Picassos, Twomblys Mark Sellers’ Return as VIPs Hit Miami Basel

Houseago Sculpture
A sculpture by Thomas Houseago. The work was offered for sale at L & M Arts in Art Basel Miami Beach, which sold seven Houseago sculptures, priced under $100,000 apiece, within hours of the fair's VIP preview opening on Wednesday afternoon. Source: L & M Arts via Bloomberg

Billionaire art collectors Norman and Irma Braman were hunting for major postwar artworks at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair Wednesday afternoon. What’s important for the art-market outlook: They were finding them.

“People are more confident with the economy,” said Braman, 78, who did well with car dealerships. “And when the economy is better, the sellers come out.” Indeed, sellers were offering a flurry of Picassos, Rothkos and Twomblys priced at more than $5 million. New York collector Adam Lindemann, in town to promote his new book, “Collecting Design,” also observed a bump in the caliber of the art, as the market continues to recover from a 2008 plunge.

“Last year, dealers were somewhat anticipating weaker sales,” Lindemann said. “Now they are bringing back better art. It’s a stronger, better fair.”

Art Basel’s ninth Miami edition attracted 250 exhibitors from 29 countries displaying modern and contemporary art by more than 2,000 artists. In response to complaints last year about the fair’s circular layout, stands in the Miami Beach Convention Center have been reconfigured in an improved grid format, incorporating faux-grassy knolls sprouting palm trees. Beyond the convention center walls, 15 smaller fringe fairs are scattered around town.

‘Pumped Up’

Sales echoed what the recent New York auctions had intimated: the uppermost tier of the art industry is chugging along.

“People are pumped up. They have money they don’t know what to do with,” said Houston Pop-art collector Frank Herzog, who is leading tours coordinated by AXA Art Insurance Ltd.

During the opening hours, New York’s Acquavella Galleries sold a prime 1956 painting by the late California painter Richard Diebenkorn titled “Man Drawing.” The work was priced around $5 million, according to dealers. The same painting had sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2005 for $2.1 million.

Acquavella was also offering a black-and-white Picasso oil painting of a man smoking a pipe for $9.5 million and a $6 million Warhol painting of a fleet of Mercedes Benzes.

Zurich-based Galerie Gmurzynska sold an elegant 1959-60 electric-blue Yves Klein sculpture made from a sponge and priced at $900,000. The stand caused a bigger frenzy when actors George Hamilton and Danny Glover and fashion designer Calvin Klein posed there for paparazzi.

‘I See the Rich’

Celebrities were in the minority, compared with the tanned, Chanel-bagged set. “I see the rich, not the famous,” a London- based dealer observed.

Steven A. Cohen, chairman and chief executive officer of SAC Capital Advisors LP, bought two contemporary works for a total of $480,000, according to a Wall Street Journal blog.

Several hours into the fair’s VIP opening, the Bramans were empty-handed, but unlikely to remain so for long. At Art Basel’s June edition in Switzerland, they secretly snagged a 1960 Picasso white plaster sculpture -- asking price $15 million -- according to dealers, as well as a Dan Flavin sculpture.

Back in Miami, New York’s L&M Arts gallery found a winner in the young Los Angeles-based sculptor Thomas Houseago. Seven of his raw, primal works, priced at less than $100,000 apiece, sold swiftly.

The crowd was smaller this year during the first part of the VIP preview, though fair organizers said they had deliberately pruned back the invitation list.

“I’m not noticing as many young hedge-fund guys,” said billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, clad in khakis and running sneakers, who said the crowd had reverted to the old-timers. Ross skimmed e-mails on his BlackBerry during a lunch break at the UBS-sponsored lounge, amid orchids, quiche and antipasti.

Counting Skulls

He and his wife, Hilary, had spent the morning roving the fair. Ross observed that prices were up 20-25 percent from last year, wondering if the inflation was linked to the robust results at the recent round of November New York auctions. Ross also was heartened to see more “lighthearted and whimsical” art.

“Last year, there was much more death and skull imagery,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen one skull this year. I like it better without the skulls.”

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