The 2019 edition of Art Basel confirmed the leading status of the fair, as the 290 galeries present in the Swiss city exhibited a wide range of eye-catching artworks by high-profile artists. It also attracted the world’s most prominent collectors, ready to spend a fortune to acquire the best pieces. But beyond these impressive sales, the fair was an excellent barometer for the health of the art market in general this year.
Sales were particularly high in the first days of the 50th edition of Art Basel, especially on the ground floor of the fair, where the historically important secondary-market artworks are exhibited by galleries. Among them, Jeff Koons’ Sacred Heart inflatable was reportedly presented at a price between $14 and $15 million within Gagosian’s booth.
Further on the same floor, David Zwirner sold a 1966 photo painting by Gerhard Richter to "a major private collection in the US" according to the dealer, for the staggering price of $20 million. The gallery also exhibited "Laundry Man", a recent painting by Kerry James Marshall which was reportedly acquired for $3.5 million, as another piece by the artist sold above the 1 million mark at Jack Shainman’s booth.
As for Pace, the leading gallery made a remarkable performance this year by selling ¾ of its booth by the end of the first day. Among the works sold, a pricey 1977 "From Line" painting by Lee Ufan was acquired for $2 million, as well as a 1985 piece by Robert Mangold, which sold for $1.5 million.
Hauser & Wirth and Richard Gray also attracted a great number of collectors to their booths this year. Indeed, the former, which now represents John Chamberlain’s estate, sold two sculptures by the artist at respectively $3 million and $750,000 on the opening day of the fair. As for Richard Gray, it broke Alex Katz’ record with the sale of $1.7 million dollar triptych by the pop art pioneer.
Alexander Calder was also omnipresent at the fair this year, as an impressive range of high-quality artworks were exhibited. Among them, Pace sold a 1956 sculpture for a whopping $8.5 million, thus making it the highest performing booth at Basel. Hauser & Wirth and Di Donna also presented two beautiful mobiles from the 1930’s and 1940’s at respectively $4.2 and 12$ millions.
In all, around 40 artworks sold above the $1 million mark that week, thus showing that the high end of the market remains impressively dynamic. In this price range, collectors are driven by a few decisive factors such as passion, investment and a competitive mindset that pushes them to spend several million on trophy artworks. As the number of billionaires keeps increasing around the world, this segment has beautiful days ahead.
The fair attracted some of the most talked-about megacollectors, such as Steven A. Cohen, the controversial hedge fund manager and contemporary art magnate who reportedly acquired Jeff Koon’s Rabbit in New York last month for $91 million, and who was seen at Gagosian and Pace’s booth during the VIP preview of the fair, according to ArtNews Magazine.
As for Japanese collector Yuzaku Maezawa, he also acquired a piece at the fair, although he was not physically present in Basel. The business man bought an oil on paper by Harold Ancart for $45,000 on David Zwirner’s virtual Gallery called « Basel Online ». The site offered 20 works from artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Donald Judd and Carol Bove for a total of $5 million. But Zwirner was not the only one to offer this type of interface, as Gagosian’s online viewing room helped the gallery sell a $1.1 million Albert Oehlen painting.
However, some observers have expressed concern about the fact that the dynamic high-end segment of the market might well be the tree that conceals the forest. As a matter of fact, works in the mid-price range did not sell as well as the much talked-about trophy works – a phenomenon that we already pointed out during New York Spring art sales last month – which may be the sign of a bear market.
This two-tier dynamic is particularly noticeable on the secondary market, which has become an essential sector for a lot of galleries. Indeed, these have intensified their effort to represent artist’s estates in the last few years such as Hauser & Wirth with John Chamberlain, David Zwirner with Joan Mitchell, Pace with Alexander Calder and Gavin Brown’s Entreprise with Janis Kounellis.
However, the pieces from these estates shown at Basel were often over-priced compared with the private market; it was especially the case for mid-price artworks in the 6-figure range. This phenomenon highlights the fact that private art consultants and advisors remain the most efficient intermediaries to buy art at a good price directly from private collections.