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Art Basel 2001 report: collectors motivated by passion rather than stock market swings

This year has served as a good barometer of the Modern art market

“This was the best Basel fair for the last few years,” enthused the Parisian dealer Daniel Templon at the end of the 32nd edition in June of what is the largest meeting-point of the modern and contemporary art worlds.

The trade had been jittery before it opened, because of the roller-coaster stock market and the results of the Spring sales, which overall had only offered average results despite some spectacular records. Art Basel showed that there are active European collectors on the market, and that they are more predictable and less affected by stock exchange hiccups; their collecting is more driven by passion than by the desire to make a quick buck.

“Both from the point of view of attendance and the interest we saw, the fair confirmed what a good market Europe is, despite fears of an economic slowdown,” confirmed Mr Templon, who was pleased to have sold about 12 works in the $10,000 to $60,000 price range.

Even before Basel opened, there were clear signals of the current interest in contemporary art; the three trade days at the Venice Biennale saw their highest attendance ever, with some visitors forced to queue for two hours to get into some of the pavilions, notably the German one. Many of these visitors subsequently went on to Basel, where the huge “Unlimited” section displayed works by some of the world’s best-known, trendy artists. Many of these pieces were better suited to a museum than to a private home, for example, a work by Hans Hemmert, exhibited by Gallery Gebauer, and which consisted of four cars, or Mona Hatoum’s large Mincer (Jay Joplin), a sort of vegetable slicer which must be three metres tall.

Even the sponsored “Statements” section, which featured lesser-known artists, was quite trendy. One of the prizes was awarded by the Swiss insurance company La Bâloise to Annika Larsson, whose fetishist video had strong Gucci-Prada overtones. Nevertheless, the section is a good springboard to success, as shown by Michel Blazy whose installation on the Art:Concept stand attracted a lot of interest.

Another of the special sections, Photography, was entirely reserved for “classic photography” this year. This very vague notion seems to correspond to what is sometimes called “straight photography” as opposed to “art photography”. Only 20% of the stands were showing the latter, but this new distinction was decried by some, notably Baudoin Lebon who talked about a “ghetto”.

Despite its small size, the section attracted the 10 most important photography collectors in the world, and here again the dealers noted the strength of the European market. Some are, however, warning that there will be a readjustment of prices after an explosion for the top creators.

Commercial considerations certainly play a part, and the dealers admitted that they had to turn over at least FFr500,000 (£46,000, $66,000) to cover their costs, and this encouraged them either to exhibit blue-chip artists or young (and perhaps ephemeral?) unknowns.

In photography, as in sculpture, video or installations, the American galleries openly increased their prices for Basel, sometimes charging 20% more for works on their stands, compared to the European galleries.

The ground floor featured some of the world’s top dealers, who in a few square metres were showing a brief overview of the history of 20th-century art. Acquavella Galleries was there for the first time, and William Acquavella was pleased, having met new collectors and having sold “Blue”, a 1961-62 Yves Klein work for about $2 million. This is far from the sort of money being asked for Raymond Hains, another Frenchman born just two years before Klein, whose “Mackintoshages” were for sale at just FFr 70,000 (about $6,500, $9,200). Daniel Templon explained the sharp difference by the lower amounts French collectors can spend, compared to their American, Swiss or German colleagues. Only Pierre Soulages manages to crawl past the FFr 1 million mark at auction, compared to armies of American or German “million dollar artists (see p.67).

Far from these dizzy heights, the artists in “List 01”, the young fair, offered more experimental work in sometimes very basic surroundings. An example was the ceramic iMac by Bruno Peinado for FFr15,000 (£1,400, $2,000), at Françoise Vigna.

Some of the galleries in this section will be off to America in December to attend the new “Art Basel Miami Beach”, for example Galleria Franco Noero. This new American event will also feature 1900-2000, Crousel, Di Meo, Goodman, Grève, Hussenot, Lambert, Lelong, Meyer, Nelson, Palix, Perrotin, Robac and Villepoix. The event is a challenge for the organisers of the Basel fair, which remains the barometer of the international modern art market.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper under the headline "A good year for the barometer of the modern art market"