Big Spenders Lift Contemporary Art Back to Peak at Basel Fair

Thomas Houseago Bronze
Brussels-based dealer Xavier Hufkens offered an edition of three 2010 Thomas Houseago bronzes, ``Yet to be titled (Large Head #1),’’ at Art Basel. The Swiss fair of modern and contemporary works ended on June 19. Source: Xavier Hufkens via Bloomberg.

The year’s biggest test so far for contemporary art dealers, in Switzerland, ended with galleries saying that demand and prices have returned to 2008 levels.

Billionaires splashed out on the best of $1.8 billion works shown at the world’s largest modern and contemporary art fair in Basel, which closed last night. Mark Rothko, Maurizio Cattelan, Anish Kapoor and Bridget Riley were among artists with pieces each selling for more than $2 million.

The spree marks a return to the peak of the boom that ended in 2008. Prices of some artists fell by as much as 50 percent with the crisis following the Lehman Brothers collapse.

“This was the busiest Art Basel for a long time,” said London-based collector Amir Shariat, chief executive of Auctor Capital Partners Ltd. “There was a lot of aspirational buying from collectors I hadn’t seen. The market is deeper and broader now.”

The recovery follows higher sale values at auction, an increasing number of art fairs, and a report by management consultant Bain & Co. that predicted an 8 percent increase in spending on luxury goods in 2011. Big spenders are investing in art to counter concerns about low interest rates, stock prices and weak economic growth, dealers said.

Cattelan’s 2002 sculpture of two New York policemen, “Frank and Jamie,” priced at $3 million, was among sales by Gagosian at the June 14 VIP preview, said dealers. Two examples of this edition of four sold at auction for about $1.6 million in 2010.

$45 Million, 15 Minutes

Gagosian sold $45 million of art within the first quarter of an hour, said two dealers with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be named. The company, which has galleries in seven countries, doesn’t release sales information.

A 1969 Rothko orange abstract in oils on paper mounted on canvas marked at about $5.5 million by New York-based L & M Arts, was one of the confirmed sales of works priced at more than $5 million.

The London-based Lisson Gallery and first-time exhibitor Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert sold a gilded sculpture by Kapoor and a 1979 Riley painting “Streak 2,’’ respectively priced at 1.7 million pounds ($2.75 million) and 1.85 million pounds.

Works by younger artists with emerging reputations were also in demand. Brussels-based Xavier Hufkens sold an edition of three 2010 Thomas Houseago bronzes, “Yet to be titled (Large Head #1)’’ for between $225,000 and $250,000. The gallery showed a series of minimalist silver abstracts by the New York painter Jacob Kassay, 26, in the fair’s Art Unlimited section.

Museum Sale

A work by the painter sold for $290,500 at Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York in May. Hufkens defused talk of Kassay becoming a speculators’ artist by selling the series for an undisclosed price to a museum that he declined to name.

“It was important that the series be sold to an institution,’’ Hufkens said. “Auction houses are responsible to their shareholders. I am to my artists. The price I asked didn’t take into consideration what happened at Phillips.’’

The Swiss-based Art Basel owner, MCH Group AG (MCHN), is looking to build the fair as a global brand at a time that other organizers are also expanding. In May, the company acquired a majority stake in the Hong Kong International Art Fair. Next year’s Asian event is scheduled for May 17-20, two weeks after the new Frieze Art Fair in New York and six months after Art Basel’s sister Miami Beach event.

Global Basel

“We feel there is enough interest to sustain Art Basels in three regions,’’ said co-director Marc Spiegler, who would like the fair to rival what he calls the “persistent global marketing approach’’ of the auction houses. “These markets are divided by 12 time zones. Next year, except for the dog days of summer, you’re always going into or going out of an Art Basel show,’’ Spiegler said in an interview.

The first Art Basel Hong Kong was scheduled for February 2011, until a clash with the Chinese New Year forced a switch to May. Co-director Annette Schoenholzer said she is looking for a fixed slot to accommodate the movement of Chinese New Year.

More than 50 of the exhibitors at Art Basel were showing at last month’s Hong Kong event. Some complained of the way that Western and Asian dealers were separated in different sections.

“The general notion is to integrate,’’ said Spiegler, who is confident of China’s appetite for Western contemporary art. “The younger generation of Asian collectors is much more used to spending time in London, Paris and New York.’’

Geneva-based Galerie Krugier & Cie. offered three Picasso oils priced at a total of $52 million. Though at least two smaller Picasso works found buyers for undisclosed prices, the big-ticket oils were still available as the 42nd fair ended.

Marlborough Fine Art had still to confirm any purchases for its tribute display of six large-scale Francis Bacon paintings, priced at total of more than $100 million. Collectors tend to be more comfortable spending such large sums in an auction room, where the open competition of a salesroom inspires confidence, rather than in the more leisurely environment of an art fair.

This year's fair attracted a record 65,000 visitors, the organizers said today in an e-mailed statement.

Art Basel’s main sponsor is UBS AG. The event is held at Messe Basel, Messeplatz.


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

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE