At Art Basel, the world’s richest are taking their time to buy

People don’t trek to Art Basel in Switzerland just for fun. Famed for being the highest-quality art fair in the world, the O.G. Swiss fair is a place where people tend to stay exactly as long as they need to and no longer.

“It’s not a fair like New York or Miami where there’s more going on in the city,” says Malik Al-Mahrouky, a partner at Kurimanzutto gallery, standing in his booth during the opening VIP day. “Here, people come with a very specific mindset to acquire art.” (VIP days are June 11 and 12; the fair is open to the public from June 13 to 16.)

And so even though the art market is down significantly—the major May New York auctions fell roughly 23% year over year by value—the question going into this edition of Art Basel wasn’t if dealers would sell art to attendees, but rather which collectors would actually show up, and how much they’d be willing to spend. 

The Attendance

The first question was answered at 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when a large, civilized scrum of well-dressed, predominantly older VIPs shivered in the convention center’s chilly inner courtyard as they fortified themselves with Champagne and espresso during the annual pre-fair welcome breakfast. 

The composition of the collectors, however, begged further scrutiny. “This year it’s very different,” said the New York dealer Carol Greene, standing in her gallery’s booth soon after the doors opened. “It’s predominantly European. The Americans stayed home this year, which for us, as an American gallery, actually can be good because we get a chance to develop [new] relationships.”

While there were definitely some American accents echoing through the halls, Al-Mahrouky noticed the same. “There’s a lot of American advisors present, but they’re not with their clients in the way they were last year,” he said, adding that several clients are planning to swing by the fair at the end of the week, a phenomenon that in itself is somewhat unprecedented.

“It seems as if there’s not an urgency to be here during the pandemonium of the first day,” he said. “I think it’s a response to the market, but I think it’s also symptomatic of fair fatigue as well.”

The Collecting

The question of spending was harder to parse. As is the custom for virtually every art fair, dealers did their best to pre-sell much of their booths, meaning that they sent out PDFs of the work a week or two in advance in the hopes that collectors will buy the art sight-unseen. 

Greene says she pre-sold a large abstract work by the in-demand artist Justin Caguiat; Al-Mahrouky pre-sold a series of works by the artist Ana Segovia

But many dealers said pre-sales failed to live up to expectations. In comparison to years past, where collectors would either buy the work in advance, or place a work on reserve then rush to confirm the sale as the fair began, this year “people are coming to look at things in person,” says Lisson Gallery Chief Executive Officer Alex Logsdail. “They’re making real, informed decisions, and that’s happening throughout the week.” 

The extended sales period, he adds, is something everyone needs to get used to. “If day one wasn’t a complete, blowout success, it doesn’t mean the market isn’t functioning. Business will get done.” (By the end of the first day Logsdail’s gallery had sold more than a dozen artworks, including an $850,000 painting by Lee Ufan.)

Several other blue-chip galleries reported major sales, many of which were presumably lined up in advance and consummated at the fair. Pace sold three editions of a large multi-part sculpture by Jean Dubuffet for €800,000 ($859,000) apiece; it also sold a giant sculpture by Torkwase Dyson exhibited in the Unlimited section (a cavernous hall next to the main fair where large-size works are installed), which was bought by Brazil’s Inhotim museum for $380,000.

Hauser & Wirth reported selling a $16 million work on paper by Arshile Gorky, a $3.5 million sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, and a painting made in 2022 by Henry Taylor for $1.5 million. Thaddaeus Ropac says it sold a Robert Rauschenberg work on canvas for $3.85 million, and multiple editions of a sculpture by Georg Baselitz for €2 million.

These transactions all occurred at galleries on the ground floor of the convention center, where established dealers are expected to sell major artworks for high prices. Upstairs, where smaller galleries tend to sell newer work by less established artists, prices were lower. 

“I would hazard a guess that the safe price point this year, at this particular fair, would be around $200,000 to $600,000,” says Kibum Kim, a partner at the LA gallery Commonwealth and Council. “A lot of people realize that they’ve been overpaying for artists whose markets have been inflated very fast; but they think, ‘You know, a couple hundred thousand dollars is a safer bet.”

As the first day progressed, there was even some competition. “One or two things which I liked were gone,” says Antonio Sersale, who owns the Positano hotel Le Sirenuse. “But that’s OK,” he adds. “The best thing you can do is go to a gallery, see the work of an artist you already have, and realize that it’s sold, which is fantastic—it’s a reaffirmation.” (Sersale did manage, he says, to buy four works by the Italian artist Isabella Ducrot.) 

Even if the first VIP day’s results didn’t indicate that the art market had somehow turned a corner, they did demonstrate that some collectors have no intention of holding back—regardless of whether or not the market is down.

“I was not cautious coming into it thinking there’s some kind of an ambient dark cloud” hovering over the art market, says the US-based collector Kunal Patra, as he toured the fair. “From a personal perspective, I was like, ‘Hey, if I like something, and if it’s within a price point that I can afford, I’ll buy it.’ ” –BLOOMBERG