Despite Gripes About Thwarted VIPs, Art Basel's Languorous Two-Day Preview Nets Serious Sales

Conducting business at the Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art booth
(Courtesy Art Basel)

BASEL, Switzerland — The 43rd edition of Art Basel, Europe’s greatest modern and contemporary art fair, opened to “First Choice” VIP black cardholders on Tuesday morning with a new and more exclusively tiered arrangement that angered collectors who didn’t make the first cut. As a result, the usual stampede to favorite stands was replaced by a more staid and calm atmosphere, essentially adding a second day of VIP viewing prior to the general opening on Thursday.

“Obviously, last year was a disaster at the opening bell,” said New York dealer Jane Kallir of Galerie St. Etienne, referring to the chaos generated by the glut of VIP cardholders in 2011. “The new system is so relaxed, however, that the collectors love it — but it doesn’t create the sense of competitive urgency that triggers a high level of sales.”

“It’s not the economy,” said Kallir, who sold a rare Max Beckmann woodcut of his most important print, “Group Portrait, Eden bar” (1923), in the low six figures. “It’s the VIP system. We did not do the level of business we normally do on the first day.”

“The other side of the coin,” added Kallir, “is that you can talk more quietly with clients. But I prefer the hectic feeling.”

“They over-Swissed it,” another dealer was overheard saying to a colleague, referring to the penchant of the organizers to assert a bureaucratic form of law and order. The same gallerist also said (though not for attribution), “So many people couldn’t get in and were upset about it. A lot of Americans couldn’t get the [First Choice] black card and decided not to come.”

Other exhibitors were more positive in regards to the new, two-day preview format. “We sold a lot yesterday [Tuesday],” said L.A. dealer Tim Blum of Blum & Poe. “It was a good flow [of collectors], not too dense. So from our view, it felt fine.”

As Greenwich super-collector Peter Brant, clad in a summery seersucker striped suit, surveyed the offerings, Blum ticked off the roster of sales: Takashi Murakami’s two-part “Shangri-La Blue/Shangri-La Pink” (2012) in acrylic on canvas, for around $1.5 million; Chinese artist Zhu Jinshi’s new paint-gob-scattered abstraction at $150,000, and an older work from 1990, the diptych, “The Rings Stay Open” for $125,000; and Matt Johnson’s painted bronze, “Styrofoam Girl” (2012), which sold for $60,000. 

Blum & Poe also sold Mark Grotjahn’s “Untitled (Orange Butterfly Blue MG03) #1” (2003) for around a million dollars. “It has a beautiful color scheme,” said Blum, referring to the departed painting, “and is in mint condition.” A newer model Grotjahn, “Untitled (Turned and pretty blue and cream face 43.43)” in oil on cardboard mounted on linen from 2012 also sold for $225,000.

Henry Taylor’s new wall relief, “You’re in it, we’re in it,” comprised in part of plastic bottles, black spray paint, a mop head, and nails, sold to a European collector for $40,000, while Scottish artist Michael Wilkinson’s impressive, mixed-media “Never Work 6 (triptych)” (2012) sold in the $15,000-20,000 range.

New York’s Metro Pictures also saw action as two versions of Robert Longo’s fearsome “Untitled (Tiger Head No. 9) (2012), in charcoal on mounted paper, sold to Europeans for $295,000 apiece, and Olaf Breuning’s carved marble sculpture, “Flat Human (I want more)” (2009) sold to an American collector for $90,000.

Metro Pictures also sold four out of six from the new Cindy Sherman edition, “Untitled” (2010-2012), at $450,000 each. In the works, Sherman stands in the center of the giant landscape image in a couture Chanel outfit against the backdrop of Mt. Stromboli, complete with ash cloud. On a more modest scale — both in terms of dollars and pure size — at least 10 Jim Shaw airbrush drawings on paper dating from 1979, featuring some Hollywood stars and other creatures (including Doris Day), sold at around $10,000 apiece.

The mood was also buoyant at New York’s Sperone Westwater, which sold three works by Alighiero e Boetti at prices ranging from $240,000 to $300,000, as well as Tom Sachs’s hand-painted bronze, “Saturn V” (2011) rocket, standing at its launch pad, for $125,000. The gallery also sold “Mobile Home” (2012), a new Charles LeDray sculpture of a miniaturized outfit for $100,000 to a European collector, the work being one of the first sculptures made by the artist since his traveling retrospective. “We had a big opening,” said partner David Leiber. “We had clients from America and Europe, some repeat clients and some new clients.”

Market appetite for the American painter Christopher Wool appeared quite healthy at New York’s Luhring Augustine, which sold “End Plate II,” an alkyd-on-aluminum and steel from 1986 to a European collector for $950,000.

While it’s probably still too early to judge how successful this iteration of the Art Basel enterprise fares against previous years when the market was judged as red hot, the level of commerce was certainly respectable, and there was at least one early blast of fireworks. That particular roman candle went off at New York/London/Beijing-based Pace Gallery with the sale of Gerhard Richter’s color-saturated and lushly squeegeed “A.B.  Courbet” (1986), which sold for an undisclosed price to an unknown collector. The gallery had previously confirmed the price was in the range of $20 million. One collector buttonholed by ARTINFO even said the gallery was asking $25 million. Whatever the price, it easily ranks as the priciest work to sell so far, and it most likely came close to or beat the recent Richter auction record set at Christie’s New York in May when “Abstraktes Bild” from 1993 sold for $21.8 million (est. $14-18 million).

Pace also sold Agnes Martin’s “Untitled,” a 12-inch-square oil, ink, and wash-on-canvas from circa 1961 for $1 million, Claes Oldenburg’s bronze and stainless steel “Clothespin” (1974) for $600,000, and Zhang Xiaogang’s somber oil-on-canvas “Face 2012 No.1” (2012) for $450,000.

There was also some strong action at New York/London/Zurich’s Hauser & Wirth, led by Philip Guston’s late and figuratively gutsy “Orders” (1978), which went to a European collector for $6 million, and Louise Bourgeois’s mixed-media sculpture, “Arched Figure” (1993), for $2 million to another European. On the still-living side, Hauser & Wirth sold all three versions of Thomas Houseago’s bronze wall piece, “Untitled” (2012) for $175,000 apiece, as well as a new Paul McCarthy black walnut sculpture, “White Snow and Prince on Horse,” for $1.8 million.

At Berlin's Galerie Max Hetzler, a huge and new Albert Oehlen “Untitled” paper collage on canvas, replete with slivers of advertising images and strong colors sold for €315,0000 ($396,700), and Mona Hatoum's "Witness" (2009), a porcelain biscuit sculpture from an edition of 10 and a miniaturized version of a Beirut Lebanon monument that was damaged by gunfire during the country’s civil war, sold for €40,000 ($50,000).

The gallery also sold a totem-like Günther Förg abstraction, “Untited” (1990), a sumptuous work from his lead series, for  €150,000 ($189,000).

The beauty of this fair has always been the rich mix between modern and contemporary, a strength that was evident at New York’s Acquavella Galleries, which sold Andy Warhol’s large-scale, 100-by-80-inch “Joseph Beuys” (1981), in synthetic paint, silkscreen and diamond dust, executed at a time when the artist’s career was foundering. “We were asking $10 million,” said gallerist Nicholas Acquavella, who moved the huge and rare painting out of harm’s way after it was sold. “It’s nice to make a sale,” said the dealer, “but not nice when you have to call up the buyer and say someone just put their handbag through it.”

The gallery also sold two new paintings by Damian Loeb, including “Vega” (2012), for approximately $220,000, and Wayne Thiebaud’s 24-by-24-inch “Girl in White” (1979-1996) for somewhere in the vicinity of the $1.5 million asking price.

At Berlin's Auriel Scheibler, the gallery sold Alice Neel's portrait, "Elsie Rubin" (1960) and "Spanish Harlem," a circa 1938 drawing to a Chinese collector, for over $500,000. According to the gallery it is the first Neel heading to China.

The classics were also in evidence at Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska, which sold a small scaled and pretty Fernand Leger composition, "Etude pour 'La Baigneuse au tronc d’Arbre'" (1930) for $600,000, and a stunning Wilfredo Lam gouache on paper laid on canvas, “Figure Assise (Anamu)” (1943), for somewhere under $3 million.

There were several striking novelties at this year’s fair, including what must be a first: a contemporary art dealer showing his own art work. Veteran New York dealer Tony Shafrazi devoted his stand to his own colorful, collaged, tablet-like forms in fiberglass. Sporting titles such as “Egyptian Light” and featuring images of a sphinx, palm trees, and what appeared to be a still from the film "Lawrence of Arabia," several of the wall-hugging tablets sold at prices ranging from approximately $50,000 to $150.000. In a short space of time, such heavy hitters as Laurence Graff, William Acquavella, and Larry Gagosian came into the stand to take a close look.

“He’s a work of art himself,” quipped Simon de Pury of Phillips de Pury. “He could do a movie about his life story — he’s an artist of life.”

What seemed almost stranger was the dramatic inclusion of Mark Rothko’s “Untitled” oil on canvas from 1954, taking the spotlight at London’s Marlborough Gallery with a whopping (and much-publicized) asking price of $78 million.

The painting, from a Swiss collection, was formerly owned by noted gallerist/collector Robert Mnuchin of New York’s L&M Arts, who sold the painting at Christie’s New York back in May 2007, at the height of the last art boom, for $26,920,000. That sum is currently the seventh highest price for a Rothko at auction (well behind the current Rothko record of $86.9 million set by the fabulous “Orange, Red, Yellow” that sold at Christie’s New York last month).

For those rusty in art world history, Marlborough Gallery was at the center of the Mark Rothko estate scandal that drew headlines after the artist’s suicide at the age of 66 in 1970. A six-year-long legal scuffle that culminated in a criminal trial that led to a $9.2 million judgment against the gallery also led the artist’s heirs to move the estate to Pace. Rothko's executors, appointed by the artist in his lifetime, had sold Marlborough 100 Rothko paintings for $1.8 million, payable without interest over 12 years.

In any case, seeing the big Rothko glowing under the lights at Marlborough today was the kind of symbolic motif one might dream up for a work of fiction.

To see works from Art Basel 2012, click the slide show.