Art Basel Report: Dealers Trot Out Trophies and Collectors Splurge in the Opening Hours of the Fair

A Mark Rothko at Marlborough Fine Art at Art Basel
(Courtesy Art Basel)

BASEL, Switzerland — Watching the splurge of acquisitions at the 43rd edition of Art Basel, it is hard not to wonder at how detached the upper end of the art market is from the rest of the world. I guess it was always this way, but at a time when European economies are crumbling under debt, this year’s frenzy of fair sales feels especially incongruous, yet thrilling.

Partly this is because the dealers seem to have upped the ante, bringing ever bigger and more expensive artworks for sale. They are clearly competing with the auction houses but also using super-pricey works as a marketing strategy to attract media and draw collectors to the booths. Case in point: Marlborough has a Rothko for $78 million.

Things sold extremely quickly. It took less than two hours for Marian Goodman to sell Gerhard Richter’s “Strip (922-1)” (2011) for an undisclosed sum. Nearby, L&M Arts had a fabulous Frank Stella painting from 1967 that went for around $2 million. Karsten Greve sold a Twombly, a Fontana, and a Chamberlain all before lunch.

It goes without saying Gagosian was mobbed from the first minute, with the bulk of his elegant stock of Picassos, Hirsts, and Warhols “not for sale,” according to one of a flotilla of salespeople floating around the booth.  The ease and arrogance of the staff and willingness of collectors to pay whatever Lord Larry asks is quite demented.

There is some talk along the aisles of resurgent American collectors given the falling value of the Euro, but European collectors were also out in force. Hans Kraus sold in the first few hours two photographs, one to an American institution and another to a German museum. Kukje sold a Richard Prince and had a Lee Ufan on reserve, both of them to “established” European clients according to Mrs. Lee, owner of the gallery.

For anyone interested in the art rather than art sales, the fair has much to offer. Pace Gallery always has a great booth but this time it was stellar, with a wonderful mix of works from gallery artists Raqib ShawTara DonovanLi SongsongLin Tianmiao, and others. Unfortunately the space wasn’t configured for crowds and felt cramped, at least after about 3 pm on the opening day when more VIPs began to stream in.

Landau Fine Art was also crowded but had a great Giorgio de Chirico painting. Matthew Marks had a magnificently rich and balanced booth with paintings and sculptures by Ellsworth KellyRebecca Warren, and Katharina Fritsch, all of it sold. Zwirner had such a dizzying array of first-rate works at lofty prices that it is hard to know where to begin.

As far as general observations go, the walls of the booths seems to be less cluttered this year. More attention seemed to be paid to presenting well-installed, individual major works. Lelong devoted a sizeable chunk of its booth to a major Luciano Fabro sculpture, which sold quickly, while at Michael Werner, Danish artist Per Kirkeby's paintings filled an outside wall.

Some collectors I spoke to grumbled about the splitting up of the VIP day between Tuesday and Wednesday, making it tougher to get passes to the opening day (I was even denied a press pass until someone intervened), though generally this is a good thing: sparsely populated booths make it easier to see and appreciate the work. In the end, the fair is all about selling and every year it somehow just gets better.

To see images of works mentioned in this article, click on the slide show.