Colin Gleadell asks a philosophical question as talk swirls of $1 billion in sales taking place at ArtBasel (which seems, well, aggressive.) Can an art fair compete head-to-head with the auction houses? This may be a question that could only recently have occurred to anyone as the majority of sales were assumed to take place privately until about a decade ago or even more recently. But when the New York auctions rack up $2.2bn in two weeks, the playing field seems skewed toward auction over dealers. Though it is important to remember that the primary and secondary markets are very different venues:
Early signs were that the challenge was real. Before the first day was out, public relations agents had fed journalists a list of sales by 11 galleries worth over $55 million. New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery made 19 sales for a total of $1.8 million. White Cube sold 10 works totalling more than $15 million, among them Damien Hirst’s Nothing Is a Problem For Me (1992), one of only four large-scale medicine cabinets made by the artist, for $6 million.
Lisson gallery sold $4 million of art in a day including a large driftwood sculpture by land artist Richard Long for about £300,000, far more than his work has ever sold for at auction.
By day two, 20 galleries had reportedly sold more than $100 million of art; but that was still only a fraction of the business being done. Beyond the PR hype, the middle market was doing well. This was the first fair for London’s Mayor gallery since it was unceremoniously ousted by developers from it historic site in Cork Street, so all the more important it did well.
Then came reports of the sale of 19 abstract and kinetic Fifties and Sixties works by European and Latin American artists for between $10,000 and $350,000 each.
But Kenny Schachter reminds us that behind all of the hype and expectations are small businesses often struggling to generate revenue (or conform to professional norms):
The press likes to report on successes, but two dealers who represent large enterprises tell me business is shitty—and the fair’s first VIP preview day is not too early to judge, since most sales here happen sooner rather than later.
Art is as much a relationship-based business as it has been from the beginning, this evidenced by a dealer who calls his sales assistants security guards, commenting upon their selling skills, or lack thereof. Art is still no easy game.
It’s refreshing to hear that in the midst of all the new professionalism, the old ways are still operative. A friend who is owed money by a gallerist goes to the gallerist’s hotel room to collect his check. The gallerist answers the door buck naked, strides to the desk, fills out the check and hands it over without batting an eye.
The Naked Truth About Basel: A Diary (Gallerist)