Basel defies forecast of art market slowdown

The Basel contemporary art fair this week defied forecasts of a market slowdown, with wealthy collectors buying works with seven or eight-figure price tags.

At its VIP day on Tuesday, Zurich’s Hauser and Wirth gallery sold a spider by Franco-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois for $22.5 million.

While jittery stock markets and soaring interest rates had triggered predictions that the art market was cooling, the gallery sealed a dozen sales of more than one million dollars during the first two days of Art Basel.

An oil on canvass by US painter Philippe Guston went for a total of $9.5 million.

Some 284 galleries representing more than 4,000 artists are represented at the fair in the Swiss city, which for one week every year becomes the centre of the global contemporary art market.

During that week, Art Basel serves as “a barometer of the industry”, new CEO Noah Horowitz said at the opening event.

Every year, the first two and a half days are reserved for wealthy collectors, before the doors open to the public from Thursday to Sunday.

– ‘Quite a healthy market’ –
“We had a lot of people competing over pieces,” Marc Glimcher, CEO of New York gallery Pace, told AFP.

Within the first few hours, he sold two fox sculptures from a new series by US artist Jeff Koons, even though one of the works had yet to be finished. They went for $3 million each.

“The art market seems quite healthy here in Basel,” he said.

“People are not paying crazy high prices but they are not asking us to sell at crazy low prices either.”

US gallery Lehmann Maupin, which sold a painting by Chinese artist Liu Wei for between $600,000 and $700,000, also made “strong sales across the board” from the outset, said Isabella Icoz, head of the London branch of the gallery.

“We had a good mix of long-term loyal clients and new buyers.”

After a healthy rebound in 2021, the art market grew three percent in 2022 to $67.8 billion, according to market specialist Clare McAndrew, who publishes an annual report for Art Basel.

While the first half of 2022 was marked by strong sales, and a number of record prices, the market was more subdued in the latter half due to political and economic instability, the war in Ukraine, increasing inflation rates, supply issues and looming recessions in key markets, she wrote.

– ‘People arrived a bit worried’ –
But while “people arrived a bit worried” at Art Basel this year, the fair has been “better than expected”, Robert Read, head of art at British specialist insurer Hiscox, said on Friday.

“People are buying. I don’t see that hesitancy,” he said of the predicted reaction.

But he stressed that one fair was “not enough to draw conclusions for the rest of the year”.

Hans Laenen, Europe and Asia-Pacific art market specialist for insurer AXA XL, stressed Basel was an “iconic” fair that drew collectors even when the market slows down.

“I don’t get the impression people are hesitant to invest in art,” he told AFP.

“Everyone expects that a bit because of the economic and political situation. But that’s not what we’ve seen so far.”

London gallery Soft Opening, which was representing transgender artist Sin Wai Kin at Basel for the first time, said the fair was a real launch pad for young artists.

“Sales went brilliantly,” said founder Antonia Marsh. (Nathalie OLOF-ORS/AFP)

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