Art Market Rebounds at Art Basel in Basel

  • Installation view of Hauser & Wirth’s booth at Art Basel, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

As they strolled the halls of the Messe Basel for the 48th edition of Art Basel in Basel on Tuesday, the art world’s elite collectors were reaching deeper into their pockets this year than they have for at least the past two editions of the fair. Just hours into Tuesday’s VVIP preview, many dealers were reporting multiple sales in the seven- and eight-figure range—a welcome reappearance of a phenomenon that had been rare at art fairs since the market’s most recent peak in 2014.

“People are in the mood to buy,” said Eleanor Acquavella, as the ink dried on a sale of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Three Delegates (1982) for between $15 million and $20 million.

She was one of a number of dealers showing paintings by the newly sought-after artist, following last month’s record-breaking sale of an untitled 1982 painting at Sotheby’s for $110.5 million to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

“All of a sudden it seems cheap,” Acquavella said of the eight-figure sum paid for her painting.

By all indications, she said, the market is strong, with wealthy patrons allocating ever more money to art. Art, she said, has “been proven to be a good investment time and time again.”

  • Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Three Delegates, 1982, at Acquavella’s booth at Art Basel, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

UBS’s president of wealth management Jürg Zeltner agreed that art is still a relatively attractive investment as long as interest rates are low.

“I don't know if art is an asset class,” he said. “What I do know is that money is worth less due to central bank interventions. And it does look to me that a lot of private investors are also looking to invest money in art. They have a passion for it, and if you see the thousands of clients we bring to this platform, you can see that this is a trend here to stay.”

Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler said more than 90 Netjets flights were scheduled to land at Basel’s EuroAirport this week, despite what he called politically and economically “volatile times.”

“It’s a time where it becomes harder for many galleries to work through and continue to support their artists,” Spiegler said. “Our role this week is to help our galleries succeed, to help them find new patrons from all over the world.”

Many among Art Basel in Basel’s 291 galleries from 35 countries that are exhibiting this week commented on just how global that crowd of patrons has become. Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot said he had seen a rise in Chinese and Japanese collectors.

“Even more now, Basel is the fair where, internationally, curators and collectors really come,” he said.

  • Installation view of Philip Guston, Scared Stiff, 1970, at Hauser & Wirth’s booth at Art Basel, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

Payot pointed to the sale of an untitled Eva Hesse work from 1961 to a Chinese museum for $2.5 million as a testament to the growth of demand from Asian collectors here in Basel. But the Hesse was far from the most expensive work to sell from Hauser & Wirth’s stand on opening day. Philip Guston’s Scared Stiff (1970) took that honor, with Payot confirming that it went for a price in the region of $15 million.

With no fewer than 14 works selling within or above six figures by mid-afternoon, Payot said, “It’s the absolutely best first day of Art Basel in our history.”

The Guston sale—notched just after the artist’s celebrated Venice show “Philip Guston and the Poets”—places the work second among Guston’s most expensive works known to have been sold, according to auction records (the $2 million paid for an untitled lithographic crayon and oil work from 1969 also makes it into Guston’s top 20). It also serves as continued strong evidence of private dealers’ importance at the top end of the market (private dealers increased their share of the art market by 3% last year to 57%, according to a report commissioned by Art Basel and UBS).

“It shows that we are becoming absolutely competitive with the auction houses,” Payot said. He noted dealers are competing not only on the prices they can achieve for museum-quality works such as the Guston, but on the expertise they bring on an artist’s work. For Hauser & Wirth, that includes Guston’s and that of the other 23 estates that the gallery now represents, seven of which were brought into the program in the past two years.

  • Installation view of Di Donna’s booth at Art Basel, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

This focus on artists’ estates is part of the growing appetite in the market for historical material in recent years. At Art Basel, the number of secondary market dealers on the ground floor has dramatically increased.

A newcomer to this portion of Art Basel in Basel this year, dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, said that the fair was seeking to bring back an upper segment of collectors such as his who “know what they’re looking at and are used to spending $1 million and up,” he said, after some top collectors stopped attending thanks to the fair’s focus on the “hot contemporary,” as Di Donna put it.

“I think they understood the need to have top-end material in the secondary market to bring some of that money back,” he said, reporting the $5 million sale of an abstract Gerhard Richter canvas from 1989 as well as works by John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and Joan Miró for between $700,000 and $1 million.

Art Basel’s second floor, typically home to presentations of work coming straight from artists’ studios or recent gallery shows, had a higher share of historical material than in years past. Victoria Miro gave her entire booth over to works by American painter and printmaker Milton Avery. It marks both the first time the gallery has mounted a solo presentation at Art Basel—they are scant across the fair, given galleries’ need to maximize the massive sales opportunity this week offers—and its first exhibition with the artist in Mayfair since beginning to work with the estate.

  • Installation view of Victoria Miro’s booth at Art Basel, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

The gallery’s co-director Glenn Scott Wright noted that multiple works by Avery sold on opening day, as well as pieces by Yayoi Kusama, Chris Ofili, and Peter Doig in the gallery’s closet, for sales totaling well into the seven figures.

“We’re very happy. We can go home tomorrow,” he said.

Collectors’ enthusiasm seemed to extend across market segments and artistic movements. As further sales rolled in during the later afternoon on Tuesday, the early picture of the market at Art Basel in Basel was broadly encouraging. This contrasts with collectors’ tastes in recent years, which tended to run towards specific types of works: abstraction by young male artists in 2014, followed by a taste for young, female figuration in 2015, and last year’s retreat to historical works as the market for those types of works subsided.

Even the spotlight from events like the Venice Biennale and documenta has caused fewer upward spikes for those artists’ markets than it has in prior years. The market’s rising tide at Basel instead seems to be lifting all boats, with sales strong even for works in the lower five figures and particularly in the six-figure range.

The wide-ranging success of the fair highlights the multiple spheres of influence and taste profiles that are currently supporting the market, an evolution from the U.S.- and Europe-centered industry of the past. That diversification, as in an investment portfolio, tends to strengthen the market and leave it less vulnerable toward flash-in-the-pan trends and swings in the market. That’s a hopeful sign for more sustainable and significant growth in the future.

  • Installation view of Sprüth Magers’s booth at Art Basel, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

For example, Sprüth Magers’s director Silvia Baltschun said the gallery had sold works from a range of artists from different time periods and stages of their careers: An untitled 1969 Craig Kauffman, with yellow and magenta acrylic lacquer running translucent over plastic sold for $950,000; an untitled George Condo work from this year sold for $700,000; and young artist Sterling Ruby’s Yellow Sky (2017) went for $325,000, among others.

“The first two hours, I couldn’t even breathe, barely,” said Baltschun.

White Cube director of private sales Mathieu Paris reported selling Georg Baselitz’s Das hoffnungslose weiße Bild (2017) for €440,000 “immediately” as the fair opened as well as Antony Gormley’s HOME (2014) for £350,000; Tracey Emin’s You Came to me at night (2017) and A moment - A Feeling - For you (2017) for £250,000 and £300,000, respectively; and Imi Knoebel’s Union II (2016) for €160,000.

He said that collectors were making decisions much more quickly than had been the case in the past two years.

“I really have the feeling that the market is back,” he said.


—Alexander Forbes

Share article