Art Basel

Collectors continue to expect—and find—the best at the 43rd edition of Art Basel

Dealers upbeat as first waves of visitors to the fair put any economic worries aside


Over its 43 editions, Art Basel has assumed a position as the world’s leading fair for contemporary and modern art. But, with the ongoing state of emergency in Europe’s economy and competition presented by the growing number of art fairs, is this queen of fairs in any danger of losing its crown?

“We just didn’t know what to expect—it’s hard to find a balance between the news reports, which are in a constant state of doom, and reality,” says Jaime Riestra, the director of Mexico’s OMR gallery (2.1/N19). In the fair, most gallerists seemed perplexed, but pleased to report that the strange separation between the art market and the wider economy seems to be intact. “We are a bit surprised by how dynamic the market is,” says Niklas Svennung, a partner in the Paris-based Galerie Chantal Crousel (2.1/J19), which sold works from Danh Vo’s We The People, 2011, a piece-by-piece reconstruction of the Statue of Liberty, to buyers from more than 15 countries, who paid between €30,000 and €90,000 per segment.

While there were only three main art fairs in 1970 (of which Basel was one), the number of potential competitors today has exploded to almost 200 worldwide. Dealers and collectors at this year’s fair overwhelmingly say that Art Basel need not worry about the younger pretenders. “This is the most established fair, and it shows. It’s not trying to do anything new—it’s just trying to do something well,” says Timothy Taylor, the owner of the eponymous London gallery (2.0/A9), which sold works by artists including Susan Hiller and Sean Scully.

The one new thing this year was the VIP openings. Now staggered over two days, rather than packed into one, it meant a change in rhythm. “The opening hours on the first day were sane. It returned to what it used to be like several years ago, before the population of VIPs multiplied so dramatically—and that made the difference between buying and not buying,” says the art adviser Allan Schwartzman, who bought a work within the first ten minutes of the fair.

“It wasn’t all about the first day,” says Alessandra Ragazzo d’Aloia, a director of Galeria Fortes Vilaça (2.1/J22), which sold three editions of Estanteria, 2010, a maplewood bookcase by Los Carpinteros, for €70,000 to Brazilian, Swiss and Belgian collectors. Some dealers, however, grumbled about a lack of energy in the first few hours.

This is a big-ticket fair and there were several million-dollar sales, including Gerhard Richter’s A.B. Courbet, 1986, at Pace (2.0/B20), which had an asking price of $20m and was rumoured to have been bought by the US hedge-funder Steven Cohen. The gallery’s president, Marc Glimcher, remained tight-lipped on this subject, but waxed lyrical about the fair itself. “There is a level of art that is hard to sell at any fair apart from Basel. Things above $5m are a lot less risky here,” he says.

Some galleries bought a number of substantial works at substantial prices. Most of these are in the modern section, notably the $78m orange Rothko from 1954 at Marlborough (2.0/D13), which had received offers from three different private collectors from North and South America and Switzerland, according to a gallery spokesman on Thursday. Also speaking on Thursday, Marzina Marzetti, a director of Helly Nahmad Gallery (2.0/E6), said: “It’s still a little early for us. Works at this level tend to close by the weekend.” Nonetheless, their sales included Picasso’s Untitled (2 June 1971), 1971, a work on paper for $300,000.

Things moved more quickly in the contemporary sector. “This could be one of our record years,” says Kristine Bell, a partner at David Zwirner (2.0/F5). “We sold work by more than 17 different artists—it is a real range,” she says, with sales including a $2.6m Donald Judd from 1981.

While you might expect the blue-chip galleries to fare well, “you would not think that the medium-investment level, like us—which takes more of a risk, would be doing so well,” says Riestra of OMR. Its sales included four of the five editions of Artur Lescher’s ZU, 2012, which found homes in Russia, Eastern and mainland Europe for $45,000 each. Gallerists with more emerging programmes also seemed pleased. Hotel gallery (2.1/R10) had sold five out of six editions of Arbeit, 2012, a video piece by Duncan Campbell, for £20,000, with three going to museums. “This is not an easy stand, full of nice, abstract paintings—there are very few fairs where you can do this well with such work,” says Darren Flook, the gallery’s director.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Collectors expect—and find—the best'