The sparkle is back in the eyes of the art dealers, and so, too, are the dollar signs. At Art 41 Basel, June 16-20, 2010, everything is in demand, from the good to the expensive. From the top of the gallery hierarchy to its lower ranks, there is genuine pleasure. Was it all a bad dream, this economic crisis? "For us it was always smooth sailing," one important dealer proclaims, while behind his back, people speculate about his financial well-being. "Basel always works" is the most often heard statement.
You could argue that the dealers are being more careful, more selective. Presumably, dealers are trying to win back their collectors, and are not yet ready to confront them with extravagant prices. Some oversold items of recent years seem to be in scant supply. Takashi Murakami, for instance, can be found at only two galleries: a floral tondo at Blum & Poe from Los Angeles for $550,000, and a bronze-colored bear sculpture at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin from Paris for $1,300,000. Both works have been sold.
"The topic is quality," proclaims Judy Lybke of Eigen + Art, which has branches in Berlin and Leipzig. This is what dealers always say, of course, but this rebuke does not faze him. "It is true," he says with total conviction. The euphoria at Art 41 Basel results from a broad emphasis on quality. "For Basel we go to extra lengths." He is the perfect art dealer.
The insistence that money should not play a major role is familiar, even at the world’s most important art fair. "What does it have to do with art or the fair?" asks dealer Claes Nordenhake of Berlin and Stockholm, "how many private jets are landing here?"
At the same time, we have the notion that art -- of high quality, of course -- is an ideal repository for liquid funds. "People have more confidence in art than in money," says Hans Mayer, the veteran dealer from Düsseldorf. Art buyers have been waiting for the last year or two, and now they’re ready to spend -- if the quality is right. Mayer meets this challenge with a great installation by Jésus Rafael Soto, which he originally exhibited in 1967 at his gallery in Krefeld. Now he asks €600,000 for the work, and chances are good that he will get it.
Power-dealer Iwan Wirth, whose Hauser & Wirth has branches in Zürich, London and New York, also sees global liquidity as a factor in the art market. "These days it is easier to sell an artwork than real estate, and this development seems irreversible," he says.
The globalization of the art market is barely reflected by the gallery lineup in Basel. The fair includes five galleries from India, four from Brazil and four from China. "We don’t yet give Asia its due," says Urs Meile, who runs galleries in Luzern and Beijing. "Epecially when one considers the quality of work produced in China." China has approximately 20 serious collectors of contemporary art, he says and perhaps 100 visitors from that country attended the official Art Basel vernissage.
In the art world, money and quality are now happy bedfellows. Landau Fine Art from Montreal showcases Alberto Giacometti’s bronze Trois homme qui marchent and unabashedly asks $25,000,000 for it. The sculpture sold at Christie’s New York in November 2008 for just over $11,500,000, and most probably the gallery will only be a temporary stopover in the auction career of this work.
Back in 1988, the same work was offered with an estimate of $3,000,000-$4,000,000, and was bought in. Eleven years later, in 1999, it sold for about $5,700,000. Giacometti’s Trois homme qui marchent almost certainly will find a buyer at the current price. The whole atmosphere is ripe.
Translated from the German by Christa Blissett.
STEFAN KOBEL is associate editor of Artnet.de Magazin, and reports on the art market.