The high cost of shipping caused some galleries to look for other ways to keep costs down. For instance, one outfit with a medium-sized booth on the ground floor said they decided not to do a dinner this year since last year’s did not generate enough sales to justify the expense, which came to $40,000. But still, when incorporating the cost of shipping 40 to 50 works—this booth had a complete re-hang after selling out the booth over the course of the first two days—and flying over five employees on top of paying the booth cost, the total amounted to somewhere between $250,000 and $350,000.
Another dealer said her gallery spends around $320,000 to come each year, a total that was pumped up by the cost of participating in Unlimited and Parcours, two other sectors of the fair. But another large gallery with artists at Unlimited—and which threw a dinner party on Monday at a popular Basel restaurant—was able to keep costs down to the relatively slim $150,000 to $200,000 by hosting a cocktail party with trays of hors d’oeuvres, rather than a multi-course sit-down affair.
One international gallery said the cost was $400,000, and despite making enough sales in the opening hours to make that back doubly, the budget had to be followed precisely—staff were told to avoid surprise expenses, such as taxis in town or impromptu drink with clients. The dealer at this international gallery said that only the biggest few galleries—the many-branched art market behemoths, the cruise ships that are unaffected by the wake that can sink smaller galleries in one wave—can spend $400,000 on a fair without a sweat.
Over a dozen galleries approached at the fair and contacted by email declined to respond, citing the need for privacy. The eight who responded generally did so because they were already in the black, which is not always the case for galleries who gamble on a fair. José Freire, the owner of New York’s Team Gallery
to give up the circuit after this year’s edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, citing diminishing returns at various fairs. For instance, in 2016, he sold $35,000 worth of art during Art Basel in Miami Beach, and spent $200,000 during the five-day fair. The cost of attending multiple fairs is one of the most-cited reasons for a gallery’s closure
And yet, the exposure that a world-class fair can bring is sometimes just worth betting on. Many dealers who decided against discussing the cost said that, for a world-class expo such as Art Basel in Switzerland, the returns far exceed the costs, even if they are high. At other fairs, even if the costs are lower, the amount sold can be significantly lower than at an Art Basel-level fair. The collector class at the Swiss fair, and their commitment to buying, is on another level, most dealers agreed.
For instance, the dealer who said he cut the $40,000 dinner to keep the costs within the range that he stated, which was $250,000 to $350,000, said that at last year’s Art Basel in Basel, a collector he had never met happened to come into the booth. They struck up a rapport, and while the collector didn’t buy anything that week, the two stayed in touch. Six months later, they struck a deal for a $5 million sale. The amount spent on Basel was suddenly just a fraction of a single sale.