The latest edition of Art Basel opened to the public for six days on 15 June, but the business of selling art had already started the week before, some 600 kilometres away at the Venice Biennale.
In an idealistic vision of the art world, biennials and commercial fairs may be opposite sorts of events but, in the reality of today’s art market, the distinction between the two is becoming negligible. Much of the art on show in Venice is on loan from dealers, many of which also had stands at the Swiss fair.
The Venice Biennale offers dealers a unique opportunity to rocket their artists a few rungs up the market hierarchy. Not surprisingly, dealers actively lobby to get their artists into the non-commercial event, then often subsidise the production, transport and installation of works that have been selected.
On the opening day of Art Basel, Turin gallerist Franco Noero was standing at his booth when an American collector strode up to him, asking about Francesco Vezzoli’s Flower arrangement, homage to Bruce Nauman, a bouquet of 100 crimson roses posed high upon a pedestal in a pastoral basket. “Are you familiar with his work?” Mr Noero asked. The collector responded, “Well, I saw the video in Venice,” referring to Vezzoli’s Caligula, a spoof trailer in the Italian Pavilion which was one of the hits of the Biennale preview the previous week.
Welcome to the Venice effect, in which the profile of artists suddenly rises at the Biennale causing a run on their work in Basel, in this case somehow infusing a $25,000 bouquet with the frisson of a Roman orgy.
The other big-buzz video in the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Candice Breitz’s Mother & Father spurred a frenzy on the stand of Sonnabend Gallery, who represent her, at Art Basel. Director Mr Ysenburg was approached by The Art Newspaper just as he explained to collectors the exact details of how the piece could be sold—the edition size, installation requirements, and other details of how the work might be sold remained under negotiation with the artist. The price had been set—e120,000—and there were collectors fighting to pay it. By the end of the fair, several of the editions had been sold.
On Marian Goodman’s stand, Agnès Fierobe, director of Ms Goodman’s Paris gallery, which was showing works by Annette Messager, the artist whose installation at the Biennale, Casino, won the prize for the best pavilion, said: “Even before Messager had won, people were calling us from Venice; and we had a waiting list for her works”.
On the first two days of Art Basel, buying, particularly on the upper floor where many of the younger galleries showing emerging artists have their stands, was frenzied. Sales there were reported as excellent, with many dealers rehanging their booths more than once during the course of the fair.
Inevitably, the more expensive items sell more slowly and deals are often concluded after the fair has ended. Nevertheless, some of the grandest dealers on the ground floor were watching the upstairs speed-buying wistfully. “There is a herd instinct; everyone wants the youngest art now”, said one of them.
“An art fair creates the same sense of urgency as the auctions”, said Howard Read of Cheim & Read, and today’s ultra pumped-up market for contemporary art is certainly contributing to the frenzy. Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray noted US buyers “making a bee-line for the upper floor”, while David Nash of Mitchell-Innes & Nash thought that Art Basel/Miami Beach had also encouraged more American buyers to attend the Swiss fair. “I sold a painting to a first-time buyer who had attended the Florida fair. It was the first such event he had attended; he didn’t buy there, but he did here”, said Mr Nash who reported making “a lot of sales”, including a vast, untitled painting of lightning in a dark sky by Jack Goldstein, 1983.
Fresh from winning the prize for the best artist at the Biennale, the artist Thomas Schütte saw his 2005 Untitled (trois personnages) sell “five minutes after the fair opened” to the French luxury-goods mogul François Pinault (E410,000, Galerie Nelson). A 1975 Gilbert & George (currently representing Britain in Venice) sold immediately at Sprüth Magers for $600,000.
Richard Gray sold Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1993 for around $3 million, while Mayer reported that it was “delighted” with sales, which included Tony Cragg’s Culture myth—Greece, 1984, in the form of a discus thrower, made with broken plates and other implements, most likely to the Jumex Collection in Mexico City.
Nothing could be more ostentatious than Jeff Koons’s giant green diamond on the Gagosian stand, which hardly discouraged the three buyers who paid the price of a massive real diamond, ($3.2 million, edition of four).
Krugier sold Picasso’s Portrait d’homme aux cheveux gris, 1970, tagged at $2.3 million, and Max Ernst’s Portrait d’une fille avec boucles d’oreilles mexicaines, about 1946. Marlborough sold its sensational Paula Rego triptych and her Cakewoman.
Sales were strong in the Art Unlimited section: Simon de Pury immediately bought, for a private Italian collection, Kader Attia’s The loop, a tent housing a whirling dervish, a disc-jockey hanging from a disco light and three break-dancers spinning on their backs (Mennour, priced at E80,000).
Bill Viola’s video The raft sold at $425,000 (Cohan), and Anthony Reynolds had two buyers for I was overcome with a momentary panic at the thought that they might be right, 2004, an installation with drawings of bomb craters and punctured white foam discs by The Atlas Group/Walid Raad that documents events in the Lebanon (tagged at $135,000).
As well as buying the Schütte sculptures, François Pinault purchased a diptych by Laura Owen at Sadie Coles ($180,000) and a 1962 Agnes Martin painting at Pace Wildenstein ($600,000). The French luxury-goods group LVMH bought Domestic tornado, 2005, by Esteve, a pretty piece like a glittering chandelier which suddenly starts spinning (E18,000, Bernier/Eliades) and one of the edition of three Mariko Mori installations, Transcircle, 2004 was sold by SCAI the Bathouse.
By the third day of the fair, some of the upper floor galleries had sold out; virtually all the drawings by Christine Rebet, and her video had gone from Mennour.
The only Polish gallery at Art Basel, Foksal, which represents the currently super-hot artists Wilhelm Sasnal and Pavel Althamer, had sold an Untitled firepiece by the former to the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. It consists of the word “Warsaw” burnt into the gallery walls, and the museum will have to make the piece itself: it receives a template and then must fix fusetape to its wall and light it (E15,000). A private collector from Argentina bought a life-size self portrait of Althamer dressed as a Japanese kendo player (E30,000).
While most of the photography specialists are grouped together, the New York dealer Robert Mann was pleased to be placed apart. “I have sold across the board, from vintage to contemporary, and every sale was to a new person”, he said. “I only wish I’d brought more to the fair.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Newest art sells fastest at Art Basel'