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Art Basel 2006 was the best yet, but clients found inflated prices a concern

Art Basel '06 fair report

A clear indication of the overwhelming dominance Art Basel now enjoys is the number of collectors flying in especially for the fair. According to sponsor Netjets, around 90 private jets landed in Basel during the fair (13-18 June)—more than 30% up on last year.

The heavy-hitters who flew in included collectors Eli Broad, Michael Ovitz, Henry Kravis, Don and Mera Rubell, Francesca von Habsburg, Bernard Arnault and François Pinault. Attendance was high with 56,000 visitors and 2,000 journalists. This year there were also four other fairs to go to (see below).

The general consensus seemed to be that this year’s Art Basel, the 37th edition, was the best. With the market experiencing one of the most sustained booms it has ever known, many collectors are seeing this as the time to sell works as well as to buy.

In May, Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $95.2m, the second highest price ever set at auction. As a result many top works by the artist, which had been off the market for decades, were being offered at the fair on the secondary market. An important late Picasso Reclining Nude, 1971, at the Gmurzynska gallery, came out of hiding, while Robert Landau and Richard Gray were also showing previously unseen Picassos.

On the overheated primary market, where work is sold for the first time, dealers had made concerted efforts to bring top quality works, many commissioned specifically for the fair. “We worked for the last nine months assembling material for our stand,” said New York dealer Sean Kelly. Zurich dealer Victor Gisler of Mai 36 Galerie said a quarter of his stand was work that he had saved especially for Basel 2006, including a massive untitled Matt Mullican bulletin board, which drew strong interest from museum curators and sold for $45,000.

“On the first day we finalised sales on the largest number of objects ever at this fair,” said Leslie Waddington, adding that these included “four Albers, three Warhols, one Miró, and three or four Flanagans”. By day three, Waddington’s sales totalled $4m, while Martin Summers, an associate of Krugier Gallery, said: “We’ve had a fantastic fair, we’ve sold one Barceló, two Giacometti sculptures, a Rothko, a Klee, and a Tapiès.” The New York gallery PaceWildenstein sold an Untitled de Kooning from 1976 for around $15m to financier David Martinez, as well as Agnes Martin's Untitled #9 2003, for $1.8m. Gmurzynska’s Reclining Nude, priced at $12m, had only been on view for two hours before a French art dealer had reserved it: soon there was a second reserve on it in case the first fell through.

Some stands were stripped bare on the first day. Blum & Poe sold a number of works including Takashi Murakami’s 727-727, 2006, a gigantic sanded-down acrylic on canvas, the most expensive of the fashionable Japanese artist’s work ever displayed. Dealer Tim Blum said: “We sold it to a North American collector in the first hour,” for $1.1m.

While some top US collectors did attend, dealers thought there were fewer Americans than last year. David Leiber of Sperone Westwater said: “We have mostly seen European clients. Art Basel/Miami Beach means that US clients don’t feel such a need to come here, and this year there is no Venice Biennale or Documenta to attract them.”

European collectors, however, were present in force: the Manchester-based Frank Cohen bought Terence Koh’s gold-plated “turds” from Peres Projects for €100,000 ($126,000), while the German collector Heinz Ackermans bought a room by Gregor Schneider from Luis Campaña.

Many collectors were shocked by how much they were having to pay. “The prices are killing me,” said one major Swiss buyer. “They are just stupidly high. “There’s a lot of great art here, but it feels like many galleries are hiking prices to test the market,” said London collector Amir Shariat.

Clearly, it is a seller’s market and dealers turned down offers they thought were too low. “If people try to negotiate, I ask them if they would prefer to buy at auction,” said Martin Summers. Other dealers said they were pushing prices higher to prevent collectors flipping their acquisitions directly into the saleroom.

Such tactics are not without risk. “It’s dangerous to push the prices so hard with young artists—you could make a lot of money, but you can kill the market for them,” said Berlin dealer Thilo Wermke of Galerie Neu. Other galleries opted for what they see as a longer-term strategy, keeping prices low. Jose Kuri of Kurimanzutto estimated that the $45,000 price tag on the stand’s silver-plated centrepiece by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Family of Four), 2006, was $20,000 below what the market would sustain. “When the market weakens, the galleries that were pushing prices too hard will be the first to suffer,” explained Mr Kuri.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The best yet, but prices were too high'