As the art world descended on Switzerland this week for the 47th edition of Art Basel in Basel, the finance and business worlds continued to mull over the fact that one week from today, Britain may vote to exit the European Union. Brexit, as the referendum has been termed, is among a laundry list of factors that have some market analysts, wealth managers, and central bank economists alike predicting increased volatility in the global economy.
Installation view of Annet Gelink’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.
And as VVIPs entered Art Basel on Tuesday morning, Germany’s became the latest among a number of European central banks (including that of Switzerland) to take interest rates on certain assets negative. The countries, seen as safe havens for capital by skittish investors, are essentially being paid to hold onto those investors’ money and are encouraging spending to combat lackluster growth, as well as levels of inflation that are considered unhealthy in the marketplace. The Fed and the Bank of Japan also voted to keep rates low this week, moves which in their sum have led other investors to ask what fiscal levers would be left to pull should the global economy crack.
The art market is, of course, not immune to jitters about Brexit, the U.S. presidential election, and the state of the economy. “It’s clear that political and economic situations do have an impact on the art market,” said Patricia C. Amberg, the executive director and head of UBS’s Art Competence Center. “When we look around the globe, there are quite a lot of crises and wars. It affects the art market, but it affects some areas more than others. There is still a demand for pieces of very high quality. But collectors are maybe not as spontaneous as they were five years ago. They are observing more; they know they have to compare prices.”
Amberg’s division of UBS, which offers its services to those within the bank’s division for ultra-high-net-worth individuals, does not take an investment view with regard to art. “The financial markets and the art market are completely different. We focus on giving objective advice on quality,” said Amberg, cautioning particularly against art funds. However, that kind of quality-based advisement (as opposed to an adviser who focuses on more speculative purchasing opportunities) is currently seen across the market. Mirroring the recent Deloitte report on the state of art and wealth management, “store of value” was a buzz-phrase among dealers at Art Basel this week. Why pay the Bundesbank to look after your billions when you can buy a Picasso?
Or, as was the case at New York’s Mnuchin Gallery, a Brice Marden. The artist’s First Window Painting (1981), a four-panel, 16-foot-long work, sold from the gallery sold from the gallery for circa $4 million on Art Basel’s opening day, as did John Chamberlain’s Honest 508 (1973–74) for $3 million. “Coming in yesterday morning, we just weren’t sure,” said Mnuchin partner Sukanya Rajaratnam on Wednesday, citing the potential implications for the European economy posed by Brexit. “But I think that people still think of art as a respite, as a store of value, and as a source of optimism in their lives. Even though there are some collectors who have stopped or slowed, there are others that pick up the slack.”
Installation view of work by Paul McCarthy, presented by Hauser & Wirth, at Art Basel Unlimited, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.
Along with Mnuchin, Hauser & Wirth also had a banner start to Art Basel week. Paul McCarthy was particularly popular for the gallery this year. The artist’s Tomato Head (Green) (1994), shown in Art Basel Unlimited, the fair’s sector for institutional-scale works, sold to an American private collection for $4.75 million, followed by the sale of McCarthy’s Michael Jackson Inflatable Drawings (2003) for $650,000 and sculpture WS, White Snow Flower Girl #3 (2016) for $575,000 on opening day. Another sculpture, Picabia Idol, Black (2016), sold on Wednesday for $750,000.
“People are searching for fantastic works. If you bring the right, great work by an artist, it will sell,” said Hauser & Wirth vice president and partner Marc Payot on Thursday. Payot reported that “an enormous amount more Asian collectors are present and active than even a couple of years ago.” This increased globalization was among the factors that pushed through a glut of further sales including Vija Celmins’s drawing Sea Drawing with Whale (ca. 1969; over $1.5 million), Maria Lassnig’s paintings Macht des Schicksals (The Power of Fate) (2006; $1.2 million) and Das Traumpaar (The Dream Couple) (2004; €550,000), Lee Lozano’s No title (ca. 1962; $280,000), a Philip Guston painting from 1968, and Dieter Roth’s Materialbild (1986–89). “These things are prepared well ahead. It’s not an accident,” said Payot of the considerable work done in advance of major events like Art Basel to ensure substantial results.
The sentiment that these are not times to roll the dice was echoed across the fair, especially among dealers on the first floor selling secondary market historical material or pieces sourced from estates that have become increasingly prominent on both gallery rosters (Hauser & Wirth picked up no fewer than three new estates in the last year) and at Art Basel in the past two years. Galleries have also been careful to monitor their outlay ahead of this year’s fair, sourcing secondary market material of living artists for as close to primary market prices as possible to ensure they won’t be left at week’s end holding a cup of froth. The numbers may not be quite as high as in previous years as a result. But, like the recent New York auctions where nearly 60% less art sold by-value in comparison to one year before but with far fewer costly guarantees, the businesses behind the art being sold appear to remain strong thanks to this kind of shrewd dealmaking.
“Today, a gallery booth at an art fair has far less to do with offering a large selection of possible impulse buys and more with showing a targeted selection of carefully chosen works,” said Esther Schipper of the eponymous Berlin gallery, upstairs. All three editions of the gallery’s entry into Unlimited by Prabhavathi Meppayil’s tw/one (2016) in Unlimited. Schipper, Pace Gallery and Gallery Ske each presented and sold one edition, one of which went to a museum. Schipper reported that sales at the fair itself were “very strong” thanks to their advance preparation and Art Basel’s continued status as “the best sales platform of any art fair, globally.”
Careful selection was also key at Jack Shainman’s booth, the gallery’s first in the main sector of the fair. Sales kicked off with Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Looking Man) (2016) for $350,000, which had come fresh from the artist’s Chicago studio. “Bringing a painting like that is kind of a luxury problem,” said Shainman of the fervent demand for Marshall’s work. “I’ve had a waiting list for work by Kerry even in the olden days,” when, in 2009, he presented the artist in the Statements sector. (The central work from that previous booth currently hangs in the Met Breuer.) Further sales included Barkley L. Hendricks’s The Twins (1977) for $450,000 and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Peregrine (2016) for $100,000. Shainman, who has been a leader among those to bring artists of the African diaspora into the mainstream in New York, said he was most excited by the opportunity to “introduce new artists who have never been part of this conversation before. We’re about education, really.”
Sales were steady across the fair’s second floor, punctuated by a $1.8 million Rudolf Stingel sold from Massimo De Carlo’s stand. The dealer also sold a Matthew Monahan for $60,000 and sold out of their presentation of works by Günther Förg. Lehmann Maupin sold Teresita Fernández’s ceramic wall work Fire (America) 2 (2016) for between $400,000–500,0000, Tracey Emin’s Feeling Sexy and Beautiful (2015) embroidery for £150,000–200,000 (and the artist’s installation in Unlimited, co-presented with White Cube and Xavier Hufkens, for an undisclosed price), and Nicholas Hlobo’s Idabi (2016) for $80,000–120,000, among others.
Installation view of work by Tracey Emin, co-presented by Xavier Hufkens, Lehmann Maupin, and White Cube, at Art Basel Unlimited, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.
Goodman Gallery sold Shadow Figure Bronzes (full set) (2016) and Patrice Lumumba (2016) by William Kentridge for $320,000 and $120,000, respectively. The booth is one piece of a three-part show called “New Revolutions” also taking place in the gallery’s Capetown and Johannesburg spaces to celebrate its 50th anniversary. They additionally sold Kudzanai Chiurai’s painting Untitled (Office for the Enregisterment of Slaves) (2016; $30,000), Walter Oltmann’s imposing aluminum wire sculpture, Caterpillar Suit IV (2016; €25,000), and Tracey Rose’s photograph Lucie’s Fur Version 1:1:1 – L’Annunciazione – Mme. OEUF! (2003; €15,000), among others.
Mexico City’s Galería OMR placed all but two of the works from their standout booth of Pia Camil for €15,000 apiece. For the second year in a row, they completely changed over their booth to a new presentation for Art Basel’s public days. This year it features pieces by Jose Dávila, Atelier van Lieshout, Candida Höfer, and the collective Troika, among others. Meanwhile Dusseldorf’s Sies + Höke did best with their younger artists, including FORT’s Outsider (2016) which sold for €14,500 and two paintings by Henning Strassburger for that went for €18,000. Both galleries were among a contingent of dealers who were anticipating high attendance over the weekend from collectors in Zürich and elsewhere across Switzerland and Germany to help round out the week.
The jury is still out as to when the art market might shake off its conservative bent. The consensus remains that it will not—and maybe should not—accelerate back to the pace at which it was recently traveling anytime soon. Things would likely improve somewhat—both in the macro environment and in the art market—if populist politics don’t win out in their effort to see Britain and the U.S. adopt isolationist policies. But global growth is forecast to remain sluggish for at least the next year, possibly longer.