Tennis star Venus Williams came to shop, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez came to dinner. They joined the 46,000 others that packed into the five- day Art Basel Miami Beach, dispelling any doubts that the market for contemporary art has left the recession behind.
“The fair was amazingly successful compared with last year,’’ said Donald Rubell, 70, hotelier and collector, seated in the courtyard of a 45,000-square-foot former Drug Enforcement Administration warehouse that now houses the Rubell Family Collection of contemporary art.
As collectors who buy regardless of whether the market is strong or weak, the Rubells did their part for the fair, which ended yesterday. He and his wife Mera, whose picks are tracked by collectors, bought works across Miami. At the main event in the Miami Beach Convention Center they acquired sculptures by New Zealand-born Simon Denny. Up the beach at the cheaper NADA fair devoted to up-and-comers, they snapped up works by Analia Saban, Kaari Upson and Michael DeLucia.
“We are among those unfortunate people who buy when we shouldn’t,’’ said Rubell on Saturday, looking remarkably plucky for a man who had welcomed more than 12,000 guests in 2 ½ days to view the family’s collection. “We’re addicted. We can’t help it,’’ he said after spending two hours on the tennis court and an hour in the gym.
The passion of collectors is one reason for the buoyant sales reports around the ninth edition of the annual fair. Belgian dealer and first-time Miami Basel exhibitor Rodolphe Janssen suggested another as he stood in the all-white VIP lounge, where a pre-made tomato and mozzarella salad cost $18.
“Wealthy people have a lot of cash,’’ said Janssen. “And cash is so boring. It’s better to buy a painting.’’
The annual pageant attracts around 40,000 people, bringing tourist dollars and cultural luster to a town famously long on beaches and nightlife and short on artistic discourse. As an emblem of Miami’s cultural aspirations, the Miami Art Museum broke ground during the fair on a new $220 million Herzog & de Meuron building, slated to open in 2013.
When MCH Group, the Swiss event-marketing company that owns the Art Basel fairs, launched the first Miami edition in 2002, the show had 165 exhibitors. It now has about 250, losing any sense of intimacy, but providing a thorough sweep of contemporary and modern art trends for those intrepid enough to wade through it all.
“It’s an encyclopedic experience,’’ said curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, dashing through the fair.
Dealers at both ends of the price spectrum reported healthy selling. Acquavella Galleries sold a Warhol painting with repeating images of a Mercedes-Benz, tagged at $6 million. Montreal dealer Robert Landau brought modern art stalwarts, including Henri Matisse and Amedeo Modigliani, to try to lure the visiting billionaires.
“You have to show a quarter of a billion dollars worth of art to get their attention,’’ he said.
Landau sold 11 works out of 100 he displayed in his stand by Saturday afternoon, but nothing “big ticket,’’ he said. All the sales were under $1 million, including works by Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee and Henry Moore.
Dealers selling works for less than $150,000 also found plenty of action.
“It was by far the most successful Miami Art Basel we’ve ever had,’’ said Los Angeles dealer David Kordansky. “We sold everything.’’ Kordansky’s offerings were priced at $8,000 to $120,000, including a $60,000 sculpture by Aaron Curry and a $120,000 sculpture by Richard Jackson.
Other swift sellers included Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider, which sold nine plastic Pawel Althamer sculptures of flayed figures during Wednesday’s opening hours, priced at 65,000 euros ($86,990) apiece. Even Donald Rubell arrived too late to snag one.
Painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was another hot ticket, with an acclaimed solo show currently on at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Her moody painting of a young man on a rock titled “The Counter’’ went soon after the fair began.
“There is so much demand for her work I could have sold it three times,’’ said Tamsen Greene, a director at New York’s Jack Shainman gallery. Her prices hover around $19,000 to $25,000.
Besides the sprawling main event, and about 15 fringe fairs, art lovers still had time for evening revelry. Dealer Edward Tyler Nahem hosted Boston collector Meryl Rose and others for a multicourse feast at Casa Tua. Real-estate developer Aby Rosen hosted a glitzy dinner attended by Rodriguez, investor Nicholas Berggruen and Russian art impresario Dasha Zhukova, according to a press release.
Among the more risqué soirees, artist Ryan McGinness debuted paintings of women, priced $75,000 each, at Club Madonna, a local strip club with a tag line “simply sinful.’’
Still, the party scene was toned down from years past.
“I’m so happy the party boom is finally over,’’ said Zurich dealer Bob van Orsouw. “It went in the wrong direction. By the second day, everyone seemed so exhausted. Now everyone comes not just for the party, but for the art fair.’’
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