Art Basel Miami Beach Sees Strong Lower-Market Buys, With Notable Standouts

Art Basel Miami Beach Sees Strong Lower-Market Buys, With Notable Standouts
The Kukje Gallery booth at Art Basel Miami Beach 2012
(Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Art Basel Miami 2012)

MIAMI — “This is the art world version of Black Friday,” a collector proclaimed half an hour into yesterday’s VIP preview of Art Basel Miami Beach. As the day wore on, however, it became clear she might have been overstating a bit.

This year’s opening saw relaxed, workman-like crowds, not the stampedes of post-Thanksgiving Macy’s or even Miami Basel circa 2007. Despite a substantial smattering of celebrities — Rick Ross, Chelsea HandlerPharrell, and Will Farrell were all spotted strolling the halls — impulse buys and trophy purchases were kept to a minimum. Dealers seemed to be working hard for the sales they secured.


“People have become more particular, more careful,” said Fredric Snitzer, founder of the eponymous Miami gallery. Many of the top-dollar works remained up for grabs at the end of the first day. “It would be great if this Damien Hirst would sell, but it is $2.5 million,” said White Cube’s Tim Marlow. Like many dealers, he reported better luck with lower-priced work, including Tracey Emin monoprints and a $140,000 painting made with charcoal and wax by Magnus Plessen.

Other brand-name pieces won plenty of eyes but no buyers — at least by the end of the preview. A monumental, burnt-orange painting by Joan Mitchell priced at over $3 million and a sculpture by Alexander Calder were among a number of works unclaimed at Acquavella Galleries, which had more success with lower-priced primary market work by Damian Loeb and Enoc Perez. New York’s D’Amelio Gallery swiftly sold mid-range pieces by Heather Rowe ($24,000) and Tamar Halpern ($12,000), but didn’t offload a rare Cady Noland sculpture featuring eight objects —beer cans, bullets, and a grenade among them — encased in Plexiglass cubes. It was making its first public appearance in 22 years.

“I think there is a discerning audience this year, people who know and care about value, historical-contextual and monetary,” said dealer Franklin Parrasch. “This is making for better collecting — people are engaged with the material they are collecting. They know what they want and they're focused on things they feel they will want to keep a long time. It’s remarkably refreshing.”

If good taste is inversely proportional to the number of mirrored or bedazzled artworks on display, then galleries seemed to be expecting a refined audience. Un-flashy, wry, and cerebral work was in demand. Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery sold a striped watercolor by Spencer Finch for $28,000 that featured a scribbled description of each color (diarrhea, pickle juice, and herbal tea, to name a few). Unsurprisingly, current market darling Theaster Gates did well across the board: Kavi Gupta sold a fused-wood wall piece by the artist for $125,000 and London’s White Cube sold a cabinet filled with folded fire hose for $150,000.

Still, there were more substantial purchases. Parrasch sold a wall relief of a staircase by Joe Goode that hadn’t been seen publicly since 1971 for mid-six figures alongside two voluptuous Ken Price ceramics in the $165,000 range. (The recent LACMA retrospective has been good for business, Parrasch said.) Galerie Lelong sold a wooden Jaume Plensa head sculpture for a price in the mid-six figures, while White Cube sold a massive Georg Baselitz painting for $500,000. At Galerie Thomas from Germany, a painting by Fernand Léger, “Les deux femmes a l’oiseau (Two women with a bird)” sold for $1.6 million, and at Hauser & Wirth, a glass sculpture by Roni Horn that looked like a small pool filled with water sold for $850,000.

The mood may have been serious, but the consensus is clear: Miami remains a buyer’s fair. Julia Clemente Brito of São Paolo’s Luciana Brito said the gallery participates in FIAC, the Armory ShowARCOmadrid, and ArtRio, but “Miami is different. People buy in Miami.”

The fair is also attracting new collectors, perhaps now more than ever. Dealer Tony Shafrazi and publishing magnate Peter Brant took Owen Wilson under their wings, introducing him to London’s Victoria Miro, among other art-world figures. Paul Kasmin sold over a dozen works exclusively to new clients. One was a particularly famous name: Hip-hop star Diddy took home an Iván Navarro sculpture with the word “Scream” reflected in a mirrored tunnel for approximately $65,000. Other sales included a painting from Deborah Kass’s Warhol-inspired “Yentl” series for $84,000 and a whopping 13 more Navarros.

The steady flow of collectors has persuaded new buyers to join the fray, some of which have defected from the funkier NADA art fair. Dublin gallery mother’s tankstation, which premiered in the Art Positions section, reported brisk success with its performance-presentation by Japanese artist Atsushi Kaga. The artist’s mother sat in the booth hand-sewing tote bags, which sold out for $50 each by the end of the day. The gallery also sold a number of small, cartoonish paintings priced between $2,000 and $2,600.

“I think that it’s a fair where people can get jaded looking at something quite conceptual,” said gallery coordinator Padraic Moore. “But if you look at these for five seconds you see that there’s so much to them, they’re actually quite dark.”

Others attribute the ongoing appeal of Art Basel Miami Beach to the city itself. “All the young fairs come here because Miami works,” said Mary Sabbatino of Galerie Lelong. “Everyone has taken hold of this model — injecting a fair with local culture, international dealers, and a beautiful location.”

For local dealers, however, the benefits are mutual. “The fair has completely changed life in Miami for me and the gallery,” said Fredric Snitzer. “It’s like going from zero to 100 in terms of exposure. We’ve been able to build an international clientele. Before Art Basel Miami Beach, that wouldn’t have been possible.” 

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