Roman Abramovich

Roman Abramovich brings Basel '08 to life with surprise appearance

Chelsea FC owner joins Brad Pitt and Sheikh Saud Al-Thani at vernissage

Billionaire businessman and owner of Chelsea Football Club Roman Abramovich and his partner Daria “Dasha” Zhukova caused a tremendous stir—more even than superstar actor Brad Pitt—when they arrived at Art Basel yesterday. This is believed to be the couple’s first appearance at an art fair, and came less than a month after Mr Abramovich spent $120m at the spring New York auctions on a Francis Bacon and a Lucian Freud.

Also spotted at the fair was Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, cousin of the Emir of Qatar, who is a contemporary art collector although better known for his previous collecting on behalf of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

Dealers were thrilled by the presence of Mr Abramovich and Ms Zhukova, until now only known to buy at auction. “I was pleased to see him, looking at things very seriously,” said David Juda, (2.0/G1) of London’s Annely Juda Fine Art. “Some other collectors only go to auction.”

A trio of Alberto Giacometti bronzes at Krugier’s stand (2.0/B4) are believed to have caught Mr Abramovich’s eye. The largest of the three, Femme de Venise I, 1956, is priced at $14m, while the smaller 1958 Femme Debout is priced at $8m. He is believed to be “seriously considering” a purchase, according to a source. Giacometti was one of the stars of the recent New York contemporary sales when a sculpture fetched a record $27.5m at Christie’s on 6 May. Mr Abramovich also paused to admire works by Marc Chagall and Alexej von Jawlensky at Galerie Thomas (2.0/ P2).

His presence provided a welcome burst of confidence for dealers faced with fewer American collectors. “With the strong euro and weak dollar, Americans, even the rich ones, are complaining for the first time,” said New York collector and banker Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo.

Donald Bryant, who owns works by Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Willem de Kooning, said finding value today requires selectivity. “The secondary market prices are out of control,” says Mr Bryant. “With the primary market you are more likely to get a real price.”

The divide between gallery and auction prices has accelerated in recent years, boosted by new collectors. As auction prices have soared, retail art shopping can look like a bargain. PaceWildenstein had a painting by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, which sold for under $1m, according to the gallery’s Susan Dunne. His record price at auction, for an older work, is $6.1m.

“The big collectors come to Basel because they know they are going to be seeing great art,” said Sam Keller, the former Art Basel director, now head of the Fondation Beyeler. “But if you have a relationship with the dealer, you may well be able to buy that art cheaper than on the secondary auction market.”

Ms Zhukova plans to open the Center for Contemporary Culture Moscow in September. She will mount international contemporary art exhibitions in an 85,000 sq. foot industrial 1927 bus garage designed by a noted constructivist architect. Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, a former Gagosian director who has been hired to manage the centre’s programmes, escorted the couple through the fair.

Mr Abramovich’s interest ranged from the organic and edgy—a $70,000 snake-like sculpture by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto at Galerie Max Hetzler (2.0/Q2)—to a Picasso drawing at Acquavella Galleries. (2.0/R1). Having paid a record $33.6m for Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, at Christie’s in New York last month, Mr Abramovich also priced the Freud paintings on offer at Acquavella.

With the Euro 2008 football championship arriving in Basel on Saturday, some dealers who missed Mr Abramovich regretted the missed opportunity—and not only his buying power. “I wish I’d known he was here,” said dealer Roland Augustine of Luhring Augustine (2.0/P4). “I would have tried to get soccer tickets.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper Art Basel Daily as 'From auction to fair: Roman Abramovich brings Basel to life'