Art Market

At Art Basel in Basel, Galleries Look beyond Fair Booths to Close Big Sales

Nate Freeman
Jun 11, 2019 10:54PM

Installation view of Gagosian’s booth at Art Basel, 2019. Courtesy of Art Basel.

Having a booth at Art Basel in Basel is not enough for the mega-galleries anymore. Several of the biggest galleries showing in the world-renowned art fair in Basel, Switzerland, which opened to VIPs Tuesday morning, have beefed up their presence in the region.

Last weekend, during Zürich Art Weekend, Hauser & Wirth opened a new headquarters for its publishing arm in the city, which is a quick train ride away from Basel. The new facility expanded the gallery’s footprint in Switzerland’s biggest city, which already includes two exhibition spaces in the Lowenbrau—one of which is currently hosting a blockbuster Pablo Picasso and Louise Bourgeois show that includes heavy-duty loans, such as Marie-Thérèse au béret rouge et au col de fourrure, (1937), from the Arora Collection, and other works from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the collection of gallery co-founder Ursula Hauser.


Lévy Gorvy recently opened an office in Zürich headed up by former Christie’s chairman Andreas Rumbler, and on Friday, the gallery showed off an exhibition space there as well, with works by Terry Adkins, Senga Nengudi, Sonia Gomes, and Carol Rama. Across town, Galerie Eva Presenhuber opened a show of new paintings by Carroll Dunham, showcasing his oddly powerful images of nude cavemen wrestling.

But Larry Gagosian upstaged them all. On the eve of the fair he opened what was initially billed as a pop-up show at a space in Basel’s Old Town. But as the billionaires queued on the Messeplatz Tuesday morning, jostling to be the first inside the fair, word spread that it was actually a new permanent gallery—Gagosian’s 17th space. The tasteful three-room space is a few steps from the Grand Hotel Trois Rois, the preferred local accommodations for dealers and collectors of the mega-variety.

“It’s all about creating context”

Installation view of Hauser & Wirth’s booth at Art Basel, 2019. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Stefan Altenburger, Photography Zürich.

In addition to paying top dollar for the largest possible swaths of the floorplan inside the fair, the world’s biggest galleries are looking for exhibition spaces nearby and private viewing rooms within the convention center. On several occasions during Tuesday’s VIP preview, I was told a gallery director was showing a work to a client, but that director was nowhere to be seen in the booth. On another occasion, a publicist informed me of the sale of a million-dollar painting that was not in the booth—it had been offered somewhere else, location undisclosed.

Gagosian and David Zwirner both have online viewing rooms timed to Art Basel, with pricey paintings on offer. Hauser & Wirth sent out a thick two-part book advertising a suite of works that wouldn’t even be at the fair, but were available. The fair’s Unlimited sector offers the opportunity to sell large-scale works to private museums, and there’s always the option of putting an unsold work up for auction—Sotheby’s sent 15 people from its London office alone, according to an auction house staffer, and they were searching for consignments for the Frieze sales in October.

Even with this proliferation of places to drop a fortune on a work, Iwan Wirth maintained that the expanding offerings—the opening celebrations for the publishing house, the multiple gallery shows, the catalogue full of available art not on-site—were all in the service of collectors.

“It’s all about creating context, and we have different ways of doing that,” Wirth said. “The shows we’ve been doing in Zürich for 20 years, we’ve been welcoming people the weekend before. And you have a totally different quality of conversations—with museums, with institutions. I spent nearly a third of my time speaking to museums in Zürich.”

Cy Twombly, Study for School of Athens [Rome] , 1960. © The Cy Twombly Foundation. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jon Etter.

All that context seemed to be paying off. Pieces sold via the large catalogue the gallery sent collectors ahead of the fair—which weighed several pounds, was stuffed with interviews between gallery directors and artists, and complete with glossy photography—included John Chamberlain’s COMEOVER (2007) for $3 million, Philip Guston’s Boot (1968) for over $2.5 million, Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1962–63) for €2.6 million ($2.9 million), and Jack Whitten’s Nine Cosmic CDS: For The Firespitter (Jayne Cortez) (2013) for $2 million. The publication also helped sell work in the booth, as Wirth said he found a buyer for Cy Twombly’s Study for School of Athens [Rome] (1960) after collectors had read about it.

“We didn’t pre-sell, and then bop! People, when they came, they read the book, they knew all about it, and they made the decision here,” Wirth said. The price was undisclosed, but the gallery noted that two works in its booth had sold for more than $10 million.

Wirth said sales on Art Basel’s first day had been “unprecedented,” but added that he was disappointed the fair had switched sausage suppliers, noting that the new meats were inferior to those served in years past. “Write that down!” he insisted, adding that, as a native of Appenzell district in eastern Switzerland, he knows his sausages.

“I co-sign that,” said a Swiss collector standing with Wirth in the booth.

Installation view of Lévy Gorvy’s booth at Art Basel, 2019. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy. Photo by Stefan Altenburger.

Andreas Rumbler, who heads up the Zürich outfit formally known as Lévy Gorvy with Rumbler, said the amount of programming alongside Art Basel has increased in recent years, adding to the offerings at the world’s most prestigious art fair, with its estimated $4 billion worth of art from 290 exhibitors. But he maintained that collectors want more programming, even if the fair itself seems overwhelming.

“You think people can only take Art Basel—no! The reality is they can take in much more,” Rumbler said. “We had a large number of American collectors who came to Switzerland and really worked through their list of Zürich galleries. That didn’t happen before—they were just focusing on Basel.”

For Lévy Gorvy, the decision to open an office in Switzerland’s biggest city was an easy one, and it’s already allowed for the kind of cross-pollination that can lead to sales. And there were big sales on the fair’s first day; in the opening hours, Christopher Wool’s Untitled (2009) sold for $6 million and Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Indian #2 Face 45.47) (2014) sold for $5 million.

Having a gallery space near the fair allows for more flexibility, Rumbler said. “Here at the fair obviously we try to bring the big pieces, the blockbuster pieces, and the Zürich gallery offers the opportunity to have the odd exhibition a few times a year, primary market artists that we think Switzerland hasn’t seen yet,” he said. “You can’t just rely only on your activities at the booth. I can imagine that galleries from abroad might follow suit and have a stronghold in Switzerland.”

Gagosian goes all in

Installation view of “Continuing Abstraction,” 2019. © Artists and Estates. Photo by Sebastiano Pellion. Courtesy of Gagosian.

However small it may be, Gagosian’s new Basel space—its second Swiss stronghold—launched with an exhibition that packs much firepower. “Continuing Abstraction” includes works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Donald Judd, and others. Much of the show is for sale, with prices topping out at $25 million. The opening is also notable because, compared to Zürich, Basel is not much of a gallery town. The most prominent space in the city, Galerie Beyeler, was shut down following Ernst Beyeler’s death in 2010, and the dealer’s collection is now displayed at the Fondation Beyeler in Reihen.

Between the main fair, its satellite expos, pop-up exhibitions, and Zürich galleries’ offerings, many Baselgoers are getting a year’s worth of cultural programming in the few days around Art Basel’s opening. Collectors marching into town after Zürich Art Weekend made a beeline for Liste, a crucial fair for emerging art galleries. There, New York’s Bridget Donahue brought a suite of works by Martine Syms to complement the large Jessi Reaves sofa-sculpture in the center of its booth, and Clearing juxtaposed wood sculptures by Hugh Hayden with photographs by Marina Pinsky. Another New York gallery, Lomex, sold a slew of paintings by Andrea Fourchy, and Berlin’s Sweetwater—recently named by Artsy as one of the world’s most important young galleries—sold a showstopping chandelier installation by Kayode Ojo.

At the main fair, the Unlimited sector offered an overwhelming amount of work to behold. Highlights included a 2001 Steven Parrino installation that paid buzzsaw elegy to Joey Ramone: 13 black panels smashed to bits as if by a guitar, a work as punchy and catchy as “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Around the corner was Franz West’s Test (1994), consisting of 28 couches that you are very welcome to sit on—the collectors Don and Mera Rubell seemed quite content lounging there Monday evening. By Tuesday, the work, which was being co-presented by David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth, had sold to a European foundation for $3.8 million.

Steven Parrino, 13 Shattered Panels (for Joey Ramone) , 2001. © Steven Parrino. Photo by Sebastiano Pellion. Courtesy of the Parrino Family Estate and Gagosian.

Zwirner also had success with its off-site sales: the gallery sold Yayoi Kusama’s sculpture Pumpkin (2015) for $2 million and a Donald Judd work from 1991 for $900,000 from its online portal. But by the end of Tuesday, one of the gallery’s sales made clear the physical booth was still the main market arena for the most valuable works. Zwirner had notched the biggest sale reported at the fair thus far, Gerhard Richter’s Versammlung (1966) for $20 million. The work was actually on view in a booth at the fair—not at a local gallery, in an online viewing room, or in a thick catalogue. How quaint.

Art Basel’s VIP preview continues on Wednesday, with the fair opening to the public on Thursday, June 13 and continuing through Sunday, June 16.

Nate Freeman

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified a Donald Judd work sold by David Zwirner as one of his “Stack” works, but it was from his “Menziken” series. The article has been revised to reflect this.