One-stop art shopping for the megarich

BASEL, Switzerland — Taking in Art Basel, the world’s premier trade fair for leading galleries and collectors focused on modern and contemporary art, is like a visit to the Louvre or New York’s MOMA, on steroids.

The major difference is that in contrast to a museum, everything at the annual weeklong meeting in Basel is for sale if you have a few million dollars in pocket change. A surprising number of buyers do. They range from billionaire private collectors to curators working for the world’s top museums and leading corporations.

If your pockets are deep enough, art can be a powerful investment — especially during the current financial crisis when even the best blue chip stocks are increasingly unreliable. This year’s show attracted 303 of the world’s top galleries from 36 countries, showing the works of more than 2,500 artists. It drew more than 62,000 visitors, a new record. The underlying message, when it was all over, was that it looks like the financial crisis is over — at least for the high end of the market.

Several galleries sold out on the first day. At least six works by British artist Damien Hirst, at a price range from roughly $750,000 to $7.5 million, were quickly snapped up. Two works by Japanese sculptor and painter, Takashi Murakami, went for more than a million dollars each. The market is still cautious, but clearly not that cautious. Most galleries confirmed that a new enthusiasm is gradually displacing the somber angst that seemed the mood of the moment last year.

Even if you don’t have a million dollars to spend, just being at Art Basel tends to be a dazzling experience. It is rare to see so many works by Picasso, Miro, Dubuffet, Maigritte, Leger and other great masters in one place at any one time.

For some of the top galleries, Basel also provides an opportunity to expose collectors to a range of painters whose work is less well known, but is still on a par with the famous masterpieces. As one local art magazine put it, “It is not all about Matisse.”

In fact, the majority of the work on display is by living artists in the prime of their creativity. “Medusa Marinara,” a photographic representation of the Medusa in spaghetti and tomato sauce by New York-based Brazilian artist, Vic Muniz, was a case in point. A huge scaffold converted to a delicate Chinese ceramic matrix by China’s enfant terrible, Ai Weiwei, was strategically placed by the main entrance.

The fair has developed a special dynamic of its own. To begin with, participation is by invitation only. In order to be included a gallery must first demonstrate its serious commitment to great art. Anything less is likely to constitute financial suicide. Making an appearance at the show can easily cost $100,000 or more.

To make the experience profitable, a gallery will need to sell at least several hundred thousand dollars worth of art, and most hope to make sales in the million-dollar range. That means that any art dealer who wants to stay in business, either has a genuine masterpiece to sell, or is likely to stay at home. It also means that if you are a serious collector, or curator for a major museum, attendance at Basel is virtually mandatory.

To succeed, Basel Art needs to master the tension between art, which is intended to push the envelope and to make us see the world around us in a new way, and commerce, which strives for predictable profits. So far Basel has succeeded in mastering both with admirable panache.

In addition to the main fair, there a number of smaller shows run in parallel. Basel Scope, operates in a large warehouse like structure a few blocks a way. A 200-square-foot exhibition space at Scope is likely to cost around $10,000, and the artwork, which tends to be more experimental by lesser known artists, can sell for as little as a few thousand dollars. Even less expensive, Liste, a show dedicated to “young artists,” was run this year in a former factory.

While these shows try to take advantage of the huge number of collectors and specialists in town for the main show, they also suffer in comparison to the high expectations generated by being surrounded by so many genuine masterpieces on display by the major galleries.

Much of the work at Scope seemed pale after looking at the offerings of the top galleries. But a few pieces did manage to stand out as original. Possibly the most amusing work at Scope was a piece of performance art done by an unidentified nearly naked man who moved in slow motion up and down the aisles dressed like a Greek version of Mars, the god of war. The man clutched a staff, on which was impaled a plastic container for motor oil, with the logo “BP” for British Petroleum prominently displayed. A pair of oil-soaked bird’s wings was attached to the top, and a large screw extended from the container’s bottom. 

Much of the work at the Liste young artist’s show also seemed lack-luster and derivative compared to the masters — proof, if any were needed, that the young still have a lot to learn. But even this show provided some surprises.

One of the most noteworthy was a young Chinese photographer, Chen Wei, represented by Platform, an experimental gallery based in Caochangdi, on the outskirts of Beijing. Chen, who is only 32, produced a series of large prints of intriguingly surrealistic images reflecting both China’s recent cultural history and his own. Each picture, taken with a large format view camera, had taken more than a month to construct. The price range was from $1,800 to nearly $3,000. By the time the week was over he had sold more than 10 works.

“There is a lot of young talent,” explained Sun Ning, Platform’s director, “and it is not that expensive.” How long Chen Wei’s work is likely to remain affordable is open to question, though. One of his pictures was immediately purchased by a Tokyo-based gallery. Another was bought by a leading gallery in Munich. Both galleries were there to exhibit in the main Art Basel fair. Private collectors fought over what was left. Both of the galleries were scrambling to represent Chen Wei on their own turf, and it is unlikely that they are thinking in terms of small change.

“He has sold well in Asia,” Sun Ning explained. “What we wanted was for him to be seen internationally.”

Spotting new talent as well as older talent previously overlooked is, after all, what makes Basel Art so exciting.