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Art Basel in Miami Beach

Steady nerve required by dealers as buyers take their time—but lower price points encouraged sales at Art Basel Miami Beach

Who needs celebrities? It’s the serious collectors that count

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Miami. As the wounds inflicted by the 2008 to 2009 financial meltdown heal, dealers at the ninth edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) are settling into the new rhythm of the post-recession recovery.

Part of the reason for the semi-subdued atmosphere was the lack of footfall on the floor, particularly on the VIP opening day. “[It] felt very quiet, there was a strange atmosphere,” said Alexandre Gabriel at Fortes Vilaça (I2). Nevertheless, the gallery sold almost all the works on its stand that day, including Vik Muniz’s Samba, after di Cava Icanti, 2010, for $95,000 to a Brazilian.

According to Gmurzynska (C5) director Mathias Rastorfer, a member of the ABMB selection committee, the organisers had “reduced the number of VIP tickets by 600 this year because we felt that it was too crowded [in the past].”

While important collectors including publishing magnate Peter Brant, hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen, Lacma trustee Steve Tisch and Brazilian buyer Susanna Steinberg were at the fair, many noted the absence of other big-name buyers. Rastorfer said that “five or six major collectors didn’t come,” adding that “there has been the autumn fairs, then the sales: hundreds of millions—how much can the market take?” However, he made some strong sales, including Yves Klein’s IKB 93, 1961, for $4m.

This was one of few multi-million dollar sales—a far cry from the adrenaline-fuelled buying of 2007 when seven-figure deals were not uncommon. While ABMB first-timer Ramón Cernuda (H2) reported placing Wifredo Lam’s 1944 Les Fiancés at $3m with a US collector, a $20m Lucian Freud at Faurschou (A4) was showboating rather than selling, and many other blue-chip modern works were still homeless by the weekend.

Meanwhile, at the top-end of the contemporary section, “the fair is definitely better than last year, but not yet at its full potential,” said Andrea Teschke at the shared Capitain/Petzel booth (J17). Prices in this section were generally well under $1m, and usually under $500,000.

Philanthropist Estrellita Brodsky commented on the general tendency to “bring known, safe artists, but of very good quality—and the prices reflected that.” While down on the boom, they were higher than last year: “$100,000 is the new $40,000,” she said.

“We brought a large volume of work, all priced under $550,000,” said Adam Sheffer at Cheim & Read (K8), adding that “the price point helped the work to sell—it’s a different strategy to bringing a couple of multi-million dollar works.” This seemed to have paid off: by the third day the booth was mostly sold, including Jack Pierson’s The Modern, 2010, priced at $175,000, to a prominent New York collector. Another US collector bought Sterling Ruby’s Excavator Dig Site, 2010, for $375,000 at Hufkens (C13).

While dealers were generally feeling positive by the weekend, some of the mid-market contemporary gallerists were less enthusiastic. “It’s been OK, but slow. It’s not the big rush you get at Basel,” said Marie-Sophie Eiché at Kamel Mennour (E5). She had limited sales by Friday, but in the fair’s first five minutes had sold Sigalit Landau’s Salted Shoes, 2009, for €40,000.

André Buchmann (C26) agreed: “It’s been positive, but slow. Maybe it’s because of the weather in Europe?” He had a small number of sales, including Bettina Pousttchi’s London Time, 2008, which, despite the snowstorms, went to a European collection for $17,000.

The young dealers in Art Positions, showing just one work each, were pleased as punch. Everyone had made sales (albeit not necessarily of the work on show). Philipp von Rosen (P10) had sold two editions of its video installations by Judi Werthein, La Tierra de los Libros, 2008, priced at $24,000: one to a US museum and one to a Colombian collector.

It was a different picture altogether in the emerging Art Nova section. Nature Morte/Bose Pacia (N32) hadn’t sold a bean by Friday, although “we have a few things on hold”, said a hopeful Rebecca Davis, including Schandra Singh’s colourful Pualani, 2010, priced at $35,000. “I hoped it would be busier and there would be more buying,” admitted Tracy Williams (N44). She said she had seen a lot of collectors around Miami, but “elsewhere, not at the fair”.

Miami’s notorious party-scene was back with a vengeance this year, but not in the convention centre. “The fair seems much more mature and serious. The party scene and the fair are really two different worlds now,” said Marc Payot of Hauser & Wirth (H17), reporting sales including Roni Horn’s one-tonne work, Well…, 2009/2010, priced at $750,000 to private West Coast collector.

Dealers, though, didn’t necessarily miss the Miami vice: “Celebrities don’t buy anything, they come on the stand to be photographed, that’s all,” said Robert Landau (C3).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Who needs celebrities? It’s the serious collectors that count'