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Dealers' efforts pay off at Art Basel 2012 as buyers seem unruffled by economic troubles

Art Basel '12 fair report

The 43rd edition of Art Basel took place at the end of the so-called “fair marathon”, which began with Frieze New York (4-7 May), continued in Asia with ArtHK (17-20 May) and closed in Switzerland (14-17 June).

While the two earlier fairs received mixed reviews and reports of patchy sales, the Swiss event retained its position as the world’s leading modern and contemporary art fair. “Basel is absolutely the best—nothing compares,” said Eugenio López, the Jumex juice heir and collector. The fair is “the benchmark against which others are set… it’s a defining moment in the year,” said Andrew Renton, the recently appointed director of the new gallery Marlborough Contemporary.

Because of this, collectors expect dealers to bring their best material. “You’re wasting your time and valuable ‘wall real-estate’ if you bring anything second-rate,” Renton said. Marlborough was one of several galleries in the modern section to bring multi-million-dollar works: its orange Rothko, Untitled, 1954, was on offer for $78m (it remained unsold as we went to press, although Renton said that very serious offers were under discussion). Although there was a quiet consensus that this section is starting to show the strains of a diminishing supply, secondary-market galleries clearly save the choicest works for Basel. “Dealers made an effort to present substantial work at major prices in what was clearly a conscious statement of their continued ability to acquire works at the highest levels, despite the increasing dominance of the auction houses,” said the art adviser Allan Schwartzman.

“People just want good quality—if you’ve got that, you’ll sell,” said Alexander Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries, where Andy Warhol’s Joseph Beuys, 1981, sold for around $10m. Nonetheless, deals at this level were slower to come off than last year, “but last year was a real record, so we can’t complain”, said Marzina Marzetti, a director of Helly Nahmad Gallery, whose booth showed works worth more than $100m.

Dealers working in the secondary market for dead contemporary artists also held back key pieces to show in Basel. One of the most impressive booths was that of the gallery L&M Arts, where three works by Agnes Martin attracted attention and swiftly found buyers, selling in the range of $2.5m to $3m. Joan Mitchell was popular at Cheim & Read, where an untitled 1956 abstract work sold for $2.5m, while a 1981 Donald Judd went for $2.6m at David Zwirner and Philip Guston’s Orders, 1978, sold for $6m at Hauser & Wirth.

For gallerists focusing on the primary market, what comprises the best material is harder to define, but artists understand the importance of the Basel platform. “They definitely step up to the plate,” said Sadie Coles, who reported a “fantastic” fair, with sales ranging from $250,000 to $1m.

“All of the works [I was showing] were new works, so the notion of saving [the best work] doesn’t apply. However, when visiting artists’ studios, if I saw something great, I would ask for it specifically for Basel,” said Stefania Bortolami of the eponymous gallery.

The top and the bottom of the contemporary market are moving the fastest. “People are looking for artists with a certain name—they are reassured by artists such as Robert Mangold and Sol LeWitt because their reputations are confirmed,” said Frédéric Mariën of Greta Meert gallery, which sold works by both artists, including LeWitt’s Irregular Grid, 2001, for €200,000 to a Swiss collector, and Mangold’s Column Structure IX A, 2006, for $280,000 to a European private buyer. “At the same time, they are also investing in younger artists—it’s the middle part, and the mid-career artists, that take more time.” This level is more of a gamble, said Jaime Riestra, the director of Mexico’s OMR gallery, “so you would not expect it to… be doing so well”. The gallery had almost sold out by the third morning, including ZU, 2012, a suspended bronze sculpture by Artur Lescher. Four editions of five sold for $45,000 to Russian, Eastern and mainland European buyers.

The strong sales seemed at odds with the moribund state of the world’s economy, but while this “didn’t affect business, you can tell people are talking about it”, Alexander Acquavella said. Richard Nagy, who made sales including Edward Burra’s Figure in a Café, 1936, for £600,000 to a European collector, said: “People aren’t whinging about what’s going on, but there are fewer people here from Spain and Greece.” Dominique Lévy, the director of L&M Arts, said the gallery “had a very good fair”, but sounded a note of caution. “You can’t be apart from the economy. Maybe people are negotiating more, and being more choosy. We’d be in a dream if we didn’t think the economy mattered.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The best of the best at Art Basel'