Art fairs

Dealers breathe easier as profits from Basel remain consistent

Buyers eschew risk-taking to pursue the commercial, while Design Miami/Basel benefits from a new location


Solid sales and a record 61,000 crowd brought a palpable sense of relief to the art market as Art Basel, the world’s most important contemporary art fair, celebrated its 40th edition from 10-14 June. The 300 participating dealers had adjusted prices and brought out their strongest material to stimulate trade—a tactic most apparent on the ground floor of the exhibition centre, where classic work from the second half of the 20th century was on offer.

The renewed optimism was immediately apparent at the VIP opening, attended by many aficionados who had made the short trip from the previous week’s Venice Biennale opening. If American collectors—badly hurt in the collapse of the financial markets—were less evident than in boom years, their better-insulated north European counterparts made up the slack.

“The fair was really like in the old days,” declared Georg Frei, director of Zurich gallery Thomas Ammann Fine Art. “They came, they saw and they bought.” As if to prove his point, the gallery sold Barbara Kruger’s 1987 text painting Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) for just under $1m.

London dealer Helly Nahmad was less exuberant, insisting that the market was stable rather than exciting. “It’s a strong market of sensible, boring people,” he said. Investors were looking for tangible, safe assets, and for this they required the confidence provided by top-of-the-range works by established artists in the best condition with excellent provenance and art historical significance.

“If all these boxes are ticked—including the price— you have a deal,” said Mr Nahmad, who claimed the highest-priced sale of the fair: Joan Miró’s Femmes et Oiseaux dans la Nuit, 1968, bought by a Swiss collector for $6m. “But it is a top heavy market, as if only the best property in Belgravia or Eaton Square was selling.”

The highest-priced work on offer was Andy Warhol’s multi-panel Big Retrospective Painting, 1979, on sale at $74m from Zurich Galerie Bischof­berger. Russian billionaire Roman Abram­ovich was seen returning to the stand three times, but gal­lery director Tobias Mueller said after the fair that no final agreement on a sale had been reached. “The negotiations are on-going at present.”

Ann Freedman, president and director of Knoedler gallery—founded in New York in 1846, but participating at Art Basel for the first time—contrasted the atmosphere with Miami during the boom years. “It’s no longer the running of the bulls; it’s more like the strolling of the bears,” she said.

Knoedler sold a Morris Louis colour field abstract, #5-37 from 1961, for more than $1m, as well as a work by the less-known Canadian artist Jack Bush, Pink Top Totem, 1973, for more than $100,000. Both were bought by European collectors new to the gallery.

Another New York dealer, Per Skarstedt, provided an interesting illustration of how prices have dropped. He sold Martin Kip­penberger’s I Am Too Political, 1995, for $1.4m. He had bought it for $1.5m. He also sold Mike Kelley’s Empathy Displacement, 1990, for $225,000, down from $450,000 in 2008. “Everything we bought in the last year and a half—we overpaid,” he said.

Despite the swing to a more conservative, classic market, newer work was also selling. Yoshitomo Nara’s Torre de Malaga, 2007, a 26-ft tall fantasy shed which towered over the Art Unlimited exhibition, was sold by Marianne Boesky Gallery of New York. The price was $600,000. In the Art Statements section for younger galleries, Zak Branicka sold six works from Polish artist Pawel Ksiazek’s “Silent Utopia” project, 2008, at around E15,000 each.

Design Miami/Basel, meanwhile, Art Basel’s stablemate fair, benefited from a move to the city’s main exhibition halls, which meant art collectors could drop by on foot after visiting the main fair next door. “We now have a more seamless partnership with Art Basel,” commented Craig Robins, the design fair’s founder.

Visitor numbers were up 25% on last year, with strong sales led by a Jean Royère Ours Polaire (polar bear) sofa and armchairs, around 1957, bought for E480,000 by a private US collector from Paris dealer Jacques Lacoste. Notable design collectors at the fair included Hollywood star Brad Pitt, who bought three Atelier Van Lieshout pieces, including Mini Capsule Hotel, 2009, from Carpenters Workshop Gallery of London for E95,000, and the entire “Evolution” collection by Nacho Carbonell, one of the Young Designers of the Year, from Milan’s Galleria Rossana Orlandi for E84,000.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Dealers breathe easier as Basel stays solid'