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Art Basel 2010 sees raised confidence and strong sales, but less impulsivity from buyers

Art Basel '10 fair report

The 303 exhibitors at Art Basel, held in the Swiss city from 15-20 June, were pumped full of confidence as the 41st edition of the world’s leading modern and contemporary art fair got under way. The packed preview day—some grouched that it was too busy—and a slew of early sales encouraged visitors and dealers. The good results in New York’s May auctions, and the prospect of London producing more winners in the June sales, gave a “feel-good” factor that carried on through the week, and at the end many dealers declared they had had a very good fair.

Visitors included Miami billionaire Norman Braman, Howard and Cindy Rachofsky of Dallas, the Rubells and De la Cruzs from Miami, London’s Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the Swiss contemporary Chinese art collector Uli Sigg and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich as well as film star Val Kilmer.

The tills started ringing early with Krugier reporting the sale, within minutes of the VIP opening, of Picasso’s plaster Personnage 1960, Cannes, to a European collector for around $15m, while Valerie Marquez of Per Skarstedt said it was one of the best openings the gallery had ever had, with seven confirmed sales in the first 90 minutes, including Kippenberger’s Fred the Frog Rings the Bell, 1990, ($450,000). Lisson sold 25 works by artists including Dan Graham, Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor, Jonathan Monk and Allora & Calzadilla; “For the first time, in 40 years of doing the fair, we sold work by every single artist we brought,” said Nicholas Logsdail.

Art Unlimited

Art Unlimited, the separate hall for large-scale works, did not garner unanimous praise this year. It was heavily slanted towards video works in booths, leading Paris dealer Daniel Templon to carp: “It’s like a white labyrinth, you don’t get an overview of the works anymore.” In fact, labyrinths were very much on the agenda and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s cardboard maze ending in a mirrored “pond” proved popular with visitors (Labirinto e Grande Posso was first made in 1969, recreated for Unlimited and on offer at E650,000 with Continua) as well as Sergio Prego’s Ikurriña Quarter, 2010, a series of inflated tubes that visitors navigated (and which deflated after getting a “deep cut”—a Louboutin heel?) Another hit with visitors was Yayoi Kusama’s Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2008, a mirrored box with LED lights: once inside with the door closed, the viewer saw the lights reflected to infinity. It was one of three and priced at E500,000 with Gagosian, but had not sold at fair’s end.

Sales from Unlimited are always difficult because of the scale of the works. “You have to be in front of the work with the right collector [to sell it],” said Templon, but Mario Merz’s rough-hewn igloo Pythagoras’ Haus, 1994, (Konrad Fischer Galerie) sold for E1.1m to a private collector. Another hut, by the 82-year-old film director Agnès Varda, La Cabane sur la Plage, 2010, was priced at E150,000 with Obadia but had not sold by the fair’s end.

Overall, the bling and zing of the pre-recession art market had largely disappeared from this year’s fair, as exemplified by the emphasis on cheap and disposable materials in some of the Unlimited projects. In the main fair, “the tone has changed: [the art on offer] is far more intellectual,” said advisor Todd Levin, noting there were fewer works by artists popular before the financial crisis, such as Anselm Reyle. Dealers emphasised established artists: “There is a big interest in art from the 1970s, because there have been so many museum shows from this period,” said Mary Sabbatino, vice president of Lelong in New York. “People are most confident with artists with museum records, solo exhibitions and works in permanent collections. Validation is more important than price,” said Theodore Bonin of Alexander & Bonin.

What has also changed is the speed of transactions, which remain much slower than before the crisis. “The days of people rushing to buy are over,” said Lelong director Mark Hughes, reporting sales of Sean Scully (Wall of Light, Black Shade, 2010, for about half a million dollars) and a number of Plensa sculptures. “The frenzy isn’t there, but year by year the audience becomes broader and deeper,” said Nicholas Logsdail.

One well-known buyer—Roman Abramovich—looked around the first day, but, according to the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, concluded by virtually buying out its entire stand at the neighbouring Design Miami Basel. A spokesman for Abramovich denied he had purchased the entire contents of the stand. Notable among his purchases was a honeycomb-covered 2010 sculpture of a crucified man in a vitrine, complete with thousands of bees—The Unbearable Lightness—by Tomás Libertiny, which sold for E65,000.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'It felt good, but it felt different'