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Lesser-known artists exhibited alongside the big names of Matisse, Picasso, and Miró at Basel

Blue-chip dealers have been using Basel as an opportunity to build the potential stars of the future

While millions of euros-worth of work by the world’s most famous artists such as Picasso, Miró and Matisse were changing hands in Basel this week, there are also lesser-known names on show with several dealers using the fair to launch their latest signings.

New York and Brussels-based dealer Barbara Gladstone (A1) is devoting prime positions on her stand to the latest artist to join her roster: Cecilia Edefalk, 56, who is well known in her native Sweden, but much less so elsewhere. The dealer is showing the works in advance of Edefalk’s debut exhibition with the gallery in New York this September. “There is such a high quality audience here,” said Gladstone. “We’ve got a lot of advance interest thanks to Art Basel.” The gallery sold out of her works, priced at $10,000 each.

Using a similar strategy, Chicago’s Richard Gray gallery (E7) presented Czech artist Jan Tichy’s 2008 architecturally inspired video installation at Art Unlimited. The artist joined the gallery last year. The piece, Installation No. 4 (Towers), an edition of five, is priced at $25,000. The gallery sold two sets, with a third on reserve to an unnamed museum. “Does this strategy make financial sense? No,” said Paul Gray, whose gallery is best known for selling million-dollar modern and postwar works of art. “But it’s not all about that. You want to give them a platform.”

His blue-chip sales made so far at the fair, including a 1947 grey-hued Picasso for around $4m and a small bronze Giacometti bust for over $2m, afford the gallery the opportunity to expose Tichy’s work to a potential audience of 60,000.

The contemporary galleries are employing similar tactics. London-based Frith Street is showing an installation by the Raqs Media Collective, a group of Indian multimedia artists. “We made quite a commitment by bringing such a large piece, but we really wanted to introduce the artists,” said Charlotte Schepke. The gamble paid off—the work, The Knots that Bind are the Knots, 2010, sold to the insurance company Hiscox’s collection for e45,000.

Casey Kaplan (N19) sold work by three new artists, including a sculpture by Marlo Pascual, Untitled, 2010, of actress Lucille Ball impaled on a coat-rack, which was the focal point of the stand. “We’re doing a solo show of Pascual’s work at Frieze so it was really important to have a striking work out front,” said Kaplan. The piece sold for $18,000 to a trustee of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Los Angeles dealer Patrick Painter (P17) debuted sculptor Anthony James at the fair, whom the gallery will feature in an autumn show. “We wanted to generate some early buzz and to place some work in Europe,” said Michael Briggs of the gallery. James’ Birch, 2010, a large installation, sold for $125,000 to a German collector while a smaller piece, Birch Wall, 2010, sold for $75,000 to a Swiss private collection.

But Art Basel’s reputation for being the place that dealers bring works by the best, from modern masters such as Pollock and de Kooning to contemporary artists including Damien Hirst and the late Louise Bourgeois, remains unchanged, and overall the mood yesterday was positive. “It feels healthy, there is geographic and aesthetic diversity: dealers are making a big effort,” said Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

There have been strong sales across the board, although buyers continue to be more selective than in the boom. “The market’s much better,” said Andrew Richards, director of New York’s Marian Goodman gallery (B13). “But it’s never going to go back to where it was—that was a freak moment in time.” Pace gallery (B20) also reported sales including Sterling Ruby’s eye-catching, large-scale painting SP110, 2010, for $80,000. “The volume of sales has been very high,” said gallery director James Lindon, although works above $2.5m are taking longer to sell.

There were fewer Americans, perhaps because the fair does not overlap with the Venice Biennale this year. But those who did make the trip were caught up in the atmosphere. New York collectors Doreen and Gilbert Bassin came to the fair intending not to buy, but wound up with works by South African artist Mikhael Subotzky and the late US artist Dash Snow. “The gallerists are happy when they are selling, and they are selling,” said Doreen Bassin.

Despite the troubled euro, collectors from the continent were out in force. Dealers offering non-Western art also found demand. Shanghart (K17) sold Zeng Fanzhi’s large, turbulent landscape for over $1m to a European collector. “Last year we wouldn’t have dared to bring such big, expensive work,” said Shanghart’s Lorenz Helbling.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'It’s about more than Matisse'