”

But across the fair, the big names still went first and fast. Gagosian sold a 1999 Richard Prince joke painting, Untitled (Publicity), for $2m, and Van de Weghe sold Rothko’s yellow-and-red Untitled, 1968, for $5.5m. Takashi Murakami’s massive, eight-ton, platinum-clad Oval Buddha, 2007, at Art Unlimited sold for $8m to the New York and Paris-based art advisors Giraud, Pissarro, Ségalot, according to sources.

While European and Russian collectors were prevalent, many noted the lack of Americans. San Francisco dealer John Berggruen, who usually sells exclusively to US collectors, said this year all his buyers were Europeans.

“Normally in the first half hour of the fair, I sell 80% of the booth to Americans,” said New York dealer Per Skarstedt. “This year I had to work.” His deals included a $1.3m Martin Kippenberger painting, Untitled, 1993, sold to an American buyer, but the transaction took time: the collector came back to the stand five times before sealing the deal.

Marc Spiegler, co-director of Art Basel for the first time this year, following Sam Keller’s move to direct the Fondation Beyeler in January, agreed that “due to the schedule shift on account of Euro2008 [the football tournament], many American parents were forced to stay home for final exams and graduation ceremonies.” But he added: “They’ll be back next year when we return to the normal dates—and, of course, because of the Venice Biennale.”

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