BASEL, Switzerland — War is raging in Ukraine. Stocks are down 20 percent; inflation is up more than 8 percent. The crypto economy is collapsing.
But back in the bubble of the international art world, the wealthy, for the moment at least, appear to be on a spending spree. Following on from May’s bumper two-week series of marquee auctions in New York that raised more than $2.5 billion, collectors were on the hunt for further desirable modern and contemporary works at the 52nd edition of the Art Basel fair in Switzerland, which opened to V.I.P. guests Tuesday. An iconic “Spider” sculpture by the artist Louise Bourgeois, priced at $40 million, was announced as the biggest of numerous big-ticket sales.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this was the first in-person, full-scale Art Basel fair held in Switzerland in its customary June slot since 2019. A slightly reduced edition, held last year in September, was hampered by an unfamiliar date and continuing Covid-19 restrictions.
“September was down,” the New York-based dealer Sean Kelly said in an interview on the first floor of the main exhibition building, where contemporary gallerists are concentrated. But this year, he said, “Sales have been strong.”
Kelly was one of 289 exhibitors at this year’s fair, up from 272 in 2021. There are “hardly any” Chinese collectors, Kelly added, “but it feels like we’re very much back. Some major buyers have been here.” Kelly made more than 20 sales in the $30,000 to $250,000 price range within the first six hours of the opening.
The fair, along with the rest of Europe’s luxury retail businesses, has been adversely affected by the Covid-related restrictions on “unnecessary” travel that China imposed in May. The masks and coronavirus tests were gone this year, and Art Basel was back to relative normality. But the crowds were somewhat thinner, the pace slower and the lunchtime lines at the wurst stalls slightly shorter than in the boom years of the 2000s and 2010s. (Some 93,000 visitors attended the fair in 2019, according to Art Basel.)
However, international collectors, particularly in Asia, have become comfortable about engaging with and buying art online at significant price levels. Nowadays Basel exhibitors inundate their clients with online pre-fair offers, and as a result many of the works in the booths are either presold or reserved on a time-limited basis, awaiting confirmation by a collector or their adviser.
“I had four minutes to make a decision, and there were two others waiting right behind me,” said the New York- and Florida-based adviser Kimberly Gould. She was describing how she bought the large, sumptuous 2003 canvas “New York Ice Cream,” by the pioneering Black American abstract painter Ed Clark, who featured in the influential touring museum show “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” The Clark was on offer at a nonnegotiable $1.2 million on the booth of the New York dealership Mnuchin. “I said, ‘OK, confirmed,’” Gould added. “Decisions have to be made so quickly.”
With stock markets on the slide, some V.I.P. visitors were reassured by Art Basel’s stolid reputation as the pre-eminent fair of modern and contemporary art in Europe.
“I can sense that people are concerned about the stock market going down,” said Emilie Pastor, a Monaco-based collector. “They’re taking more time and looking for safe names. I will go for more classical established artists, or unknowns.”
Pastor bought “Ages (Jurassic),” a framed arrangement of 15 found photos made by the British artist Steve Bishop, showing one of the Cabazon Dinosaurs, a roadside attraction in Southern California. This cost 15,000 pounds, or about $18,400, at the booth of the London gallery Carlos/Ishikawa.
Pastor, who has been a regular visitor to Art Basel for the last 15 years, noted how works by younger, in-demand painters are increasingly prominent on the booths of established “blue-chip” galleries.
“You, blinded by M,” a typically painterly 2022 study by the Brooklyn-based artist Jenna Gribbon of her musician girlfriend Mackenzie Scott, was sold for $70,000 — and could have been sold many times over — on the booth of LGDR, an international gallery that usually specializes in high-end 20th-century art.
A super-size Gribbon close-up portrait of Scott in tears, “Fake cry,” also from 2022, on the booth of Massimo de Carlo was regarded by many as one of standout works at Art Basel. Priced at $125,000, it was bought for a British-based collector during the first few hours of the fair.
Though the subject of intense demand in galleries, Gribbon has yet to make a game-changing auction price, unlike the young Los Angeles-based painter Lucy Bull.
Last month, at Sotheby’s “The Now” sale of works by “the most exciting artists today,” one of Bull’s richly layered abstracts sold for $907,200, an auction record for the artist. Another painting, titled “21.57,” from 2021, was discreetly sold to a carefully selected buyer at Art Basel for $55,000 in the back room of the booth of Bull’s Los Angeles dealer, David Kordansky. How many would-be buyers does the gallery have for Bull’s coveted paintings? “Too many to count,” said Kurt Mueller, Kordansky’s director of institutional relations.
“Everybody’s looking for lot No. 1,” said Philip Hoffman, founder and chief executive of the Fine Art Group, a New York-based advisory company, referring to the rarely available works by young names that auction houses use to kick-start their sales with prices that are multiples of the sums first paid in galleries.
“They say, ‘I’ll buy this, if you can get me that,’” Hoffman added. “They think they can make a lot of money.”
Yet despite — or perhaps because of — the current highly speculative market for young art, blue-chip names continue to rack up sales at Art Basel. A museum-grade rarity like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1992 “Untitled (Tim Hotel),” one of 22 light-string sculptures the Cuban American artist created, was sold by David Zwirner for $12.5 million to an Asian collection, helped by an exhibition of Gonzalez-Torres’s work currently on show at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris. But then the Lisson Gallery could also sell an art fair staple like an Anish Kapoor sculpture, in this case the 2018 rhomboid-shaped piece “Non-Object Black,” for £750,000 (about $920,000).
After it was announced that Bourgeois’s 22-foot-wide steel “Spider” sculpture, dating from 1996, had found a buyer at $40 million, Iwan Wirth, co-founder of the international mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth, was jubilant.
“It’s super exciting,” he said. “This is the highest price ever paid for a female artist at Art Basel.”
No details were revealed of the purchaser for the sculpture, which dramatically dominated the dealership’s booth. A similar-size Bourgeois “Spider” sold at auction in 2019 for $32 million, but that was an editioned sculpture in bronze.
“The ‘Spider’ is the one piece a non-Bourgeois collector would want to own,” Wirth said. “It’s one of the iconic sculptures of the 20th century.”
True enough. But given that $40 million sculptures tend not to be the stuff of four-minute or even four-hour decisions, could that huge-ticket purchase have really been confirmed at the fair? Chloe Kinsman, a director of communications at Hauser & Wirth, said in an email, “The sale was made on opening day of Art Basel, following discussions in the lead into the fair.”
Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director, is now looking ahead to the inaugural edition of the company’s “Paris+” fair in October. Spiegler thinks it will take a “broad-scale economic crash” to curb the enthusiasm of the relatively small cohort of super-wealthy collectors who currently drive the top end of the art market. “People’s predictions that the pandemic would be the end of art fairs have been proven radically wrong,” Spiegler said.
“You hear every different theory,” he added. “There’s always money floating around the system.”