Analysis: At Basel, Plenty of Money but Little Consensus on the Market

The cash registers rang loudly throughout the run of the fairs in Basel, though industry insiders seemed unable to reach a consensus on the state of the market, with various players expressing vastly different views.

Even after Art Basel's VIP preview (typically a busy time for buying), sales continued apace at the fair. London and Berlin dealers Sprueth Magers sold Ed Ruschas 1990 Woman on Fire, measuring roughly three by four feet, to a European collector for $1 million, and St. Moritz and Zurich gallery Gmurzynskasold Yves Kleins ANT SU 14, a 1960 work of black, pink, and gold on a light blue dyed and starched canvas, to a European collector for an asking price of $3 million. A second Klein at Gmurzynska, ANT 137 (circa 1961), a monochrome blue pigment and synthetic resin on paper laid down on canvas, sold to an American collector for €1 million ($1.24 million). Elsewhere,Tokyo's SCAI gallery sold a beautiful, 1959 Klein monochrome in the artist's patented International Klein Blue, measuring about 13 inches by 26 inches, for approximately $1.2 million.

Other notable transactions at the big fair included New York gallery LuhringAugustines sale of Albert Oehlen's 1990 abstract painting, FN7,to a Helsinki collector for $750,000, and San Francisco–based FraenkelGallerys sale of two large
Hiroshi Sugimoto seascapes, including the 1986 Seaof Japan, Hokkaido I, for $400,000 each. Fraenkel also sold a tiny (as in three-inch square) vintage Diane Arbus print of her Identical Twins for around $300,000 and an early portfolio of Richard Avedon fashion shots for Harper's Bazaar from the 1940s and 1950s, printed in 1978 in an edition of 75, for $190,000.

Back at the Design Miami/Basel fair, New York's Demisch & Danant sold a pair of rare, handmade rattan 1958 Sun Chairs for €24,000 ($29,700) to a European collector, and arranged a private commission for the 79-year-old French designer Maria Pergay to make four stainless steel and Plexiglas pieces for a New York collector for a fee upwards of $175,000.New York's R 20th Century moved two rare 1947–48 three-legged floor lamps by Greta Magnusson Grossman for $18,000 apiece and at least ten of designer Jeff Zimmerman's hand-blown glass candlesticks in white or black for $1,200 to $1,800, depending on the size.

In addition, an Asian collector snapped up a complete set of five fiberglass and automotive paint lamps by American designer Wendell Castle for $175,000. Though the prototypesof the lamps were made by Castle the late 1960s, it took 40 years for an edition to emerge. "This is a terrific excuse to travel, and I like being next to Art Basel," Castle said while sitting in the VIP room of HSBCPrivate Bank, the main sponsor of the fair. The designer also currently has a solo show of new works at Zurich's Kessler Gallery.

Though the money pit appeared in fine fettle as Art Basel wound down to the crowds of weekend tourists, there were a number of contrarian views about the degree of recovery in the art market and the confidence of European collectors. “It’s a little weird,” said New York dealer Lucy Mitchell of Mitchell-Innes & Nash. “Europeans feel to me the way Americans felt a year ago. They are still apprehensive about what has happened in the EU, so they’re a little more cautious and thoughtful about what they to do and how they want to do it.” Pausing a moment, Mitchell-Innes added, “There’s no problem under $500,000, and certainly no hesitation under $100,000.

As the international art crowd transferred from Basel to London in orderto catch the important previews for the upcoming Impressionist and Modern art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's this week, one disgruntled, very-private New York-based art adviser had this to say of the secondarymarket at Art Basel: “I offered a record price for a modern classic work, but was turned down by the dealer. They had a crazy price on it.” The adviser, who declined to identify the work or the gallery continued,“I mean, it was priced higher than it would have been in 2007! I couldn't get anything at Basel: not for myself — for resale — or for anyof my clients."

Does this mean dealers and their consigning clients have gotten greedy after a year or so of humble-pie behavior? Answers to that question may emerge in the Georgian-era auction room at Sotheby's London tomorrow evening.