Art Market

What Sold at Art Basel in Basel

Nate Freeman
Jun 17, 2019 4:26PM

On Friday, Rihanna walked into the 2019 edition of the Art Basel fair in Basel, Switzerland, took a spin through the Gagosian booth, and then snapped a picture of a large wooden sculpture by Richard Artschwager in the David Nolan booth, while dealers and fairgoers gawked. But many failed to notice her companion—someone who, in the context of an art fair, may be just as important as the richest female musician in the world. It was her boyfriend Hassan Jameel, a member of the billionaire Saudi art-collecting family that last year opened the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.

The appearance of one of the world’s most recognizable pop-culture figures and a deeply powerful collector from the Middle East in many ways sums up exactly why, nearly 50 years after its first edition, Art Basel’s flagship fair is still the world’s most important. The relentless art fair calendar may have strained some cash-strapped galleries and bleary-eyed jet-setters, but collectors nonetheless showed up to the Messeplatz in the Rhineland Swiss city last week ready to buy. During the fair’s six-day run, Art Basel in Basel and its exhibitors reported that European art buyers, as well as some from Asia and the Americas, opened their checkbooks early and often, at price points that regularly outpaced the other Basel fairs in Miami Beach and Hong Kong.

The art fair circuit may be getting exhausting, but, according to Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler, this fair will outlast the others because it isn’t resting on its laurels.

Gerhard Richter,Versammlung , 1966. © Gerhard Richter 2019. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

Sigmar Polke, Palme auf Autostoff, 1969. © 2019 The Estate of Sigmar Polke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

“Every year, we set the bar a little higher,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “There are some galleries who aren’t present this year because they’ve just consistently disappointed the committee. And there are galleries that have been knocking on the door for a long time. When you push it every year a little bit more, the quality increases year-on-year.”

That quality was on full view hours into the fair’s VIP preview on Tuesday, when David Zwirner announced a mammoth sale, even by the standards of the world’s most important art fair: An anonymous collector paid $20 million for Gerhard Richter’s Versammlung (1966), a major work by one of the world’s most sought-after living artists. The work, a black-and-white painting based on a photo of a crowd, had been in Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi’s collection for almost 50 years, and they were selling it to fund the restoration of the Palazzo Butera in Palermo, Italy. The sale single-handedly made Richter the top-selling artist at the fair by value (based on reported sales).


Zwirner also sold an early fabric painting by Sigmar Polke, whose estate has been represented by the gallery since 2015, for $10 million. (Some large galleries, including Gagosian and Marian Goodman, were said by sources to have sold works for prices in the mid-seven-figure range, but do not publicly disclose prices, and are thus not included in the fair’s sales reports.)

Other major sales at Art Basel in Basel included:

  • Korean master Kim Whanki’s Tranquility 5-IV-73 #310 (1973), which sold at Kukje Gallery and Tina Kim Gallery’s joint booth for a price between $10 million and $12 million. That price eclipsed the current auction record for the artist of $7.9 million, achieved at Seoul Auction in May 2018.
  • Mark Bradford’s Rat Catcher of Hamelin II (2011), which sold at the White Cube booth for $7.8 million.
  • Christopher Wool’s Untitled (2009), which sold at the Lévy Gorvy booth for around $6 million.
  • Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Indian #2 Face 45.47) (2014), which sold for around $5 million at the Lévy Gorvy booth.
  • An enamel-on-aluminum mask by Keith Haring sold at the Acquavella booth for $4 million.
  • Two new works by Kerry James Marshall—one in the Zwirner booth and one in the Jack Shainman Gallery booth—both sold for $3.5 million.
  • Mark Bradford’s Fly in the Buttermilk (2002), which sold for around the asking price of $3.5 million out of the Mnuchin booth.
  • An Eduardo Chillida sculpture for €3 million (or $3.4 million) at the Hauser & Wirth booth.
  • Richard Prince’s The Housewife and the Grocer (1988), which had an asking price of $3 million and was sold from the Skarstedt booth by Wednesday.
  • In the fair’s Unlimited sector, Franz West’s Test (1994)—which was being jointly presented by Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth—sold for $3.8 million.

Data compiled by Artsy showed that among the galleries reporting sales, Hauser & Wirth dominated, with sales during the fair totalling more than $49.2 million. The only gallery that came close, Zwirner, totaled $46.6 million. At a distant third and fourth were Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and Lévy Gorvy, with sales totals of $14.8 million and $14.1 million, respectively. Artsy’s sales data is based on galleries that reported sales—47 of the fair’s 290 exhibitors. Many galleries, such as Gagosian, don’t report sales, and those that do may not report all of their sales. (A note at the end of this article provides further explanation for our methodology.)

Hauser & Wirth had a gangbusters time right out the gate. The gallery reported selling more than 30 works in the fair’s first day alone, both from its booth and from the two-volume catalogue it sent to collectors ahead of the fair (which included works not on view in its booth). The gallery’s total tally of sales at the fair got a major boost from two unspecified works reportedly sold for “over $10 million” each.

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

“2019 at Art Basel has brought our most successful first day yet,” gallery president and co-founder Iwan Wirth said in a statement. “The momentum leading up to the fair is always strong, but nothing can replace the experience of Messeplatz and the energy on the ground.” (In an interview on the opening day, Wirth said he was less impressed with the sausages sold at the center of the fair.)

Other top-selling galleries at the fair included White Cube, Pace, and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, which sold Georg Baselitz’s Marokkaner (2013) for €1.8 million ($2 million) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Crossings (Borealis) (1990) for $1.7 million. Overall, Artsy’s analysis shows that the 10 highest-grossing galleries (21% of all galleries who reported sales and 3.4% of all participating galleries) accounted for an astounding 75.4% of all sales reported during the fair. This figure is as reflective of the top-heaviness of the industry as it is of the reluctance of many galleries, particularly smaller outfits, to make their sales figures publicly available to collectors (only a fraction of sales at art fairs are ever publicly reported).

While the top-selling galleries at the fair included the usual mega-galleries with outposts on multiple continents, among them were also the joint booth between Kukje Gallery and Tina Kim Gallery—driven in large part by the single sale of the work by Kim Whanki—and Jack Shainman Gallery. Shainman was located on the second floor of the fair among galleries showing work for a lower price point, but still managed to sell 11 works on the first day of the fair for a total of $8.7 million. That figure was buoyed by the increasing demand from global collectors for work by African American artists such as Marshall—who, in addition to the new work that sold for $3.5 million, had a 2012 work, Red Hot Deal, sell for $1.3 million—and Barkley L. Hendricks, whose portrait Andy (1974) sold for $1.5 million in the Jack Shainman booth.

“I think Kerry is a success everywhere,” said gallery director Tamsen Greene. “If we look at the trajectory of his market, he’s been getting really big prices at auctions. He’s been canonized, and his work is in so many institutions, including European institutions. The work we brought two years ago was bought by the Tate.”

Installation view of Jack Shainman’s booth at Art Basel, 2019, featuring Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2019, at center. Courtesy of the gallery.

The work Jack Shainman sold to Tate at Art Basel in 2017 was Untitled (London Bridge) (2017). It was offered for $2.5 million—which means the more recent sale marks a $1-million leap in the primary market prices for Marshall’s most sought-after paintings in just two years.

Despite being a predominantly European fair, dealers said Art Basel had managed to attract a healthy contingent of Asian collectors just a few months after that continent’s leading fair, Art Basel in Hong Kong. In Basel, Blum & Poe sold a new Yoshimoto Nara painting for $2 million to a public collection in Asia, while Nara works in the Pace Gallery booth drew the attention of several Asian collectors. Pace did not comment on the nationality of its buyers, but did reveal that Nara’s Midnight Cross (2017) had sold for $950,000, and one of Nara’s colored pencil and acrylic on paper board works from 2011 sold for $125,000. (By sheer number of reported sales, Nara came second only to photographer Zanele Muholi; South Africa’s Stevenson gallery sold 24 of her works in the fair’s first hour.)

Perhaps the biggest publicly reported sale to an Asian collection or individual came late Thursday, when Lisson Gallery finalized the sale of a historic Carmen Herrera painting. The 1974 acrylic-on-canvas work Red Square went for $2.3 million, not far off from the artist’s $2.9-million auction record set at Sotheby’s in New York in March of this year. The buyer, the gallery said, was a prominent private collection in Asia.

“They own work of hers already, and we have a relationship with them, but this is a painting that has to be seen in person,” said Lisson executive director Alex Logsdail. “There are no historical paintings on the market, especially ones that are in perfect condition, and coming directly from the artist, and in every museum show, and in every museum catalogue.”

Installation view of Lisson’s booth at Art Basel, 2019. Courtesy of the gallery.

And while Basel does allow for the world’s mega-galleries to sell eight-figure lots to billionaires, it also showcases younger and more idiosyncratic galleries upstairs, particularly in its Statements and Features sectors. New York’s David Lewis Gallery was doing the fair for just the second time, following a Barbara Bloom presentation in the Unlimited sector last year, and annual appearances at Liste, the much-loved satellite fair in Basel, from 2015 to 2018. The gallery brought a wonderful survey of works by Thornton Dial, the Alabama-born artist who died in 2016. Though long thought of as an outsider or self-taught artist, Dial has recently been included in broad-topic contemporary art fairs in the U.S.—but, until now, not in Europe, Lewis said.

“For Americans who are aware of the work, it’s been validating, and Europeans aren’t aware of the work at all, so for them it’s an introduction,” Lewis said. Dial’s Ground Zero: Nighttime All Over The World (2002) was acquired by a prominent American collector as a promised gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art for $350,000, and Meat Market (2003) was bought by a European collector.

But the booth’s show-stopping work, If the Tiger Knew He’d Be the Star of the Circus, He Wouldn’t Have Hid So Long in the Jungle (1989), had yet to find a buyer by Friday afternoon. Lewis said he thought he had an idea of who might be interested: “This would be a really great work for Rihanna.”

Nate Freeman

Methodology for data visualization: The graphs included in this report reflect all sales reported by Art Basel, sales reported directly to Artsy Editorial staff, and sales reported from Art Basel–specific gallery extensions (e.g. David Zwirner’s “Basel Online”). In total, 47 out of the 290 galleries participating in Art Basel in Basel (or 16%) reported sales. Sales were only included if a specific work or number of works were cited by the gallery. When a price range was provided, the low end of the range was used. All prices have been converted to USD.