Art Market

What Sold at Art Basel in Basel 2021

Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Sep 27, 2021 6:14PM

“We didn’t know what to expect.”

“It’s great to be seeing art in person again.”

These two phrases seemed to be a part of almost every conversation at Art Basel in Basel last week. As the fair opened—the first edition on Art Basel’s home turf since the pandemic—dealers seemed uncertain how the vast changes that have swept the art market (and the world) would affect them.

Some changes were evident before the booths even opened. Here we were in Basel in September, instead of the regular June slot—a delay intended to give countries more time to roll out vaccine programs. Outside the Messeplatz stood a huge tent where guests received wristbands with their vaccination and testing status, and everyone was now wearing masks (with Art Basel staff wandering the halls enforcing their use). And yet despite these “new normal” signals, on the whole, the fair seemed to be an exercise in business as usual, with gallerists reporting bustling sales, a resounding vindication of the market for the kind of art (most often figurative painting) that collectors love to buy.

Robert Rauschenberg, Rollings (Salvage), 1984. Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac.

Angel Otero, Satin Ripples, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.


One piece’s price tag had jaws dropping before the fair even opened: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s new-to-market 1983 diptych Hardware Store, which was on offer for $40 million in Van de Weghe Fine Art’s booth, and was still unsold by the end of the weekend. Another work from the same year by the record-breaking artist, Chicken Wings Three, with a slightly more approachable asking price of $3 million, had sold earlier in the week at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art’s booth.

Indeed, at this higher end of the market, works were finding buyers consistently. A few notable sales in the seven-figure bracket included the following:

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Curve II, 1972. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

For galleries, it was always clear there would be costly headaches associated with travel to the Rhine this year, especially after Americans were advised not to travel to Switzerland due to the country’s rising COVID-19 cases. In part to calm those nerves, the fair created a “one-time solidarity fund” of around $1.6 million, which would provide a 10 percent discount on booth costs for galleries, if all 272 exhibitors made use of it. With several big players already privately opting out of their share on day one of the preview after just a few sales, this discount is likely to grow for those galleries who choose to take it.

Gallerists and collectors expressed an ardent desire to meet again in person, even those who traveled from afar. “There was no way we wouldn’t come,” explained the Hong Kong dealer Edouard Malingue, animated after two days of sales, including a Brook Hsu painting for $20,000 and a Wong Ping video work at $30,000. It was his gallery’s first time at Art Basel’s hometown fair, and the culmination of much effort. “Even if we had to quarantine for three weeks, we would have still come,” he said. “This was just the right time for us to be here, and to show our artists to a European audience.”

Wong Ping, Under the Lion Crotch, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Edouard Malingue.

For many dealers, it was the first time in at least a year and a half they were reconnecting with clients in person—and they often seemed to need a few extra seconds to recognize one another behind their masks. “I was always going to come,” said Alexandra Mollof, an art advisor from London who represents mostly Brazilian and European clients. Like many in the United Kingdom, she received the AstraZeneca vaccine, whose formula was only added to Switzerland’s list of acceptable manufacturers on Monday, just before the fair’s VIP preview opened. Nonetheless, she made it a priority. “Basel was the first time we knew the art world’s prominent people would congregate together,” she said.

Mollof summed up the current tastes of the market in three words: painting, figurative, and colorful. “What is impossible to buy right now, for European collectors at least, is figurative paintings from African American and female artists who have a buzz around them,” she said. Mollof was thrilled, therefore, to have secured two pieces by sought-after artists, one by Shara Hughes—who paints bright, slightly trippy landscapes and interiors—from Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and another from an undisclosed African American painter for whom, she said, “the waiting list is as long as the Nile!” But, she added, “this is the result of months of strategic discussions.”

Lee Krasner, Nude Study from Life, 1940. © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Kasmin.

Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1939. © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Kasmin.

Museum leaders and acquisition committees—even those from institutions on the other side of the Atlantic—seemed to have deemed the trip worthwhile, with Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong spotted strolling amid milling crowds. But for the most part, Americans were largely absent from the fair, and almost everyone seemed to be speaking German or French.

But the nationality of the collectors in attendance didn’t seem to have an effect on sales. “People forget this, but Europe has an incredible density, but also breadth of collector base,” Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director, told me in the fair’s collectors lounge during the preview days. “The lawyers and dentists of Germany, the notarios of Italy. They come. And for them, it’s super exciting,” he said.

New York gallery Kasmin, which was showing a Lee Krasner solo booth in the fair’s Feature sector, sold several of the artist’s 10 smaller charcoal works (each priced at $150,000) on the first day, and then sold consistently across the later days—including the presentation’s crown jewel, a late collage painting entitled Present Subjunctive (1976), which went for $1.4 million on Friday, the first day the fair opened to the public. “These charcoals really trace [Krasner’s] path through Cubism to abstraction,” Kasmin’s director Nick Olney said. “With this booth, we wanted to follow up the Barbican [Centre’s 2019] exhibition, which was really the first time Europeans were exposed to her work in depth,” he explained, noting the high caliber of collectors he had spoken to at the fair, despite challenges surrounding travel. “The fair has just been really well organized,” he said.

Lee Krasner, Present Subjunctive, 1976. © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Kasmin.

The Art Basel team was throwing manpower and digital tools at challenges on the ground. For example, some galleries—especially those from China, such as Vitamin Creative Space and ShanghART Gallery—had sent art but no staff. Their booths were instead staffed by local Art Basel fair workers, and interested buyers were connected to gallery staff through iPads for further discussion. And then there were collectors who couldn’t be there, some of whom took advantage of virtual walkthroughs offered by the fair’s staff. One video call, via a high-tech-looking selfie stick, was spotted at Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel’s booth, and another in the Carlos/Ishikawa booth, surveying a huge Issy Wood painting filled with creepy-looking rabbits (Sorry it’s just my nature, 2021, priced between $100,000 and $200,000). As the attendant walked past, I heard the words we’ve all repeated ad nauseam for the last year: “Can you hear me? OK, what about now?”

Digital sales made an impact in more palpable ways, too, with Galerie Nagel Draxler presenting a separate room in its booth filled with physical works that were sold with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) attached. This “crypto kiosk,” curated by Kenny Schachter (who also had two works on sale) as a follow-up to an exhibition earlier this year at the gallery’s Cologne space, was covered in a kaleidoscopic blue, red, and white wall vinyl branded with “NFTism.” Some works were priced in fiat currency, like Anna Ridler’s Mosaic Virus (2018/2019) installation of videos of tulips that change with the price of Bitcoin, at £20,000 ($27,000); others were priced in cryptocurrency, like Olive Allen’s blue and purple CGI depiction of the afterlife of destroyed or “burned” NFTs, which sold on the first day of the fair for €25,000 ($29,000).

Installation view of Galerie Nagel Draxler’s booth, Art Basel, Basel, 2021. Photo by Simon Vogel. Courtesy of Galerie Nagel Draxler.

“Art is art, but we wanted something special,” explained gallery director Clara Gehlen, who also noted the commercial appeal of the digital tokens. “Some of these NFTs sell themselves,” she said. “Now the question is whether we can attract the traditional art buyers to this market.”

With the rest of the booth’s unflashy tone, the split between NFTs and the works sold using traditional contracts couldn’t have been starker. Perhaps surprisingly, given the number of headlines grabbed by NFTs in the last year, this was tokenized art’s only intrusion into the fair, where booths were, broadly speaking, fairly safe, often filled with modern and contemporary paintings. Following her retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alice Neel was everywhere, with some particularly notable examples on show at Victoria Miro, where they were priced between $200,000 and $1.4 million. Xavier Hufkens also sold a drawing by the American artist, in the low six figures, as well as one by Louise Bourgeois for around $125,000.

Simon Devolder, a partner at the Brussels-based Xavier Hufkens was cautiously buoyant at the end of the first day of VIP previews. “We’re not based in London or New York, so we’re dependent on traveling to meet collectors a little. Today, they are here to discover, getting excited by seeing things in person. Even if it’s Bourgeois, perhaps they’re discovering a new period of hers,” he said, though he conceded that the gallery did miss the American collectors who would travel to the fair in a normal year. With the booth selling healthily, including an Antony Gormley sculpture at approximately £400,000 ($547,000) and a Zhang Enli painting, which went to Asian collectors for around $400,000 to $500,000, the gallery seemed to be doing just fine without its transatlantic clients.

Zhang Enli, Clown, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens.

Alice Neel, Dr. Coleman, 1968. Courtesy of the Estate of Alice Neel and Xavier Hufkens.

In fact, despite the fair’s more geographically limited pull, there was a clear refrain across all galleries: They were outselling expectations. Pace Gallery, for example, hadn’t brought as much work as it usually would to the world’s most important fair, and so it couldn’t rehang its booth fast enough to keep up with demand; and David Zwirner’s staff, who have a European base relatively nearby in Paris, were rehanging work every day.

Other notable sales from the fair included the following:

  • MASSIMODECARLO sold two works by Maurizio Cattelan: The steel, paint, and bullet-hole work NIGHT (2021) for €1.2 million ($1.4 million), and Ghosts (2021), an installation of 55 taxidermy pigeons, for €475,000 ($557,000). The gallery also sold a Jennifer Guidi painting, Majestic Mountains (Painted Yellow Sand SF #1H, Yellow - Pink - Light Orange) (2021), for $300,000, and a quilt-based work by Sanford Biggers, Subscript (2021), for $85,000.
  • David Kordansky Gallery sold Rashid Johnson’s painting Seascape “I Cover the Waterfront” (2021) for $850,000, and two flashe and neon on linen works by Mary Weatherford, each for $400,000.

Nari Ward, Breathing Drunkard's Path, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.

Nari Ward, Tamper Free, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.

  • Paula Cooper Gallery sold the Cecily Brown painting When pleasure’s ascendant (2020–21) for a price in the range of $500,000 to $600,000, and the David Hammons work Untitled (Painted elephant dung on rocking chair) (1990) for a price in the range of $450,000 to $600,000.
  • Lehmann Maupin sold five works by Nari Ward, for prices ranging from $120,000 to $900,000—the latter for A Brief History of Known (2021), a work presented in the Unlimited sector in collaboration with Galleria Continua, which went to a prominent Shanghai museum. The gallery also sold an Angel Otero painting to a European institution for $140,000.
  • Sprüth Magers sold an Andreas Gursky photograph, Engadin II (2006), to a U.S.-based collector for €750,000 ($879,000); a Barbara Kruger piece, Untitled (Your devotion has the look of a lunatic sport) (1982), to an Asian collection for $750,000; and a Kara Walker collage and ink work, A Spectacle (2017), for $300,000.

This year’s Art Basel in Basel was operating in a changed world, where artworks and those who buy and sell them have been forced to travel less. Many sales, it seemed, were also prearranged or taking place online, making the art fair itself less of a location-based gathering of the art world’s elite, and more of a prompt to collectors—a reminder, perhaps, of what is out there.

“Galleries are open every day, and their websites are online all the time,” Spiegler noted. “What an art fair does is focus attention on a particular group of galleries from an enormous number of collectors. An Art Basel booth is a reason to talk to a collector again, it’s a trigger for conversation.” That seemed to hold, even for those who couldn’t make it to the event in person: Before the fair even opened, Spiegler recalled one of the most important gallerists in England telling him they were already selling work to collectors who couldn’t make it because they didn’t want to get beaten out by those who attended the expo in person.

Those triggers for sales will be taking place primarily in person and at a furious pace through the end of the year, with major fair weeks in London and Paris just around the corner. When asked how plans for Art Basel’s Miami Beach fair in December were coming together, Spiegler noted the good news, delivered on day one of the VIP previews in Basel: The U.S. would be relaxing its travel restrictions on vaccinated travelers from many destinations from November onwards.

“Within an hour of that being announced, several European galleries who had previously told me that they couldn’t do the show in Miami were asking if they could uncancel, if ‘uncancel’ is a word…” he laughed. With the pandemic’s effects still reverberating, it certainly seems like a neologism we might need. After all, the next Art Basel in Basel is only nine months away—who knows what changes the art world might experience by then?

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Olive Allen’s NFT work “Post-death or The Null Address” (2021) had not sold. The article has been updated to reflect its sale on the fair’s first day. The article also originally included the wrong price for a work by Wong Ping, which has been revised.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019