Abramovich Buys, Hirst Sells as Basel Dealers See Rising Demand

''The Unbearable Lightness
''The Unbearable Lightness," by Slovakian designer Tomas Libertiny. The work, made with the help of live bees, is an edition of six and was priced at 65,000 euros at the booth of Carpenters Workshop Gallery at the Design Miami/Basel fair in Switzerland. The buyer was Roman Abramovich, according to dealers. Source: Carpenters Workshop Gallery via Bloomberg

Roman Abramovich was buying and Damien Hirst works selling yesterday in Basel as art dealers hailed a return to levels of demand seen before the financial crisis.

The Russian billionaire was among VIP collectors in Switzerland for the world’s largest fair of modern and contemporary art. Trophy works by established names and affordable pieces by up-and-coming artists led Art Basel sales.

“It was like 2007,” Glenn Scott Wright, a director at London’s Victoria Miro gallery, said in an interview. “Pretty much everything on the booth sold on the first day.”

For many of the 303 galleries from 36 countries showing at this year’s 41st edition of the fair, demand has gathered momentum. Last year, better-than-expected Basel sales pointed to an improvement in the market that had seen prices decline as much as 50 percent after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings in September 2008.

At the top end of the contemporary market, sales of high- value works by art-boom favorites such as Hirst and Takashi Murakami gave dealers the most cheer.

Los Angeles-based Blum & Poe sold a 2009 diptych of Murakami paintings based on the artist’s sculptures “My Lonesome Cowboy” and “Hiropon,” priced at $1 million.

Paris dealer Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin sold a version of Murakami’s bronze of a Manga-style “Yume Lion,” priced at $1.3 million, to a European collector.

While there was a higher proportion of Asian faces in the crowd, few galleries were able to confirm sales to new Chinese collectors. American and European clients continued to dominate.

White Cube

A European collector bought a new 9-foot-wide Hirst jewel- cabinet, “Memories of Love,” priced at 2.35 million pounds ($3.48 million) at the booth of the artist’s London dealer, White Cube. By the fair’s third day, White Cube had sold six of Hirst’s most recent series of personally executed paintings for prices ranging from 575,000 pounds to 2.5 million pounds.

Hirst prices dropped after the 111.5-million-pound “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” auction at Sotheby’s on the day that Lehman collapsed. The sale included a jewel-cabinet piece identical in size to the one sold at Art Basel. It reached 5.2 million pounds. Since then, Hirst’s works have been a less ubiquitous presence at contemporary-art auctions.

“The market got egregiously frenzied from 2006 to 2008,” the New York-based art adviser Todd Levin said in an interview. “This year’s Art Basel has shown things have returned to a certain level of normality.”

Hot Artist

“Prices haven’t fully recovered,” Levin said. “Two years ago, works by a hot artist like Anselm Reyle were selling for $400,000 at fairs like Art Basel. Now they’re priced at $100,000 and you just don’t see them. If anything, collectors are thinking more about money than they were two years ago.”

New York-based gallerist Marianne Boesky sold a 2010 minimalist blue abstract by Donald Moffett for $60,000.

“Buyers respond well to blue-chip works and pieces by emerging artists if they’re correctly valued,” Boesky said. “If you overprice an artist you’re not going to sell it.”

“There’s less speculation,” said Frank Demaegd, director of Antwerp-based Zeno X Gallery. “People don’t come thinking that if they buy something it will double in price in one or two years.”

Slovakian-born Tomas Libertiny was the artist attracting most attention at the Design Miami/Basel fair.

His honeycomb-covered 2010 sculpture of a crucified man in a vitrine, “The Unbearable Lightness,” was bought by Abramovich for 65,000 euros ($80,460) on the booth of the London dealers Carpenters Workshop Gallery, the dealer said.

Art Basel’s main sponsor is UBS AG. The event takes place at Messe Basel, Messeplatz, 4005 Basel through June 20.

Information: http://www.artbasel.com/go/id/ss/lang/eng/

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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