To Bling or Not to Bling?

To Bling or Not to Bling?
Expectations for an action-packed, transaction-frenzied preview opening for Art Basel 2009, the 40th edition of Europe’s splashiest art fair, were barely on the radar screen when the doors opened for VIP cardholders at 11 a.m. on June 9.

Many exhibitors chose less expensive and less ambitious works to try to tempt buyers in the new economic climate.

“It seems like everybody’s brought interesting things,” said New York private dealer Neal Meltzer, caught striding across the booth of New York’s PaceWildenstein Gallery, “but it doesn’t have that sense of urgency.”

Cheim & Read, also of New York, chose a two-person display of drawings, sculpture, and photographs by Jack Pierson and William Eggleston, with Pierson priced between $20,000 and $200,000 and Eggleston between $25,000 and $50,000.

“Before, we brought over a mixed bag of works for millions of dollars,” said gallery co-owner John Cheim, who cited Joan Mitchell and Louise Bourgeois as examples, “but this time we decided to have an idea show. Hopefully, this will appeal to museum curators and directors as well as collectors.”

A number of important American collectors were spotted during the late-morning rush hour, including L.A.’s Eli Broad, Ohio’s Ron Pizzuti, and Connecticut’s Douglas Cramer. There was even a celebrity sighting, with movie star Brad Pitt seen wandering the aisles in a brimmed cap, tinted glasses, and faded blue jeans. And Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich made an appearance as well.

Broad was strolling with his wife, Edythe, and Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel. “We’re here to tell everybody about MOCA’s November reopening with ‘Collection: The First 30 Years’ ” said Broad, shoving a brochure in this journalist’s hand.

“We have Eli to thank for the next 30 years,” quipped Schimmel, alluding to the collector’s recent $30 million promised bailout of the troubled, endowment-depleted museum.

Theme-driven booths were plentiful this year, including ones seemingly oblivious to newer price points or recent market contractions. Geneva’s Galerie Jan Krugier & Cie displayed an eclectic homage to gallery founder Jan Krugier, who died last November. Studding the booth were an astonishing array of Alberto Giacometti sculptures, including Woman Standing (1958), which is priced at $7.2 million, as well as a number of Giorgio Morandi still lifes, Jean-Michel Basquiats, and Picassos, among them a late painting priced at $18 million.

“We have an enormous storage room here, with lots of works of art,” said Tzila Krugier, the founder’s daughter, pausing for a moment by a small Henri Matisse bronze dated 1906 and priced at $500,000. “We call it, ‘You name it, we have it.’ ”

Getting more serious, she added, “To me, the spirit of Jan is very important to be felt here.”

Giacometti was in strong evidence at a number of other booths as well, including Gagosian’s, where his work was harbored in a kind of backroom salon that also boasted a beautiful pointillist Picasso canvas, from the 1930s, of a voluptuous seated figure, most likely his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter.

One of the bronze Giacomettis there, a stately head of Diego believed to be priced in the region of $5 million, was sourced from the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation in Paris, which has a formal relationship with Gagosian Gallery.

As starstruck fair-goers buzzed around trying to capture Pitt’s presence with cell phone cameras, others made a beeline to the one-artwork-dominated stand of Zurich’s Bruno Bischofberger, a stalwart presence at Basel since the fair was founded in the late 1960s.

The attraction inside the booth’s silver-papered exterior walls was Andy Warhols immense, space-hogging Big Retrospective Painting from 1979, which Bischofberger acquired in 1980 along with the artist’s entire series of postmodern works that replicate his previous paintings and series from the 1960s, from flowers and Marilyns to car crashes and Campbell’s Soup cans.

With the work priced at 80 million Swiss francs (around $74 million), which roughly matches the current world auction record for the artist, Bischofberger was hopeful the dramatic display “would attract some public or private museum.”

“Maybe we’ll find the beginning of a conversation,” he added.

The dealer recalled selling other versions of the series in the $25–30,000 range when he first got hold of them almost three decades back. The 36-foot-long Big Retrospective Painting he sold four years ago to a private collector, who decided to return it to the market. Several sources noted that the work fetched $80 million back then, so someone might be eligible for a relative bargain.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility. If there was a surprise in the first few hours of the fair, it was that works were selling, even some expensive ones.

London’s White Cube had raked in approximately 15 transactions at prices ranging from £75,000 ($121,990) to £500,000, for works by such artists as Antony Gormley, the Chapman Brothers, Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin, Mark Quinn, Andreas Gursky, and Raqib Shaw. Summing up the general tenor, however early, the gallery’s Neil Wenman said, “It’s much more positive than we expected,” adding that they were “seeing more Americans than we thought.”

There was even a bit of impulse buying, as evidenced by Paris dealer and contemporary collector John Sayegh-Belchatowski, who bought Charles Rays all-white wall relief of an open paint can, Wet Paint (2008), in modified gypsum plaster with plastic and fiberglass, for approximately $300,000 from New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery.

Apparently unfamiliar with Ray’s near-mythic reputation stateside, the collector anxiously asked a passerby, “Is he really famous? I just walked by and immediately liked it.”

At London’s Lisson Gallery, Anish Kapoors hallucinatory, mirror-like wall piece Untitled (2009), consisting of stainless steel shaped as a giant disk, sold for £1 million. It came straight from Kapoor’s studio and sold to a European collector, according to the gallery.

But the grand prize would have to go to Paris-based Emmanuel Perrotins duplex stand and its fresh-from-the-studio Takashi Murakami collaboration with hip-hop star Pharrell Williams. Titled The Simple Things and set inside a chamber-like plexi vitrine, the Mr. Dob–themed sculpture is a hallucinatory work in fiberglass, steel, LED light system, and acrylic, and features seven objects — including a bag of Doritos, a bottle of Heinz ketchup, and a can of Pepsi — all made in different types of gold (pink, yellow, and white) and encrusted with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds. It sold for $2 million.

“It looks bling, but it’s really anti-bling,” insisted Perrotin, still flush with excitement from the transaction, which involved a battle between four buyers, two of whom were friends and decided to buy the work jointly and share it.

“Personally, I’m proud not to have followed all these people with less ambitious works,” said Perrotin. “We have to follow the dreams of artists.” He further noted that the piece “was a homage to real life.”

Perrotin revealed that the workaholic artist was taking his first vacation in five years, celebrating the completion of the two-year project with Williams and his painting cycle for François Pinault at Palazzo Grassi in Venice.

Asked where Murakami was going, Perrotin said, “to a very small Japanese village to read his manga.”

Judd Tully is Editor at Large of Art+Auction.