Recession Creeps Up on Basel

By Judd Tully
Published: June 11, 2009
BASEL—Dealers at Art40Basel continued to rack up sales on day two, but gone was the early euphoria of opening day that came with the realization that the art market hadn’t died. “It’s fine,” said David Nahmad of London and New York’s Helly Nahmad, strolling out of the stand’s solo display of late Joan Miró works, “but I think business is a little bit quiet.” The gallery sold one painting, Femmes et oiseaux dans la nuit (1968), for $6 million, according to Nahmad — an enormous sum for that period Miró — “to a known but anonymous client in the first minute of the fair.”

Pausing in thought, Nahmad added, “Maybe it’s difficult to sell, but it’s much more difficult to buy in this market because there’s very little material around.” That sounded odd, standing in the midst of acres of paintings and works of art by the world’s best modern and contemporary artists, but that’s what one notable secondary-market guru felt. Another one-person exhibition just down the aisle from Nahmad was at Madrid’s González gallery, which showcased six Donald Judd wall reliefs, “Progressions - 1960’s/1970’s.” Only one of the works had sold — the largest, a stainless-steel Untitled (1976), for more than $1.5 million, according to dealer Fernando Mignoni. “We have to take into account,” said Mignoni, “how things are right now and how things have been over the past two years. This is a business, and we have to be realistic. The bottom line is, we’ve done that, so we’re happy.” That more somber take was also evident at Chicago/New York dealer Richard Gray’s stand, which was rich in secondary-market works by modern and contemporary masters, including a major David Hockney canvas, The Conversation (1980), and Pablo Picasso’s La Famille du Jardinier (1965) and Femme ecrivant (Marie–Therese) (1934). Paul Gray declined to give details on any of the gallery’s transactions, other than citing sale prices ranging from $15,000 to $5 million. “I’m reasonably pleased, but we’re certainly down from last year, though not depressingly so," he said. "None of the significant sales are things I want to publicize, and the reason is, we have these things because the sellers want to be discreet.” As Gray observed, “There are things we have this year that we wouldn’t have had last year [from consignors], because the auction houses no longer hold the advantage by throwing money at consignors. We have the advantage now.” But when pressed for details on gallery sales, the usually affable Gray grew testy and said, “I’m not feeling so cooperative today. All the headlines that the market is back are just wrong. It’s not doom and gloom, but there’s a lot more nuance now that doesn’t play well in headlines.” The recession seemed to lie heavily on everyone’s mind, and both dealers and collectors seemed to be working hard at playing fair in a tougher climate. “Collectors aren’t asking for 30 to 40 percent off on asking prices,” said Natalia Sacasa of New York’s Luhring Augustine. “It’s more like 10 to 15 percent. It’s a discussion not fraught with what kind of deal you can get in a recession.” The gallery had already sold a new Christopher Wool painting from 2009, Untitled (P575) in enamel on linen, to a European collector for $370,000 and several untitled works at $18,000 and $24,000 by 33-year-old gallery artist Josh Smith, currently showing in the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition. It also sold Albert Oehlen’s large abstraction Nachthimmel (2006) for approximately $250,000. Sacasa said a lot of pieces went from the stand’s “backroom” closet, adding that she and her colleagues had begun to joke among themselves that next year they would build a giant closet and no booth, since collectors seemed to prefer what wasn’t on the walls
The usual foraging for transactions to report in the seven figures (or higher) was a lonely pursuit this year, as a kind of glass ceiling for top works of art seemed to be stuck at the mid-six-figure altitude. “The numbers aren’t the same,” said New York’s David Leiber of Sperone Westwater, “but we’ve sold works across the board.” Those works ranged from Charles LeDray’s tiny stained sculpture Mattress (1993), in cotton batting, fabric, cord, thread, burns, tea and coffee stains, and charcoal, which sold to an unnamed American museum for $50,000, to a 2008 Surrealist-toned painting in acrylic on canvas by Liu Ye, Miss, featuring a standing woman in bowler hat, trench coat, and umbrella, bookended by two valises. It went for a high-six-figure price to a German collector with his own museum, according to Leiber. Another European bought Wim Delvoye’s Cement Mixer Scale Model (2009), in laser-cut, corten steel varnish, for €80,000 ($112,560), while yet another picked up a classic white abstraction by Enrico Castellani, Untitled (1964), for $350,000. At San Francisco’s Anthony Meier Fine Arts, Sigmar Polke’s impressive Untitled (Interior) (1984), a gelatin-silver print with paint, sold to a European buyer for $500,000. The gallery also saw some action with fresh-from-the-studio watercolors by Barnaby Furnas, including Mummers Day 9 (We hopi you likey) and Mummers Day 6 (Fancy Brigade), which went for $21,000 apiece. The works are part of a new series based on the annual Mummers Day Parade on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia. Some exhibitors couldn’t help feeling relieved from the dread of a lousy fair, a sentiment expressed by New York’s Paula Cooper, who said business was about the same as last year. “I was just very curious about what would happen. I had no expectations, and we wound up doing very well.” The gallery sold a beautiful new Rudolf Stingel painting, Untitled (2009), measuring 95 by 76 inches and depicting a hurricane fence pattern across a silver background, for just above $300,000. Cooper also sold Robert Gober’s A Pair of Basinless Sinks (1986) — each sink measuring 27 by 25¾ by 2 3/5 inches and made of plaster, wood, wire, lathe, semi-gloss, and enamel paint — for some $1 million. The gallery also parted with a small (24 by 20 inches) but genuinely striking postmodern work by Sherrie Levine, Untitled (Broad Stripe: 4) (1985), in casein and wax on mahogany panel, for $125,000. “We sold mostly to Europeans,” added Cooper, “including new clients.” Gee, where have all the Americans gone? Perhaps they got lost in Venice. For those who did find their way here, the apparent theme, at least according to Mathias Rastorfer of the Swiss Galerie Gmurzynska, is that “longevity, knowledge, and substance are the required elements of the moment. Art Basel is very transparent in that way, because some of us have done very well, while others have not done well at all.” Gmurzynska sold two David Smith paintings from 1964, both called Untitled (Nude), at $200,000 apiece, as well as Alexander Calder’s vivid gouache Striped Man: Striped Sweater (1953) for just under $200,000 and Alexander Rodchenko’s Untitled (Spiral) (1919), in pencil on thin cardboard, for around €50,000. The large stand featured a small but well-focused exhibition of the two 20th-century titans, who both pioneered a new language with their hanging sculptures. On the younger side, the gallery sold several works by 30-year-old Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, currently showing in the Nordic and Danish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, including the clever collage wall relief Cap’n Europe (Romanian Beggar) in acrylic on product package, aka a Cap’n Crunch cereal box, for €4,000. Midway through the fair, it looks as if the modern side has gained ground over what was formerly red-hot contemporary terrain, thanks to a more conservative and cautious atmosphere. “I think we’ll see more corrections, for sure,” said one exhibitor. “The market is shrinking back to the price levels of 2005–06, which is a healthy market, in my view.”
The upcoming modern and contemporary auctions in London will probably reinforce that view. Judd Tully is Editor at Large of Art+Auction
Post a Comment

Popular Posts