Davos of Art World Lures Collectors to $4 Billion Fair

Andy Warhol’s $32 million self-portrait and Willem de Kooning’s $15 million painting of a redheaded woman will tempt billionaires from Qatar, Hong Kong and Moscow at the world’s largest modern and contemporary art fair this week in Switzerland.

Each June, Art Basel transforms the quiet Swiss city on the Rhine River into the epicenter of the art market where a hotel room is harder to come by than a Malevich. With as much as $4 billion worth of art for sale, according to an estimate by insurer AXA Art, it’s the largest edition since the fair’s inception in 1970.

The world’s leading galleries are among 285 exhibitors from 34 countries offering works from early 20th-century masterpieces to new canvases with just-dried paint. Attendance is expected to reach 86,000 over six days, organizers said. Warren Buffett’s NetJets Inc., a sponsor of the fair for the 11th year, has booked more than 100 private flights in and out of Basel.

“It’s like Davos of the art world,” Wendy Cromwell, a New York-based art adviser who is attending for the 19th time, said in reference to the World Economic Forum, which holds an annual conference in Davos, about two and a half hours away. “Galleries are catering to a global class of wealthy, elite collectors.”

Shopping Spree

The stampede began today at the Messe Basel exhibition center, when a section populated with oversized sculptures and sprawling installations opened to “first-choice” VIPs. The tiered opening continues tomorrow; regular VIPs gain entry on June 18 and the general public on June 19.

The fair comes on the heels of a record-setting season in New York, where auction houses sold $2.2 billion of modern, Impressionist, postwar and contemporary art last month. Dozens of artist records were set, including $84.2 million for Barnett Newman’s “Black Fire I” painting at Christie’s on May 13.

The shopping spree is expected to continue in Basel, where galleries have already sold or reserved works before the fair’s opening. Francis Bacon’s small 1959 portrait, priced at $3.5 million, was set to be among 75 artworks at Chicago- and New York-based Richard Gray Gallery, whose clients include hedge-fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin, chief executive officer of Citadel LLC.

Desired Works

The painting sold last week and won’t be exhibited, said Paul Gray, the gallery’s director. Other works are still on schedule including a 1963 silkscreen painting by Robert Rauschenberg, offered at $8.5 million, and Dan Flavin’s neon sculpture named after Russian constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin and valued at $2.5 million. The gallery is also selling “Montcalm Pool, Los Angeles” a vibrant 1980 swimming pool scene by David Hockney for $1.75 million.

“The size of the market has never been bigger,” Gray said. “But it’s very selective. People don’t throw money around unless they are convinced the work has value and it’s something they really desire.”

That hasn’t stopped prices from going higher than ever, collectors and advisers said. The value of the art at the fair is up 128.6 percent from 2011, when Hiscox Ltd. put the estimate at about $1.75 billion. Axa Art’s estimate for this year ranges from 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion ) to 3 billion ($4 billion) euros.

“If people want the best things, there’s not much negotiating,” said Philip Hoffman, chief executive officer of Fine Art Fund Group, an advisory group in London that manages $300 million of art assets. “Things will be snapped up.”

Flying In

Hoffman said clients from the Middle East, who are vacationing in London before the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which begins June 28, will fly into Basel just for the fair. So will Russian and Ukrainian collectors undeterred by U.S. sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

“There’s a lot of wealth looking at the art market,” he said. “It’s a neutral currency.”

“We are going to have an incredible group of international collectors, including first-time collectors from Japan, Korea, India, mainland China, Africa and the Middle East,” said Marc Spiegler, director of Art Basel.

Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art is selling the $15 million de Kooning “Woman (Arthur’s Woman)” 1969 semi-abstract of a redhead. Skarstedt Gallery is selling Warhol’s $32 million self-portrait in a fright wig.

Hot Artists

New York art dealer Christophe van de Weghe is offering Warhol’s 1964 “Little Electric Chair” at $8 million and a Franz Kline black-and-white abstraction, which had belonged to French billionaire Francois Pinault, at $7.5 million.

Robert Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive whose New York gallery specializes in postwar art, will bring a vertical 10-part stack by Donald Judd, valued at more than $5 million, and a $1.2 million painting by French artist Simon Hantai. Mnuchin will also show works by hot contemporary artists Christopher Wool and Mark Bradford.

Art created in the past 10 to 15 years has become a more important part of Art Basel, said Mnuchin, who’s participating in the fair for 18th time. “Golden oldies are harder and harder for dealers to get,” he said.

“Unlimited,” the first section of the fair to open, will feature large-scale works like Carl Andre’s 100 meter-long (328 feet) sculpture consisting of 300 steel square plates that diagonally traverse the exhibition floor. The work was created for the Documenta exhibition in 1982, where it was shown outdoors. Its current price is $5 million, according to Konrad Fischer Galerie.

Hundreds of colorful Venetian blinds will cascade from a 30-foot ceiling, courtesy of Korean artist Haegue Yang. The work is available for 400,000 euros through Kukje Gallery from Seoul.

Parked near the entrance is a giant balloon in a metal stand. The artwork is a prototype for a nonfunctional satellite by Trevor Paglen, who has already launched art into space. Priced at $150,000, it comes with a backup balloon and a pump -- in case the work pops.