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Art Basel Miami Beach's debut uncovers secrets of success amidst the gloom

Buying mania at this new fair stripped some stands bare in 40 minutes

The new Art Basel Miami Beach was a rousing, reassuring, definitive success.

The location was central, a stroll to the hotel strip; the 200,000 square feet of convention centre was commodious, even elegant. Here were 160 hand-picked galleries from around the world with a whole range of hot stuff from 1890s Vuillards to work made on the spot by some 25-year-old.

An estimated 30,000 visitors (at $15 entry) came through the fair on its Wednesday-Sunday run and 7,000 supposedly “exclusive” people attended the invite-only “Vernissage”.

Visitor sophistication may not have been high. Faggionato had several inquiries on opening night as to whom this “Francis Bacon guy” might be, and an artist was overheard trying to explain who Jackson Pollock was to a group of Americans. Fresh art of the last decade was certainly most in demand and ideally priced firmly under $300,000.

Certain collectors sneaked in during installation with spirit-levels, pretending to be workers, and there was certainly an opening rush of buying, D’Amelio Terras immediately selling a John Currin watercolour for $40,000. Lisson made a million dollars in the first hour, with one large Kapoor at $375,000 and two sold-out Julian Opie editions (of 10) at $30,000 each. But after paying artists and fair costs, at least $100,000, not to mention gallery overheads, Nicholas Logsdail estimated final profit would only be $100,000.

The basic cost of the fair was a major complaint. With transportation and steep charges, the smallest booth seemed hard to achieve under $50,000. Art Basel failed to factor in Miami’s horrendous union labour. Local union work is notoriously slow and expensive; Art Basel so underestimated these charges they themselves will probably not make a profit.

Despite this, and the dearth of some European collectors who had promised to come, the event was relentlessly buoyant. For Art Basel made an exemplary effort, not least by applying Keynesian economics to luring certain key collectors, offering three free nights at The Shore Club (almost $700 a shot). Spend to generate more spending.

And spend they did. Marian Goodman sold out in the first forty minutes, Sean Kelly had literally nothing left to sell after two days, Modern Art smartly brought just one work by Noble & Webster, occupying the smallest possible booth and selling immediately for $80,000. Boesky sold three huge fiberglass dogs by Yoshitomo Nara at $75,000, all to local collectors excited to find outdoor works. Gagosian did not fare so well, mounting an oddly weak booth with a display which suggested that each salesperson had brought three works each for specific clients. Even the Warhol “Liz Taylor” from Nicholas Berggruen’s Pierre Hotel suite failed to sell.

By extreme contrast Peter Freeman had his usual exquisite small space with just a few perfectly selected and displayed early works, including Mangold’s first ever painting. He sold his Ellsworth Kelly steel work of 1979 for almost $1 million to a European collector who had come over on his own plane. Peter Blum sold two large Katz paintings for $160,000 and $200,000 and, likewise, Timothy Taylor sold his Katz from Saatchi which had been on the cover of the latter’s catalogue. Gisela Capitain, sharing the $35,000 booth with Petzel, sold their Sarah Morris “Fontainebleau” at $38,000, and a Jorge Pardo at $35,000. Richard Phillips’ portrait of Elizabeth Grubman, painted this year, sold instantly at $17,000 though Capitain had to be told who she was. A Kippenberger of 1986 sold quickly for $210,000, appropriately entitled “Against False Penny Pinching”.

The general impression was that expensive, secondary market works had a tougher time, certainly compared to the veritable buying mania for young work from teen galleries, as seen over at the “Art Positions” converted containers by the beach. These funky spaces were merely one example of the endless range of satellite events, from the “Art Video Lounge” to the rival Scope Art Fair and site-specific projects, not to mention packed crossover conferences and alternative exhibitions all over the city.

If Art Chicago is clearly doomed in the next decade, the real fight is now between the Armory Show of New York and Art Basel Miami Beach. Which of these cities, both packed with very different pleasures, will prove more lastingly tempting?

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Secrets of success amidst the gloom'