Collectors Storm Art Basel, Driving A Bull Market
BASEL, Switzerland— The 41st edition of Art Basel, the premier and now middle-aged modern and contemporary art fair in the world, opened promptly at 11 a.m. today for a select gang of VIP guests, the first of a three-tiered, timed pecking order for various levels of the art elite. On the main floor of Hall 2.0, hosting the bluest of the blue-chip galleries, business was instantly brisk and happily upbeat in both tone and substance, a welcome change from the restrained, pessimistic mood of a year ago.
Though numerous observers have characterized the opening moments of Basel as a more dangerous version of Pamplona's running of the bulls, there were no bloody casualties among the collectors and art advisers this year. Still, noted Dallas contemporary collector and museum patron Howard Rachofsky dived for temporary refuge in New York’s Skarstedt Gallery. “There are too damn many people,” he complained. “So many bodies, you could hardly move.” Rachofsky, for his part, had the luxury of taking his time: he admitted he already had a “first reserve” on an undisclosed painting at the fair. “If you’ve got a great thing, it’s snapped up very quickly,” he said.

Those words held true for the supercharged first hour of action at Skarstedt, as Barbara Kruger’s seminal 1987 Are we having fun yet?, a massive 12-by-8-foot photograph silkscreen on vinyl, sold for $700,000. It had been on long-term loan to the Dallas Museum of Art since 1988 but lately returned to the secondary market to find a new home.

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Skarstedt also sold Christopher Wool’s Untitled painting, an enamel on silkscreen ink on linen from 2002, to an American collector for $800,000, and Cindy Sherman’s naughty, leather-masked Untitled #264 (1992) — the only one from the edition of six in her “Sex Pictures” series that's still in private hands — to a Swiss collector for $500,000. The gallery also sold two works by George Condo, whom Skarstedt represents in New York. Condo’s 2005 bronze The Madman, a 29-inch-high piece from an edition of four, sold to an American collector for $375,000, and a 72-by-60-inch oil on linen painting, The Colorful Banker, went to a Swiss collector for $225,000. The keen interest in Condo may be in anticipation of his upcoming retrospective in February at the New Museum in New York, followed by a visit to London's Hayward Gallery.

Gallery owner Per Skarstedt attributed some of his booth's success to its location in the fair, an improvement over the previous year's that affords collectors more opportunities to stumble into his large stand from several vantage points. Many of these collectors coming through early in the fair were from Europe, he noted.

Another major American collector — Peter Brant — was noticed at the stand of Brussels–based dealer Xavier Hufkens, standing in thrall of David Altmejd’s L’Air, a towering puppet-like work in mixed media suspended in a scratched and etched Plexiglas vitrine. “I’ve seen some really good things by some young artists, and some of the branded artists are good,” said the Greenwich, Connecticut-based collector and art-foundation magnate.

Brant added he never paid any mind to the bucketloads of jpeg-heavy emails that international gallerists, all fishing for attention, sent him prior to the fair. “As a collector, I’ve always been very lucky here and found some great things,” he said. “Whatever I got, I just bumped into.” Brant admitted he had already bought “a couple of things,” but he declined to name specific works. However, it’s a good bet he snatched up the dramatic, 2,000-pound Altmejd, which sold for $145,000.

Though things are looking better in the market, Brant cautioned against getting too carried away. “To call it a hot market again is putting fuel on the fire," he said. "It’s choice things that are selling. The auction houses have become more careful, and collectors have become more careful.” Brant left the stand and caught up with his friend and fellow art collector Val Kilmer, who, natty in a beige-colored summer suit, was going incognito with his fedora pulled low over his forehead.
Hufkens also sold Louise Bourgeois' 2009 A Baudelaire (#7) — a major and late etching, watercolor, gouach, and pencil on paper that was enclosed in a large white frame — to a European collector for over $650,000, according to gallery owner Hufkens. Bourgeois, who died earlier this month at age 98, was literally working until just days before her death, according to Hufkens. “It’s very touching to see this last work, where she’s still fighting with life,” he said.
It seems that Bourgeois’s fame is spreading after her death, at least in this freshly pumped market, as other works by the artist quickly sold at several stands, including a striking red-and-scarlet-hued 1998 fabric and steel sculpture at Zurich, London, and New York gallery Hauser & Wirth. The work, encased in a wood-and-glass vitrine, sold for $850,000.

New York’s Cheim & Read, who long represented Bourgeois in New York as her primary dealer, sold two works to unnamed American museums, including an untitled 1996 installation of sewn mannequins hanging on a kind of metal clothesline-like armature for $1.5 million, and Les Fleurs, a stunning 2010 suite of 28 gouache on paper works, also for $1.5 million. “I think the mortality issue has something to do with it,” said Cheim & Read's Adam Sheffer. “People who have been circling for years around her work snapped it up”

Cheim & Read also sold a smallish untitled Joan Mitchell abstraction from 1952-53 for approximately $2 million, as well as a 1958 Sam Francis drawing from Mitchell’s personal collection for $125,000. On the more cutting-edge side, the gallery sold Ghada Amer’s 2008 Green Paradise painting for $100,000. “It’s Pamplona again,” Sheffer observed of the fair, “but with more bucks.”

Back at Hauser & Wirth, the gallery’s newest addition, Matthew Day Jackson, scored an instant hit with a sculpture made from recycled wood from his studio. Titled Lumpen Proletariat, the unique piece — which resembles the visages of both the artist and moon-landing astronaut Neil Armstrong — sold for $150,000. The gallery also sold two complete sets of Paul McCarthy’s patinated bronze suite of Snow White’s dwarfs for a cumulative $3 million. (Sneezy and Dopey were priced at $750,000 apiece.)

At Gagosian’s impressive stand, it was a guessing-game as usual, without any wall labels or even whispers of prices or sales. However, it was hard to miss it when Richard Prince's big Student Nurse was taken down from the wall and instantly replaced by his Nurse Marcie’s Island, featuring a purple background. Student Nurse sold for $4.2 million, according to a source unaffiliated with the gallery. However, not everyone was seduced by the artist's come-hithering nurses. A European collector who was admiring the Student Nurse declared, “I’m scared about Prince,” and walked away.

But anyone who remains skeptical of the larger art-market recovery should take note of the shocking sale at the booth of Krugier Gallery, which is based in New York and Geneva. Moments into the fair, an American collector bought Pablo Picasso’s unique 1960 plaster maquette Personnage. “We were asking $15 million,” Krugier’s Sara Kay said of the jarring, comic-faced sculpture with outstretched hands, adding the sale "was confirmed ten minutes ago.” Asked about the work’s buyer, Kay would only say: “This piece went to a very important collector with the best modern masters. This is museum-quality, not trophy-level. It’s a very serious piece.”

As evidenced by the extraordinary world-record price paid for the rare Amedeo Modigliani limestone sculpture that sold for €43 million ($52.6 million) at Christie’s Paris on Monday, it looks like the deep-pocketed collectors roaming the international art market — which is centered squarely on Basel this week — are still gunning for great works.
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