Col­lec­tors, and bankers, flock to Art Basel


The halls of Art Basel, the world’s largest con­tem­po­rary art fair, brim with el­e­gantly dressed col­lec­tors all search­ing for some­thing spe­cial — and, in­creas­ingly, fi­nan­cial in­vestors just af­ter a good deal.

The event opens to the public on Thurs­day, but spe­cial VIPs got an ad­vance peek at the vast ar­ray of art­works by 20th cen­tury mas­ters like Pi­casso, Calder and Warhol, mixed in with to­day’s cut­ting edge cre­ations, on Tues­day.

The fair, which last year drew nearly 100,000 visi­tors from around the world, at­tracts rep­re­sen­ta­tives from mu­se­ums, large and smaller-scale pri­vate col­lec­tors and a grow­ing crowd of fi­nan­cial buy­ers look­ing for a savvy in­vest­ment.

Seated among plush cush­ions in Art Basel’s lux­u­ri­ous VIP lounge, the head of UBS’s art spon­sor­ship, Peter Dil­lon, said the bank — a long-time backer of the fair and a col­lec­tor with 30,000 pieces to its name — tried to keep its fin­ger on the pulse of the global art mar­ket.

But not ev­ery­one ap­pre­ci­ates the de­tached in­vestor’s take on art ex­hib­ited at the fair.

“Peo­ple are shop­ping ... It’s height­ened com­mer­cial­ity on an ex­treme level,” renowned Bri­tish artist Tracey Emin told AFP.

“I don’t like peo­ple who buy the work and then flip it,” she said, stand­ing next to a large printed sketch of what looked like a rape scene with the words “Is this a joke” writ­ten above it — one of three of her works on dis­play at the Lehmann Maupin booth.

Art Basel di­rec­tor Marc Spiegler also ad­vised against buy­ing works purely with an eye on fi­nan­cial re­turns.

“My ad­vice for peo­ple who want to in­vest in the art mar­ket is buy works that you like, be­cause that way, even if it loses value, you have a work that you like,” he told AFP.

Not Just a Quick Buck

That said, there are hefty prof­its to be made in a sec­tor that is see­ing auc­tion prices go through the roof.

Pi­casso’s “The Women of Al­giers,” for in­stance, sold for a record US$179 mil­lion at a Christies auc­tion in Lon­don last month, six times what it went for in 1997.

The Art Basel show this year also boasts a num­ber of pricey mas­ter­pieces, in­clud­ing a Mark Rothko at the Helly Nah­mad gallery booth, car­ry­ing a price tag of US$50 mil­lion.

While the show is im­por­tant, Spiegler said the value of all the works com­bined there was “only” around US$2.0 bil­lion, a frac­tion of the es­ti­mated US$51bil­lion global an­nual art mar­ket.

But, for the gal­leries, the fair high­light of the year.

“Sales are ex­tremely strong,” en­thused Bona Colonna Mon­tagu of the Skarstedt Gallery, point­ing out a large Keith Har­ing paint­ing from 1984 fea­tur­ing myr­iad red in­ter­lock­ing fig­ures that

is a just sold for around US$5.0 mil­lion.

She stressed, how­ever, that she re­fuses to sell works to peo­ple only in­ter­ested in mak­ing a quick buck, adding: “We don’t want to see the piece show up at the auc­tions in six months time.”

Still, Art Basel is not only for the big spenders. Su­sanne Mil­berg, a 52-yearold Ger­man na­tional, said she had al­ready snapped up a nice “small-scale” piece for her pri­vate col­lec­tion.

“You can find good, af­ford­able here too,” she said.

For visi­tors more in­ter­ested in look­ing than buy­ing, a whole 15,000-square me­ter hall is re­served for the “Un­lim­ited” col­lec­tion of 74 large and some­times as­ton­ish­ing works that are not for sale.

Among them is Ger­man artist Julius von Bis­marck, whose gut-wrench­ing in­stal­la­tion “Ego­cen­tric sys­tem” shows him sit­ting, ly­ing and glanc­ing at his mo­bile phone for hours on end at the heart of a large, spin­ning con­crete bowl, his long beard flow­ing in the wind.

Next to him, Chi­nese dis­si­dent artist Ai Wei­wei’s piece “Stacked” is an awein­spir­ing tower of 760 bi­cy­cles — the iconic ob­ject rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the lives of mil­lions of his coun­try­men — stacked hor­i­zon­tally.

French-Al­ge­rian artist Kader At­tia pro­vided per­haps the most pow­er­ful work: 16 bro­ken and empty mu­seum show­cases, with bricks, rocks and bro­ken glass strewn about, en­ti­tled “Arab Spring.”


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