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One-stop art shopping for the megarich

At the Basel art show, even the sellers need to prove their financial worth.

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.