Mixed Business at an Anxious Art Basel

After an underwhelming series of auctions in New York in May, dealers exhibiting at this year’s Art Basel fair in Switzerland — which opened to V.I.P.s on Tuesday and welcomes the general public from Friday onward — hoped to quell concerns about a dip in the art market.

The 53rd annual edition of this bellwether Swiss event, featuring 284 international galleries specializing in 20th and 21st-century art, was the first under the watch of Art Basel’s new chief executive, Noah Horowitz. It is being held in a climate of geopolitical uncertainty, with high interest rates and inflation hampering consumer spending in many countries.

“There’s quite a lot of anxiety around,” said Paul Gray, the director of Gray gallery, based in Chicago and New York. But in his 40-year experience, he added, the art market suffered from few major downturns. “Serious collectors keep buying,” he said.

The booths of the top international dealerships at this year’s Art Basel contained several trophy-level works on consignment from private collections. In recent years, auctions have tended to be the go-to channel for such sales, so their presence indicated certain wealthy collectors were thinking of different strategies.

Acquavella Galleries, for example, exhibited the 1955 Mark Rothko abstract “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” from an American collector, priced at $60 million. Hauser & Wirth offered a 1996 Louise Bourgeois “Spider IV” bronze at $22.5 million, while Pace presented Joan Mitchell’s 1963 “Girolata Triptych,” at $14 million.

The latter two works had both found buyers by Wednesday morning, according to their galleries.

“The sellers who want their price are giving it a go here, rather than see their work sell at the low estimate or below at an auction,” said Wendy Cromwell, a New York-based art adviser, explaining why some owners were opting to sell at Art Basel, rather than Sotheby’s or Christie’s.

“We’re 40 percent up on last year,” the gallerist David Zwirner said on Tuesday. The easing of coronavirus prevention measures had played a major part, he added.

“Asian collectors are here. They can travel without restrictions,” Zwirner said. He estimated that 20 percent of his first-day sales were to Asian clients. “The last auction cycle helped, too,” Zwirner added, referring to the underperforming New York sales in May. “People bemoaned the results, but it reset the market. Owners are no longer asking unrealistic prices. It makes it easier to make sales.”

“Graduation,” a haunting 2015 painting by the American artist Noah Davis, was among Zwirner’s many first day sales at $2 million, according to the gallery; a White Cube spokesman said that gallery had sold another Davis painting, “Pueblo del Rio: Vernon,” from 2014, for $2.75 million. The demand for works by Davis, who co-founded the Underground Museum in Los Angeles before his premature death in 2015, is part of a more general reorientation of the market toward works by artists of color and women that has transformed Art Basel and other art world events in recent years.

In a new section of the fair called Feature, devoted to solo presentations of works by 20th-century artists, the Dutch painter and writer Jacqueline de Jong, 84, was on hand to talk about her experiences in the Situationist International movement in 1960s Paris, where she produced violently expressionistic paintings. The London dealer Pippy Houldsworth presented six of de Jong’s 1960s canvases in Feature, four of which sold by Wednesday, priced between 110,000 and 165,000 euros, according to the gallery.

“I don’t like the word ‘rediscovered’. It makes me feel older than I am,” said de Jong, whose paintings currently feature in two museum shows in the Netherlands. “Still, recognition at this age is wonderful.”

But, as ever, collectors were also in pursuit of new works by young “rising star” artists, whose values can take a steep upward trajectory. At least 10 collectors bought examples of “Portraits” by the Canadian artist Sin Wai Kin, 32. These gender-fluid digital works, inspired by Cantonese and Peking Opera roles, were offered by the London gallery Soft Opening and priced between $7,000-$18,000. Liza Lacroix, 35, a fellow Canadian artist, sold a new abstract painting on the booth of Gisela Capitain, a dealer from Cologne, Germany, for $36,000.

By Friday, some of the top dealerships had already released long lists of sales. But for other exhibitors, the bustle of collectors, advisers and curators didn’t so easily translate into handshakes and invoices.

“I witnessed more talking between gallerists and fairgoers than usual. I didn’t see any actual transactions being made,” Michael Short, a Berlin-based art adviser and curator, said. “When asked, most gallerists told me that they were ‘breaking even’,” Short added. “No one was panicking, but then no one was overly satisfied.”

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