Art Basel

Collectors reveal appetite for the challenging rather than the expensive: Art Basel 2011

Art Basel '11 fair report


As the 42nd edition of Art Basel settled down after the opening frenzy of Tuesday’s preview, art dealers were upbeat about the number of sales and visitors, with some even daring to compare it to the halcyon days of the market. “We have sold works across the board and are almost sold out. There are lots of people here to buy and it feels like it is back to 2007,” said New York gallerist Barbara Gladstone (2.0/E2).

So packed was the fair’s opening that some dealers complained that there were too many visitors: “We had some significant collectors who had to wait 45 minutes while we were talking to other people. The quantity of people doesn’t matter, you need the right people to be here,” said Andreas Gegner of Sprüth Magers (2.0/B9). But while the volume of visitors bothered some, the quantity of sales was a cause for rejoicing among many of the 300 exhibitors.

“We’ve had a very good fair, and sales have been better than last year in terms of the volume, and the same in terms of value—so far,” said Nicole Hackert of Contemporary Fine Arts (2.1/M19), speaking on Thursday. Thaddaeus Ropac (2.0/B11) reported “about 25 sales in total” including Baselitz’s Luise, Lilo, Franz und Johannes, 2010, for €430,000 and Not Vital’s Moon No. 2, 2011, for €260,000.

Many dealers remarked on a drop in the number of US buyers. “Sales used to be 80% to Americans and 20% to Europeans,” said one US dealer: “Now the situation is reversed.” “Americans are around, but it is mostly the Europeans who are buying this year,” said London dealer Anthony Wilkinson (2.1/R1).

Perhaps transatlantic visitors were discouraged by the weak dollar, meaning euro prices looked even steeper than usual. “I quote in dollars—and collectors’ eyes light up,” said Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read (2.0/A11), who sold Louise Bourgeois’ Eye, 2001, for just under $2m to a European and two of her fabric pieces for $300,000 and $200,000.

However, on Thursday even the European currencies took a tumble on the back of fears about a Greek default: “The way things are going, it soon won’t matter if it’s in dollars or euros,” muttered one dealer.

There was, however, a notable presence of buyers from the Middle East, Latin America and Turkey. “I sold all my Hans Hartungs to Turks,” said Sheffer, while Art Basel’s representative for Mexico, Mariana Munguia Matute, said collectors, including the Coppels whose wealth derives from department stores, had been actively buying. Expected this weekend is leading collector Eugenio López, founder of the Jumex Collection in Mexico City and heir to a fruit juice fortune.

While the fair offers an enormous range of price points, it seems that the bulk of sales has been taking place at under a million dollars, with some spikes at over $2m. But the stratospheric levels seen at auctions of blue-chip modern masters—where $20m-plus figures are no longer rare—were not immediately found at the fair. Bischofberger (2.0/C10) had not found a buyer on Thursday for its $80m Warhol One Hundred and Fifty Black/White/Grey Marilyns, 1980, and a $50m Bacon was unsold at Marlborough (2.0/D13).

The higher priced sales included a Léger oil-painting, La Charmeuse d’Oiseaux, 1942, for $2.8m to a French buyer at Helly Nahmad (2.0/E6) and all of Paul McCarthy’s White Snow Dwarf 7, 2010/2011 series (edition of three), sold for $2.8m each at Hauser & Wirth (2.0/B12) to European and American collectors.

There was a sign of returning confidence for more adventurous works, which collectors had tended to shun in favour of the tried and trusted over the past few years. “We sold all five editions of a Douglas Gordon video, Spiral, 2010, at $75,000 each, and even I was surprised, as video is generally not so easy to sell,” said Olivier Bélot of Yvon Lambert (2.1/N8).

Two conceptual installations in the Art Statements section sold rapidly. Elastic Gallery from Malmö, Sweden (S2), found a buyer for Runo Lagomarsino’s Trans Atlantic, 2010-11, a series of sheets of newsprint paper strapped to a sailing boat, to a UK private collector for €40,000. Harris Lieberman from New York (S18) sold Alexandre Singh’s The Dialogues of the Objects

I-V, an installation in which 15 objects, including an apple, packs of cigarettes, glasses of red wine, a balloon and a feather, reveal their “thoughts”. All three editions were sold for $35,000 each to European and American collectors.

With such increased enthusiasm, some expressed fears that the market is overheating as it did in 2007. “Everyone knows that the market is getting better, but the pace has picked up too fast,” said the curator of the Jumex Collection, Victor Zamudio Taylor, adding: “People felt more assured when it was slower and steadier, now the prices are too high.” Sprüth Magers’ Gegner weighed in: “It’s a continuation of Venice in that the art has been hijacked by the celebrity culture,” she said, adding: “It’s too crowded and parties are prevailing. There’s been a Miami-fication of the art business.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sales forecast: fair'