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Art Basel: High Energy Despite Fewer American Buyers

The fact that there were fewer Americans in attendance than usual did little to dampen the buoyant mood of the 39th edition of Art Basel.

BASEL—The fact that there were fewer Americans in attendance than usual did little to dampen the buoyant mood of the 39th edition of Art Basel. Codirector Marc Spiegler reported a total of 60,000 visitors, equal to last year’s turnout, and said that results were also on par with those of 2007. In general, the pace of buying was less frenetic, as collectors took their time rather than making snap decisions.

The quality of the art shown at the five satellite fairs—Liste, Scope, Volta, Bâlelatina and Design Miami/Basel—was improved over that of previous years, as was its presentation, and organizers of the fairs all reported good business.

Acquavella Galleries director Esperanza Sobrino noted “strong sales to Europeans, less to Americans.” European collectors were quick to snap up two paintings by Lucian Freud: Girl in Attic Doorway, 1994–95, priced at $12 million, and the small (8-by-5-inch) Resting on the Green Chair, 2000, priced at $1.8 million.

Gilbert Lloyd, director of Marlborough London, said his sales included two 1959 black paintings by Ad Reinhardt for $750,000 each. A showstopping Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies of the Human Body, priced at $80 million, generated a great deal of interest but was not sold.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich reportedly purchased Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculpture Femme de Venise I, with a price tag of $14 million, from Geneva-based Galerie Jan Krugier. Gallery representatives, however, would not confirm the sale.

In addition to Abramovich, celebrities spotted during the jam-packed preview on June 3 included Sheikh Saud bin Mohammad bin Ali al-Thani of Qatar, Indian industrialist Aditya Mittal and film star Brad Pitt.

Pitt did a considerable amount of booth-¬hopping at Art Basel as well as some serious furniture buying at Design Miami/Basel. At the latter fair, his purchases included a hollowed-out white marble rococo-style table by Jeroen Verhoeven for £150,000 ($294,000) and a “Family Lamp” by Atelier van Lieshout, both from the London-based Carpenters Workshop Gallery, and two chairs by Max Lamb—a winner of the fair’s Designer of the Future Award—from Johnson Trading Gallery.

Describing the scene as “definitely different from last year, with some important collectors missing,” Georg Frei of Zurich’s Thomas Ammann Fine Art listed Willem de Kooning’s Untitled, 1984, priced at $3.5 million, and Mary Heilmann’s Shaded Serape, priced at $220,000, among the first-day sales. The gallery also sold Günther Förg’s Lead Painting, 1988, for $200,000.

Lehmann Maupin’s tropical-island-themed booth, which re-created Ashley Bickerton’s studio in Bali, sold out, according to gallery co-owner Rachel Lehmann. Prices for its various elements—drawings, paintings and the bold black-and-white floor covering—ranged from $35,000 to $250,000.

Contemporary Fine Arts of Berlin had one of the busiest stands during the preview’s opening hours. Visitors competed for 28 drawings by the German artist Daniel Richter, which immediately sold out at prices of €9,000/10,000 ($13,800/15,400). The artist’s recent paintings are priced at €150,000/250,000 ($233,000/389,000) on the primary market, according to Contemporary Fine Arts director Anne Schwarz. Another Berlin gallery, Eigen + Art, which represents many of the New Leipzig School artists, sold nine abstract paintings by Uwe Kowski, an up-and-coming Leipzig star, at prices of €28,000/44,000 ($43,100/67800) each.

The major draw at Art Unlimited, the hangarlike space devoted to large or complicated installations and artworks, was Staring into Amnesia by Chinese artist Qiu Anxiong, who is represented by the Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing. The piece consisted of a darkened railway car from the ’60s, its windows flashing stark videos of China’s troubled past.

Among the works in Art Unlimited that found buyers were Takashi Murakami’s immense ¬platinum-plated aluminum Oval Buddha, 2007–8, with an asking price of $8 million, which was sold by Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and Strips of Earth Skin, a wall hanging of recycled aluminum and copper wire by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, which was sold for $550,000 to a “European collector opening a private museum” by New York gallerist Jack Shainman.

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