Russians Help Art Basel Shake Economic Woe, Falling U.S. Demand


By Scott Reyburn


6 (Bloomberg) -- Collectors from Russia, Asia and the Middle East are splashing out at Switzerland's Art Basel, making up for reduced demand from U.S. visitors, exhibiting dealers said.

Sales are running at similar levels to last year, they said on the third day of the world's largest fair of modern and contemporary art. Some U.S. collectors stayed away because of a date switch, while galleries had feared demand would be cut because of the subprime crisis and weaker economic growth.

``The momentum of last month's New York auctions has been maintained,'' said Izabela Grocholski, director of the Jan Krugier Gallery in New York, which specializes in modern and contemporary works. ``It's been as good as last year, if not better.''

Krugier, which also has a gallery in Geneva, sold seven pieces ranging in price from $40,000 to $14 million, said Grocholski. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich had visited the dealer's booth, she said.

On the June 3 preview day, Abramovich expressed interest in three Alberto Giacometti bronze sculptures priced between $8 million and $14 million, said the Art Newspaper.

``A year ago, I was saying there was a bubble that was going to burst,'' said New York dealer Richard Feigen. ``This year I'm not so certain. There's an enormous amount of money coming in from Russia and the Middle East. We've seen quite a few collectors from Asia and the Gulf. There is a perception that art is a good place to park money. I don't see a reason why that will diminish.''

Feigen is offering the 1967-70 Willem de Kooning painting ``Woman'' at $15 million. The work, which has never been offered on the market before, attracted interest from several potential buyers, said Feigen.

Hotel Shortage

``I'll be surprised if it doesn't sell at the fair,'' he said. Americans were discouraged from visiting because of the shortage of hotel rooms, he said, even with the event this year moved forward 10 days to precede the arrival of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament in Switzerland.

``There are certain key U.S. collectors I haven't seen,'' said London dealer Richard Nagy, a specialist in early 20th- century German art. Francis Bacon's ``Untitled (Self Portrait),'' dating from 1967-68, is reserved on his booth at $6 million.

``There are sales, but for dealers like me it's taking longer to close deals on the bigger items,'' said Nagy, who is among the dealers in modern art exhibiting on the ground floor. Dealers in contemporary art on the first floor said levels of demand were similar to last year.

``It's almost the same,'' said Sergei Khripun, partner at Moscow-based XL Gallery, which specializes in Russian contemporary art. ``We've sold to some new people. This is the only fair where we can sell to collectors from Australia and India.''

Russian Dog

Two versions of a photograph by Oleg Kulik, ``Mad Dog,'' from an edition of nine, sold for 22,000 euros ($34,000) each, said Khripun.

``He's Russia's No. 1 artist at the moment,'' he said.

``Almost everything has sold on our stand,'' said Alison Ward, sales person at the London gallery White Cube.

The 14-foot-wide Damien Hirst vitrine piece, ``Yes, But How Do You Really Feel'' from 1996 -- featuring six human skeletons -- sold for 1.65 million pounds ($3.26 million) and the 2007 Raqib Shaw painting ``Absence of God I'' fetched 750,000 pounds, said Ward. In October 2007, a painting by the Anglo-Indian artist Shaw sold at Sotheby's in London for a record 2.7 million pounds.

Gupta Bronze

New Delhi and New York dealers Nature Morte/Bose Pacia sold the Subodh Gupta bronze sculpture ``Gandhi's Three Monkeys'' for 850,000 euros, said Delhi-based director Peter Nagy. The monumental 2008 three-piece sculpture, exhibited outside Art Basel's exhibition hall, was one of an edition of three.

``We've seen a lot of interest from Western galleries who say they want an Indian artist,'' said Nagy.

``The net result of this year's Basel is the same as last year, but the cadence is different,'' said Anthony Meier of San Francisco-based Anthony Meier Fine Arts. ``Though it's not the scrum it was last year, there are moments of enthusiasm and excitement. The lack of Americans is irrelevant.''

Contemporary Chinese art was the other emerging market with a conspicuous presence at Art Basel.

Qiu Anxiong's installation ``Staring Into Amnesia'' -- featuring a complete Chinese railway carriage lined with windows showing black and white newsreel footage -- was the popular hit of the ``Art Unlimited'' section of the fair. The piece, commissioned by the Boers-Li Gallery of Beijing, was priced at 400,000 euros, said Robin Peckham, the gallery's director of communications. The asking price was similar to the cost of making and shipping the work, said Peckham.

``The object wasn't to make a financial killing,'' said Peckham. ``We wanted to introduce a younger generation of Chinese artists to a new audience.'' The gallery was currently negotiating the sale of the carriage with an unnamed museum, he said. ``We certainly don't want to take it back to China,'' said Peckham.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Scott Reyburn in London at sreyburn@hotmail.com.

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