Rival auction houses are not the only art-market machines seething with jealousy over the $110.5 million Basquiat sold at Sotheby’s last month.
Art Basel’s flagship fair in Basel, Switzerland—perhaps the world’s most important art mecca and a bellwether for the market for the rest of the year—opened today to VIPs who arrived to see a typically dazzling array of top-notch work on view, a good amount of which sold during the opening hours. There was a slight uptick in the number of big-ticket gems going for eight-figure prices, with one particular artist predominantly dotting the aisles: Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work has become even more aggressively chased by collectors after a bidding war at Sotheby’s New York in May caused an untitled picture to soar to a record-smashing sale. At Art Basel, Basquiat was all over the place—even copies of the International New York Times came covered in an ad sleeve (purchased at what must be great cost) trumpeting the Basquiat that will be sold at Sotheby’s in London at the end of June.
The boom time success of a single artist isn’t enough to sustain the entire market, and the market is still recovering from the correction that followed the high water mark of a few years ago, but the fact that the Basquiat was such an infectiously successful lot—a bona fide crossover pop culture moment—gave galleries confidence to bring serious work to Art Basel. And, from speaking with sources today, collectors responded in kind, buying frequently even at such an early point in the week. Multiple galleries, including Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner, said it was their best first day ever in their histories of coming to the fair.
For those focused on Basquiat, the potential upside at the fair is enormous.
“There’s a lot of interest as he’s become this huge phenomenon,” said Andrew Fabricant, the director of Richard Gray Gallery. We were standing in his booth, where in front of us was Basquiat’s Untitled (Solanamum), 1984, a seven-foot-tall painting on sale for $14 million. Fabricant knows the work well—he had been the first to sell it, in the year that it was made, while he was a dealer at Gagosian Gallery. The original price, before being sold many times over, was $4,500.
“The current owner pretty much thought now was the time to sell,” Fabricant said.
One booth over, Acquavella Galleries had managed to sell a Basquiat in the opening hours, the five-by-five-foot painting Three Delegates (1982), which carried an asking price of $18 million. Again, the seller wanted to take advantage of a frenzy for the work of the artist, who died at the age of 27, leaving a scarce number of works produced during his peak years.
“Surely they want to take advantage of selling at good prices, but if it’s a good painting, it’s a good painting,” said Acquavella director Michael Findlay.
But other dealers who brought Basquiats to the fair insisted that their arrangements had been made prior to the Sotheby’s sale, and that sudden demand for work did not affect prices, regardless of what a potential client might now be willing to pay. Brett Gorvy, a partner in Lévy Gorvy gallery, arranged to sell Baby Boom (1984) before the auction at Sotheby’s, and was chosen to offer the work in his booth mostly on the basis of his track record selling Basquiat’s work at auction. In 2016, while Gorvy was chairman of the postwar and contemporary department at Christie’s, a work he pried from the wall of collector Adam Lindemann became the previous record-holder for a Basquiat at auction. Once the price for this year’s offering of Baby Boom was set at $30 million—which makes it the priciest Basquiat work at the fair—it stayed there, despite piqued interest following the sale at Sotheby’s where the piece was purchased by the Japanese collector Yusaka Maezawa. (The seller of Baby Boom is Peter Brant, chairman of the parent company of ARTnews.)
“People are certainly looking more for the work,” Gorvy said, even if, by late afternoon, this particular work had yet to sell.
Three more Basquiats were awaiting buyers at the booth of Van De Weghe Fine Art: Big Sun (1984), at $4.5 million; Crisis X (1982), at $8.5 million; and a skull work on paper, at $1.9 million.
“I have not raised my prices—some potential clients want to sell at these high prices now, but I don’t take them,” Christophe Van de Weghe, the gallery’s owner, said.
But he acknowledged that perhaps the demand in the work could facilitate a bump in prices when work hits other fairs down the line.
“I get five emails a day for people asking for Basquiats,” van de Weghe said. “The amount of interest in Basquiat after the auction is incredible.”
Of course the fair has much more on offer than a few pricy works by a market stalwart—the galleries sector alone has 226 participants, and a strong squadron of collectors gathered in the center courtyard for a champagne breakfast that began at the decadent hour of 9:30 a.m. The likes of the Rubells, the Broads, Dasha Zhukova, and plenty of others all streamed into the convention center at the Messeplatz as soon as handlers rolled back the doors. The collector Steven A. Cohen was spotted going through the David Zwirner booth—what else to do after spending $165 million on a single work of art but fly to an art fair that has $3 billion work of art for sale?
“There’s lots of great American collectors here—you turn around, there’s Eli Broad!” Zwirner said when we caught him later in the day. Sales at the Zwirner booth already included a 1954 Alberto Burri for more than $10 million, a 1986 Sigmar Polke for almost $9 million, and Marlene Dumas works-on-paper and paintings ranging from $150,000 to $3 million.
The Gagosian booth sold most of its work by lunchtime, racking up around $50 million, per a source. Among those sold by the first minutes of the fair were two editions of Urs Fischer’s Bruno & Yoyo (2015), a paraffin wax sculpture of the dealer Bruno Bischofberger and his wife, first put on view at Vito Schnabel Gallery in St. Moritz, which took over the gallery space that Bischofberger himself had occupied for decades. The couple is sitting, which makes for a creepy pairing with the work placed above: a Warhol electric chair. The work didn’t sell in St. Moritz, but the two available editions were snapped up for around a $1 million apiece before the fair started today.
(For those wondering, though Fischer’s wax sculptures are supposed to be lit on fire to be activated—so that they melt down and the owner orders another fabrication to melt down again, ad infinitum—there were no open flames among the fair aisles on Tuesday morning. “Yeah, Art Basel would not let us do that,” a Gagosian employee said.)
A few booths down at Hauser & Wirth was a Philip Guston, Scared Stiff (1970), for a high-seeming $15 million, but perhaps the buzz from a Guston show in Venice that opened during the Biennale has already trickled down to the market: a few hours into the fair it was sold. Hauser also placed an untitled Eva Hesse work, priced at $2.5 million, with a Chinese museum.
Mnuchin Gallery came with a booth anchored by a $12 million Warhol gun painting, and while that had yet to sell by mid-afternoon, a work by Mark Bradford (also riding a Biennale bump after representing the United States in Venice) sold for $5.5 million, a higher-end mark for the artist at a fair.
Anthony Meier hadn’t yet sold the gargantuan Donald Judd stack from 1988 at his booth—the Judd stack is a staple at fairs, but this is perhaps the biggest ever shown at one, eclipsing 15 feet. It was priced at $18.5 million. Also unsold was an ultra-rare early Richard Serra, Candle Piece (1967)—the only other of its kind is in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum—at Peter Freeman.
But Metro Pictures had sold out basically its whole booth, including its own curio: Robert Longo’s first-ever “Men in the Cities” work, which went for around $500,000. An untitled Cindy Sherman from 1983 went for somewhere in the range of $1 million and $1.5 million. And Di Donna, new to the fair this year, sold a work by Gerhard Richter for $5 million.
But not everyone was hanging out on the Messeplatz to flex spending muscles. While I was looking at the Isa Genzken sculptures at the Buchholz gallery booth, in walked Albert Oehlen, who has work all over the fair, including an abstraction in the Gagosian booth and a giant paint-on-metal work that dominates at Galerie Max Hetzler. When I stopped to say I liked the work, he smiled innocently, as if he didn’t know any of it was here.