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Dealers rewarded for advance preparation at this year's Art Basel

Art Basel Miami Beach '12 fair report

Dealers were feeling cautious before the opening of the tenth edition of Art Basel Miami Beach last month (6-9 December). “We had mixed expectations because of the continuing volatility of the world economy and nervousness about the Eurozone,” said Glenn Scott Wright of London’s Victoria Miro gallery, echoing the general sentiment.

The pre-fair anxiety spurred most dealers to work extra hard in advance, preparing clients by sending jpegs, with the result that a certain portion of the works arriving to Miami were already on hold. “It gives clients time to think about a work. That way, they don’t have to make a snap decision at the fair,” said Iwan Wirth, co-founder of Hauser & Wirth, which had reserves on works by artists including Rashid Johnson, Thomas Houseago and Paul McCarthy, all of which sold on opening day.

The proliferation of paintings also pointed towards a more conservative mood. Two-dimensional works dominated, while more ambitious installations of large-scale sculptures were, in the main, left behind in the galleries. Aside from being easier (and cheaper) to crate and ship, “painting always sells better than sculpture, and its prices have always been higher, in any period in modern art history,” said art adviser Allan Schwartzman. Dealers pointed out that the medium is popular with the artists themselves. “The history of art is so indebted to this medium, and it’s come to the fore again. It’s a myth that painting is more conservative: it can be radical,” said Carol Greene, the director of Greene Naftali gallery, whose booth was dominated by a large “post-painting painting” installation, Untitled, 2009 by Guyton/Walker, on hold for a North American museum priced at $225,000.

Dealers’ low-risk approach seemed to suit the sensibilities of buyers. “Established galleries took what was safe, and sold it,” said one art adviser. “It was a good year for important and recognisable artists—that’s still a strong market,” said José Kuri, co-founder of Mexico’s Kurimanzutto gallery.

Overall, the picture of the market that emerged was healthy, although the pace is waltz rather than tarantella. “In 2006 and 2007, we were accustomed to sold-out booths by the end of the opening day. Now, we sell work consistently every day. Cumulatively we still do very well, but it happens more like a whisper than a bang,” said Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read gallery. Business was “deliberate not frenzied”, said James Cohan, whose sales included Fred Tomaselli’s Night Music for Raptors—Blue, 2011, for $500,000 to an American collector. Works around (or under) this price sold well. “That was the sweet spot—I don’t think too many things sold above $3m,” said one dealer.

Despite pre-fair jitters, many were pleasantly surprised. “I didn’t go into it thinking we would have our best ABMB in the ten years we have been participating—but we did,” said New York gallerist Casey Kaplan, reporting sales including four Liam Gillick works priced between $50,000 and $100,000. This was also the case for Brazilian gallery Casa Triângulo. “We were afraid because of international market instabilities, but we had a lot of sales—even more than last year,” said the gallery’s director, Rodrigo Editore.

The gallery was one of several to benefit from deep-pocketed Latin American collectors. “We expected to see a lot of Brazilians and that’s what happened… [they] were everywhere, and even buying from our neighbouring galleries from Vienna and Tokyo,” said Editore, who reported sales including Sandra Cinto’s Abstraction II, 2011, which sold for $80,000 to a Brazilian buyer. The demographics of the fair are shifting. There were “many more South American collectors, which is encouraging, and fewer Europeans, which was to be expected,” said Alex Logsdail of Lisson gallery, where sales included Tony Cragg’s Distant Cousins, 2011, for €650,000. Dealers favour the transition. “[The fair] has [become] a lot bigger with a much stronger South American influence. It should keep going in the same direction,” said Barbara Gladstone gallery’s Maxime Falkenstein.

Ten years on, the fair is coming into its own, said dealers. “It has gone from being a ‘copy’ of Art Basel to a North American and Latin American oriented fair, which makes sense and gives it strength. It is probably the most important North American contemporary art fair,” said Thaddaeus Ropac. But there is still work to be done. “Miami needs a really interesting art school and more active museums,” said José Kuri. “But it is a dramatic change from a decade ago.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Lower the risk, raise the returns'