Billionaires Join Celebrities at Armory Show on Art Surge

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac sold $2.4 million of blue-chip art halfway through the exclusive opening of the Armory Show this week in New York, as the city’s biggest event of its kind got off to a busy start.

A Chinese client purchased a 10-foot-tall painting by Georg Baselitz for $660,000, and a French collector paid $1 million for a Tony Cragg heap of bulbous stainless steel resembling, from one angle, the Mad Hatter’s hat. Robert Longo’s large photo-realist drawing depicting a Burning Man scene went to an American buyer for $380,000.

“We are happy to be here,” said Thaddaeus Ropac, whose Paris- and Salzburg, Austria-based gallery took a four-year break from the Armory Show after a disappointing experience in 2009.

Spread over two hangar-size piers on the Hudson River, the March 5 opening of the 16th edition of the Armory Show was mobbed by wealthy collectors, art advisers and the press. Guests included billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, tennis champion John McEnroe, actor James Franco, newscaster Katie Couric, real-estate developers Jerry Speyer and Arthur Zeckendorf, and Don Marron, chairman of private-equity firm Lightyear Capital LLC. The Armory Arts Week includes countless competing events, with at least nine other fairs and the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Wealthy buyers are flocking to art after prices surged in the past decade, beating asset classes such as U.S. stocks, gold and fine wine. The Artnet C50 Index, which combines performance data from 50 contemporary and postwar artists, advanced 434 percent from the start of 2003 through last year.

‘Fell Apart’

The brisk sales and buoyant atmosphere represent a turnaround for New York’s largest contemporary and modern art fair, which runs through March 9 at Manhattan’s Piers 92 and 94. Since the financial crisis that roiled investment markets in 2008 and early 2009, the Armory Show has been plagued by an exodus of important galleries and increased competition from the Frieze Art Fair, a hip London transplant that opened in 2012 on Randall’s Island Park to mostly rave reviews from dealers and the public.

“The walls fell apart,” Ropac said of the 2009 Armory Show. “We just felt we didn’t want to come anymore.”

His was among several prominent international galleries that returned to the Armory Show after a hiatus, encouraged by recent changes. Organizers reduced the number of participants to 205 this year from 272 in 2011, invested in new 12-foot-tall booth walls, added a VIP lounge and offered upgraded food choices including Manhattan’s Boqueria and Brooklyn’s Mile End deli. The rickety staircase that used to connect the modern and the contemporary piers has been replaced by a steadier version.

‘The Action’

“There were too many galleries for the size of the space, there weren’t places to sit down, food was terrible,” said Noah Horowitz, the fair’s executive director since 2012. “All these issues needed to be addressed and we made a calculated attempt to address them.”

James Fuentes, a downtown New York art dealer, hadn’t participated in the Armory Show since 2010. Walking through the fair last year, he said he spotted important collectors and curators at a time when his gallery was quiet. He decided to give the event another try.

“I needed to come where the action is,” Fuentes said, standing in a booth filled with subtle works on paper by Jessica Dickinson.

Colorful Clothes

By the time Joel and Zoe Dictrow, emerging-art collectors who are husband and wife, rushed into the booth about four hours into the preview, 90 percent of the works were sold, with prices ranging from $3,000 to $14,000.

“Several people told us we have to come by your booth,” Joel Dictrow said to Fuentes.

Galleries including New York’s Zach Feuer and Eleven Rivington and Paris-based Almine Rech reported sold-out booths.

At Eleven Rivington, five hand-sewn bundles of stuffed colorful clothes on plywood pedestals by Aiko Hachisuka, a Los-Angeles-based artist, were quickly snatched up, with prices ranging from $6,500 to $8,500. Belgian collector Alain Servais said he bought one of the pieces; another went to a trustee of the New Museum in New York, the gallery said.

New York dealer Marianne Boesky’s solo presentation of work by South Africa-based artist Serge Alain Nitegeka resembled a giant maze of overlapping plywood beams and suspended shipping containers. The barricade-like structure masked the entrance to the booth hung with five large paintings made with plywood and roof paint. Priced at $10,000 to $25,000, they quickly sold to private collectors, the gallery said.

Smashed Pumpkin

Other early sales include a large abstract canvas by Scott Reeder, priced at $20,000, and Whitney Biennial artist Tony Tasset’s bronze sculpture of a smashed pumpkin, priced at $30,000, at Chicago- and Berlin-based Kavi Gupta Gallery.

Videos of imploding historic and residential buildings in Mecca, titled “Ground Zero,” played on the screens of mobile phones, at the booth of first-time exhibitor, Saudi Athr Gallery. The artist, Ahmed Mater, also created a large photograph showing the panoramic view of Al Masjid Al Haram mosque. The holy Muslim site looks dwarfed by surrounding new towers, the center of a giant construction zone. The piece sold for $44,000, the gallery said.

Roberts & Tilton gallery, with spaces in New York and Los Angeles, received numerous requests for a striped silkscreen diptych by Israel Lund, an emerging artist whose works are being flipped on the secondary market, according to dealers.

Longtime Client

The gallery sold the work for $36,000 to a longtime West Coast client “who will ultimately give it to a museum,” co-owner Bennett Roberts said in an interview.

“It’s hard to know who you can trust,” Roberts said. “We are consciously not giving in to the market. The artist is just starting his career. We are going to see big paintings and big sculptures.”

Just then Neal Meltzer, a New York-based art adviser, stopped by the booth to inquire about the work for a client. When told it had been sold, he asked if more were available. The answer was negative.

“That conversation happened all day long,” Roberts said after Meltzer left the booth.

(Updates with name of videos in 18th paragraph.)
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE