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Confidence creeps back for collectors after reluctance of previous year: Art Basel Miami Beach 2009

A new layout might have left collectors feeling bemused but, in the mid-range at least, they were prepared to buy

The market continued to gain momentum at Art Basel Miami Beach (3-6 December). However, while prices—and moods—were up on last year “when it was so dead, we all felt the world would collapse”, according to Steven O’Hara at Van de Weghe, the boom years were but a memory as dealers and collectors adjusted to a re-shaped and more sober market. “People have exhaled and gotten used to a conservative picture,” said dealer Mary Boone.

The most discussed topic was the labyrinthine layout of the newly consolidated fair, which was 20% larger this year. Dealers grumbled about the new design—“the deathstar” one hissed—and several were unhappy with its sheer size. “It’s too big,” said Hauser & Wirth director Marc Payot. “The perception is what counts, and in a weak economy, it feels gigantic. If you reduce the supply, then you increase the focus.” The fair housed 265 galleries, and few of the 42,000 visitors were brave enough to abandon their maps as they wove through a web of aisles, which art advisor Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group, calculated would take three full days to circuit if five minutes were spent at each booth.

This made for an initially offbeat tempo, most evident at the VIP preview on 2 December. Gallerists in prime spots, such as Cheim & Read, reported robust early sales, including Louise Bourgeois’s Forêt, which sold to a Florida collector for $1m, while other dealers waited anxiously for disorientated collectors to find them into the late afternoon. Fair co-director Marc Spiegler admitted there had “been issues—it was confusing for some people”, but said he hopes to iron out glitches by 2010.

“The bottom line, of course, is who comes to the fair, and the level of activity,” said Angela Westwater of Sperone Westwater, whose well-placed booth proved popular, with sales including Liu-Ye’s subdued Girl with Toy Bricks, 2007, for $450,000.

While there was celebrity attendance, including Elle Macpherson, Calvin Klein and John McEnroe, who was seen in discussion at Timothy Taylor and Alison Jacques galleries, the Vegas feel of previous years had almost—though not quite—evaporated. “The fair [went] back to what it was like in earlier days, before it had become the runaway rodeo. It was less over the top and more about serious collectors,” noted Michael Plummer of financial art advisory Artvest Partners. “It’s a grown up fair—the froth and the partying have gone,” agreed David Juda of Annely Juda.

Miami’s art world big-hitters were out in force, including Lacma’s Michael Govan, MoMA’s Glenn Lowry and the Serpentine’s Julia Peyton-Jones, as well as major collectors such as Susan and Michael Hort and Marty and Linda Eisenberg. The most bizarre pairing was at Gmurzynska on the VIP morning, where Sylvester Stallone posed by his paintings alongside British royal Princess Michael, who is now a consultant to the gallery. One of the few fans of Stallone’s work was Las Vegas art collector and casino mogul Steve Wynn who bought a painting before continuing on a shopping spree, arm-in-arm with ex-Guggenheim head honcho, Lisa Dennison.

“In general, Art Basel Miami Beach is viewed as a kind of stress test for the American market,” said Marc Spiegler, as dealers reported the return of North American collectors. “The initial point of the upswing came from international collectors this autumn, but in Miami the Americans started to come back,” said Jane Cohan of James Cohan gallery who had one of the most-talked about booths with Containment I, an elegant Roxy Paine sculpture, which sold to Eli Broad on the second day with an asking price of $500,000. Thaddaeus Ropac affirmed: “Two months ago we didn’t expect many sales, but the climate in the US has changed. Core collectors are coming back,” adding: “It’s the fair in America.”

There was a notable increase in Latin American buyers, particularly from Brazil. “It is a strong new market for us,” said Yvon Lambert’s Olivier Belot, revealing that the gallery now has a member of staff dedicated to focusing on the region.

The mood was generally positive following strong results in New York’s November auctions—“collectors had the money before, but they had the confidence after,” noted art consultant Nick Maclean of Eykyn Maclean—although buyers marched to a new and slower beat.

“People are willing to buy but they don’t buy on the spot. There’s a dialogue,” said Gagosian’s Victoria Gelfand, whose sales included works by Warhol, Ruscha and Prince.

Impulse buying was out, and the sales rhythm was slowed by reserves, as collectors continued to make up their minds until the final hour. “The biggest surprise,” said Lehmann Maupin’s Rachel Lehmann, whose sales included Nari Ward works priced from $8,000-$70,000, “was that we had very interesting collectors and curators right through until the last day, rather than just the preview days”.

Dealers responded to the change in pace with confident, if conservative, displays. “Galleries were showing lower-value work,” said Michael Plummer. “They had their finger on the pulse of the market—they knew what would sell to their clients, and were gauging the sentiment of the time.” Lisa Spellman of 303 Gallery noted the new spending levels: “The numbers have all changed, 500,000 is the new million.”

Mid-range works made for the briskest business in the contemporary section. “Trading up to $250,000 is relatively easy, although works over $500,000 take longer,” said Marc Payot, who made strong sales including Michael Raedecker’s elegiac Substance, 2009, which went to a Brazilian collector for $100,000. He added: “The market is more solid. There is trading up to a certain level, but it still feels fragile.”

In the classic and modern quadrant of the fair, galleries reported mixed results. While exceptional pieces were on offer for high prices such as Picasso’s L’atelier, 1961-62, at Krugier for $12m, most dealers offered works under $1m. “This year we didn’t bring the highest priced works, but if it’s blue-chip and high quality, you can do a deal,” said PaceWildenstein’s Jeff Burch, whose sales included Dan Flavin’s Untitled (to Paddy), 1969, for $350,000. Though the air was certainly thinner over the $1m mark, there was a scattering of big-ticket sales including Warhol’s Mao, 1972-74, which went at an asking price of $2.25m at Van de Weghe.

While New York’s James Fuentes made the first sale of the fair—a $15,000 Agathe Snow sculpture to corporate raider Asher Edelman at 11am on preview day—most of the young galleries in Art Positions and Art Nova reported a greater return of kudos than cash, although all were happy to take a turn on Miami’s main art stage. “The fair was very good for the gallery,” said New York’s Alexander Gray, who presented a solo show by 2010 Whitney Biennial participant Lorraine O’Grady. “Making a single-artist presentation was an excellent risk for us, and we are very pleased with the results; in particular, the extraordinary attention received from museum curators and trustees.” Director of Oslo gallery Standard, Eivind Furnesvik, who sold two sculptures by Oscar Tuazon at E11,000 each, noted: “It’s not like we’re dealing with Warhols in the secondary market. We’ve covered our costs.”

Art Basel Miami Beach’s future looks solid—if organisers can get to grips with the floorplan. As Rachel Lehmann noted: “It is obvious everyone realises the art world is here to stay,” albeit at new levels, and at a new pace.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fair shrugs off memories of 2008 as confidence creeps back'