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Sales at Art Basel Exceed Expectations

“Art is back to where it ought to be: collected rather than speculated upon,” said Arne Glimcher, director of New York’s PaceWildenstein gallery, of the 40th-anniversary edition of Art Basel.

BASEL—“Art is back to where it ought to be: collected rather than speculated upon,” said Arne Glimcher, director of New York’s PaceWildenstein gallery, of the 40th-anniversary edition of Art Basel. Although buying was less frenzied this year, the show defied the economic turndown. Sales opened on a brisk note and continued strong throughout the six-day fair, at which some 300 galleries showed works by more than 2,500 20th- and 21st-century artists. Attendance also kept pace, with a record total of 61,000 visitors, a slight increase over the 60,000 visitors reported last year. “Virtually all galleries exceeded their expectations,” said Marc Spiegler, co-director of the fair. “The truly core art world that came made it feel like a cultural, not just a commercial, event. It proved that the market for high-quality art has not frozen.”

Exhibitors brought their highest-quality pieces, and carefully curated their presentations. Among these were “The Late Paintings,” a show of works by Joan Miró at the booth of Helly Nahmad Gallery, London; “Progressions 1960s & 1970s,” a show of Donald Judd at the stand of Galería Elvira Gon­zález, Madrid; and the “Andy Warhol Retrospective” mounted by Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, which featured the artist’s more-than-35-foot-long Big Retrospective Painting, 1979. These exhibitions also resulted in opening-day sales, notably Miró’s Femmes et oiseaux dans la nuit, 1968, for $6 million at Nahmad and Judd’s stainless steel Untitled, 1976, at González.

Brad Pitt, one of a number of opening-day celebrities, was seen eyeing Seewind, 2009, a large painting by the Leipzig artist Neo Rauch, at the booth of Galerie Eigen + Art, Berlin and Leipzig, but opted for an earlier Rauch work, Etappe, 1998, which he reportedly bought for just under $1 million at the stand of New York dealer David Zwirner. Seewind went to a German collector for €450,000 ($630,000), according to Eigen + Art director Gerd Harry Lybke, who also sold three paintings by Uwe Kowski, another Leipzig artist, for prices in the range of €20,000/26,000 ($28,000/36,400).

As he concluded the sale of David Smith’s black and white enamel-on-canvas painting Untitled (Nude), 1964, to Geneva collector Monique Barbier-Mueller, Mathias Rastorfer, co-owner and director of Galerie Gmurzynska, Zurich, counted an “important” untitled painting by Pablo Picasso from the 1960s and a relief by the Russian avant-garde artist Vassily Ermilov among others he had sold. “The galleries brought their best works. It’s a very honest show,” Barbier-Mueller observed.

Georg Frei, director of Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich, said, “collecting is collecting again. They’re not standing in line to buy but are making intelligent, considered choices.” Works sold at Thomas Ammann included Barbara Kruger’s photographic silk screen on vinyl Untitled (I Shop therefore I Am), 1987, to an American collector for “just under $1 million”; drawings by Picasso and by Cy Twombly; Untitled (Turnschuhlandschaft), 1981, by Martin Kippenberger; and A. R. Penck’s Frauen K, 1981.

Leslie Waddington, of Waddington Galleries, London, said he found sales to be “a lot stronger than expected.” Waddington’s sales included Furniture in the Valley (after de Chirico), 1982, a drawing by Warhol; a small Henry Moore sculpture; an Ellsworth Kelly drawing; and Urbino, 1969, a relief by Ben Nicholson.

“There are definitely fewer American collectors this year,” said New York dealer Peter Blum, who said that his sales went “very well across the board.” These included two large works by the American artist Matthew Day Jackson, the wood, carbon and lead relief map August 6, 1945 (Baghdad), 2009, and The immeasurable distance between eye and fingertip, 2008. The latter is a photograph of a night sky with holes burned in it, sandwiched between panels of glass resting on lead casts of the first footprints on the moon. Both went to European collectors.

Satellite Fairs Benefit from Basel Momentum

The major satellite fairs—Design Miami/Basel, Liste, Scope and Volta—picked up momentum as visitors drifted over from Art Basel. Sales varied, with some galleries reporting excellent business, others settling for so-so results.

One standout at Volta was Flux, an installation of circular bands of magnetic tape floating above a wooden platform, powered by an overhead fan, by the Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas, who represented his country at the Venice Biennale. Priced at €35,000 ($49,000) and produced in an edition of six, it was also a sellout for Spencer Brownstone Gallery, New York.

Design Miami/Basel had a different feel this year: more classic than cutting-edge, with wood replacing sleeker man-made materials as the medium of choice. That said, Pitt snapped up the largest and arguably oddest offering: “Mini Capsule Hotel,” a shipping-container-size fiberglass construction designed to sleep six by Atelier Van Lieshout, which was priced at €95,000 ($133,000) at the stand of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, London. Carpenters Workshop also sold Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn’s “Fragile Future 3.3,” 2009, a ­three-dimensional bronze grid enclosing LED lights embedded in spheres of dandelion fluff, to Russian billionaire Roman Abram­ovich for €9,500 ($13,300).

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