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Art Basel yields inconsistent profits for dealers as the cult of the new proves more potent than ever

Art Basel '04 fair report

“For a surprising number of galleries there’s a big difference between the myth of these fairs and the financial reality,” commented London dealer James Mayor about Art Basel. And though repetitive boasts of “entirely sold out” from dealers are the norm at this event, there are also many patches of extremely slow trade where galleries can make just a couple of small sales but still consider it is worth attending the event for its prestige and contacts.

This year’s Basel (held 16 to 21 June) saw two unfortunate incidents: a minor one at Anthony Meier, with the accidental removal of a Charles Ray plank and a cleaning lady’s scattering of Tony Fehr marbles. At Ubu Gallery the police confiscated three watercolours by the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, after the artist’s grandson Raman expressed doubts about their authenticity. “We’re very embarrassed about this,” said Ubu director Adam Baxer, “We didn’t believe it at first as we had certificates of authenticity. Now we are working to trace the source.”

As always there was a vast array of vastly different stock, such a plethora of objects one eventually begins to doubt the supposed ‘rarity’ of any art.

The most expensive work on offer at the fair was a De Kooning at Richard Gray for $12.5 million, followed by a Bacon triptych at Marlborough ($10 million) and a Munch at Mitchell Innes & Nash for $7 million, none of these had sold by the weekend. The cheapest was a Richard Serra “Stop Bush” poster on show at Galerie m Bochum which can be downloaded for free. If works under $60,000 were selling solidly on the ‘younger’ second floor, the ‘grown-up’ ground floor was slower and after the opening night, foot traffic seemed thinner than last year, Beyeler apparently having sold nothing at all after three days.

The first question many visitors ask, apparently, is “How old is the artist?” and the younger the better; after the packed-out vernissage, some of the second floor galleries had sold everything on their stands.

Reflecting the supply-demand ratio for today’s hot stars, Neo Rauch was only shown at two galleries, four paintings in total, and all sold immediately at $160,000, including to the new museum in his Leipzig hometown. Eigen also sold a Matthias Weischer painting for $16,000 directly to Paul Schimmel of San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art. Work by Damien Hirst was displayed in four galleries, but Jablonka was having difficulty shifting his ping-pong work of 1993. “I couldn’t sell it then at £20,000 and I can’t sell it now at E550,000”, said a spokesman for the gallery.

Sean Kelly re-stocked his stall four times, having brought a huge amount of inventory; he declared it the best fair he had ever had anywhere. His most expensive work, and the first to sell, was a Kabakov painting at $350,000. Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner and Marian Goodman all reported good business throughout. Tanya Bonakdar’s elegant stall was mainly sold out, not least the lifelike model of herself by Elmgreen Dragset, which went immediately at E45,000 or a beautiful Eliasson, sold for E55,000 to a Norwegian collector who had been to both poles and even to the top of Everest.

The photography market remained solid, Scalo sold out all its Larry Sultan porno pics and Houk sold Arbus’s “Identical twins” for $240,000 or a 30s Brassaï for $45,000. Some galleries opted for fewer works at higher prices, the talk of the fair being Skarstedt presentation of Richard Prince’s 1983 Spiritual America, a photo of Brooke Shields in heavy frame and the red walls of its original East Village installation. The gallery was asking $1 million and sold it to a collector who bought one other work, also for a rounded up price around $800,000.

Though even the eccentric Galerie 1900-2000 was plastered with red dots, for its salon-style assembly of admittedly lower-priced Surrealist works, middle-market galleries of low profile and perhaps somewhat more pedestrian stock were hurting.

However inconsistent the sales, Art Basel retains its position as the throbbing epicentre of the contemporary art market.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Art Basel-the younger the better'