Last week the art world gathered in Basel, Switzerland for its biggest fair, Art Basel. Under new leadership by Noah Horowitz and with new investment by James Murdoch, there’s much to talk about regarding the business of the fair itself. But how were the sales?
The general consensus was that the big May auctions in New York saw signs of market saturation, so dealers were jittery heading into the show. Happily, everything seems fine.
The Art Newspaper’s Anny Shaw was able to put numbers on the sales, albeit with some caveats. Many works were sold before the fair opened its doors, but that is always the case so if you’re making comparisons it’s only fair. She estimated $245 million worth of art sold by the end of Tuesday, though six of the top galleries accounted for at least $175 million of that, with Hauser & Wirth reporting $57 million in sales, and a source close to Gagosian saying they did $70 million.
But lest you think that it’s only the mega galleries making sales, Bloomberg’s James Tarmy also saw strong sales, “Certainly on the fair’s upper floor, where galleries are exhibiting younger, comparatively cheaper artists, opening day sales were brisk.” Tarmy has Thilo Wermke, co-founder of Galerie Neu in Berlin, claiming 10 works sold in 10 minutes, with prices at his booth ranging from $55,000 to $185,000.
Artnet’s Naomi Rea also saw success with younger, relatively cheaper artists but focused on the clear day-one winner, a Louise Bourgeois spider sold by Hauser & Wirth, “which was priced at $22.5 million, a 36 percent markup on the price for which it was acquired by its consignor last April at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.”
What is it about Louise Bourgeois? Last year she kicked off Scott Reyburn’s article on the Basel sales in The New York Times, albeit with a much larger one for $40 million. This year his piece indicated “mixed business,” though he had David Zwirner saying the gallery is up 40 percent over last year. Rea for her part notes that Zwirner said they’re no longer announcing secondary market prices, which might be smart given the public auction research some have added to their reporting.
Because there’s no doubting that prices are in flux. Melanie Gerlis of the Financial Times keenly spotted a price change for a Warhol that seems to demonstrate where things are at the moment: at Jeffrey Deitch’s booth, an Andy Warhol “Mao” silkscreen from 1973 was on sale for $10 million, despite having sold at auction for $14.5 million in 2015. That’s quite a drop when you account for inflation, though Deitch wasn’t worried. “For certain artists, the market has been a bit too frothy and now it is down to a rational level. It’s nothing terrible, just the usual cycle,” he told her.
The consensus surrounding this spring’s auctions was that the material wasn’t great, but Basel also tends to offer some of the best art of the year, so it’s possible that both of these data points don’t mean much. Still, if the dealers aren’t worried you probably shouldn’t be either.