Cohen, Aarons Descend on Art World’s Davos as Fair Opens

Steven A. Cohen and Philip Aarons were among Wall Street investors, billionaire collectors and art advisers with VIP access to the world’s largest modern and contemporary-art fair in Switzerland.

The stampede began yesterday at Art Basel, when a section of the fair populated with oversized sculptures and sprawling installations opened to “first-choice” VIPs. Hundreds of people mingled on the plaza outside the exhibition hall drinking champagne. The tiered opening continues today and tomorrow, and the show opens to the general public on June 19.

Each June, the fair transforms the quiet Swiss city on the Rhine River into the epicenter of the art market. 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.

Among those at the fair were Cohen with Sandy Heller, his art adviser. Cohen runs Point72 Asset Management LP, his family office and successor to his hedge-fund firm SAC Capital Advisors LP, which he agreed to close after settling allegations of insider trading. Aarons, co-founder of New York-based developer Millennium Partners and his wife, Shelley Fox Aarons, a New Museum trustee; real-estate developer Martin Margulies, who has a private contemporary-art museum in Miami; and billionaire Indonesian collector Budi Tek, who opened a private museum in Shanghai on May 17, were also on hand.

“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.

Private Flights

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.”

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.

Works Sold

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.

The painting was sold 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.”

Higher Prices

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.”

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.”

Warhol Portrait

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

“Unlimited,” the first section of the fair to open, features 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. Its current price is $5 million, according to Konrad Fischer Galerie.

Colorful Venetian blinds 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.

“It’s not an economic conversation,” Howard Rachofsky, a Dallas-based collector and former hedge-fund manager, said about “Unlimited” at a cocktail reception after the opening at a mansion surrounded by Baroque gardens just outside Basel. “It’s a connoisseurs’ conversation. This platform allows artists and galleries think outside the booth spaces they are given. These works are for foundations and museums, not for ordinary collectors.”

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