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Dealers have nothing to fear as crisis fails to impede sales at Art Basel 2011

The most expensive pieces may have been slow to sell, but otherwise it was as if the downturn never happened

The pre-opening optimism about Art Basel bore testament to the strengthening art market, but jarred with the money markets which dropped across Europe as Greece spiralled into deep crisis. “It’s a confident display of works by dealers,” said an upbeat Iwan Wirth, the director of Hauser & Wirth, on the opening day.

Dealers had brought large-scale canvases, towering sculptures, mirrored works and pricey paintings. These bold strategies seemed to pay off: the volume of trade was closer to the boom years than the bust. “We did an analysis of the fair and while it was not the highest grossing that we ever had [which was 2007], it was the second highest…the market has really come back a lot,” said New York dealer David Zwirner. Money, it seems, is safer on walls than in banks or stocks.

And what sized walls they must be: gigantic works dominated the fair. “Who the hell can hang a painting that large?” asked dealer Richard Feigen, pointing to James Rosenquist’s The Holy Roman Empire Through Checkpoint Charlie, 1994, on his stand. Post-fair, the $2.8m work had received some interest, said Feigen: two institutions are in discussion to acquire it. Another large-scale painting, Quartet, 2011, by Satoko Nachi at Tomio Koyama gallery had a quicker response, selling within hours of the opening to Italian collector Jean Pigozzi for $70,000. “For the first hour, I run. I’m like a horse with blinkers,” said Pigozzi.

He wasn’t the only collector in a hurry. The carnivalesque VIP opening descended into hysteria as hoards of collectors squished against the turnstiles, screaming at the humourless Swiss security guards to be allowed in. The more-is-more approach to the guest list bemused most dealers. “There are too many people here, it’s hard to concentrate,” said Thaddaeus Ropac on the first day. “It’s insane—the organisers do it to create a spectacle, but the crowds get in the way of business,” said one prominent art advisor.

Nonetheless, business was up, and big was back (see comment, p55). Hulking sculptures, including Thomas Houseago’s Yet to Be Titled (Large Head #1), 2010, at Xavier Hufkens, sold well: this went to a European collector for $250,000. Matthew Monahan’s Grand Falconer, 2011, received “a lot of attention…the kind of direct and unpretentious response one always wishes for,” said Christoph Gerozissis, the director of Anton Kern gallery, reporting that the piece sold on the first day for $260,000 to a prominent New York collection. Los Angeles collector and philanthropist Eli Broad admired the pumped-up Adam and Eve on show at L&M—a gold, larger-than-life version of the Expulsion, The Damned, 2003-04 by Liza Lou, another work that didn’t sell at the fair but which is currently under discussion, according to Dominique Lévy, the gallery director.

Mirrored works populated several stands. Dealer Lorenzo Fiaschi of Galleria Continua pondered whether this implied a “sort of contemporary narcissism”, as he stood in front of a huge Pistoletto mirror piece, Bugo Nero, 2010, while the director of 303 gallery, Mari Spirito, said it was about introspection, singling out Doug Aitken’s smashed-glass 1968 (Broken), 2011. Either way, mirrored works proved popular. Galleria Continua sold the Pistoletto to a private Italian collector for E450,000, while 303 gallery sold all four editions of Aitken’s work, each for $250,000.

Works in the multi-millions took longer to sell. Picasso’s $15m Nu Debout, 1968, which was admired by Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, on opening day at Acquavella, has yet to find a home. Nonetheless, “we have certainly had some strong interest,” said Nick Acquavella, the gallery director. The most expensive work on show was Andy Warhol’s $80m One Hundred and Fifty Black/White/Grey Marilyns, 1980, at Bischofberger. This, too, did not sell during the fair. Again, the gallery director, Tobias Mueller, was unconcerned: “We are not the least worried that such an important work will find a suitable home and, who knows, perhaps this will be sooner than later as serious discussions have not halted.”

Overall, dealers went home happy. The speed with which the market has motored back to health has caused “some people to say we’re in a bubble”, said Los Angeles dealer Michael Kohn, who refutes the idea. “Everything has cycles, so eventually when things slow down those people calling it a bubble will claim some righteous prescience—but it’s just natural,” he said. However, he added: “It is a little like playing fiddle while Rome burns.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Crisis? What crisis? Dealers rack up big sales in Basel'