Art Basel may be busy, but cautious sales reflect a complex market picture

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“No one knew quite what to expect coming into this week,” Art Basel’s new global chief executive Noah Horowitz told The Art Newspaper on the fair’s first VIP preview day on Tuesday, noting that the mixed results of the marquee spring auctions in New York last month had indicated a “real reset” of the market.

Just hours after the fair opened to its most prized collectors, Horowitz observed “exceptional energy” on the floor. The question is whether that energy is translating into sales: commentators say business is “slightly tough” and “not as good as hoped”.

By the end of Tuesday, confirmed sales amounted to a conservatively estimated $245m worth of art—though this figure will also include works pre-sold to collectors in the weeks preceding the fair. Six of the top galleries accounted for at least $175m of that total, with Hauser & Wirth alone reporting a minimum of $57m in sales. Gagosian remained tight-lipped about individual sales, but a well-placed source says that around $70m worth of art had been sold on day one, $30m of that via a 102-page preview document sent to clients. The gallery declined to comment.

Reports of sales continued to trickle in on the second VIP day, including Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #95 (2022), priced at $2m at Hauser & Wirth, and an early multi-panel painting by the US abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, priced at $14m, which Pace sold to a private US collector. The gallery declined to comment on how far in advance the work was secured. Pace’s president, Samanthe Rubell, says: “A huge amount of effort goes into preparing for the fair. We need to balance the interest of our current collectors, who know what we are bringing to the fair, with a real desire to have as much work available as possible when the fair opens.”

Despite Art Basel’s energetic opening—described by Gagosian’s chief operating officer Andrew Fabricant as “the busiest in years”—there are obvious signs of strain on the market. Just last week, reports broke that the eurozone has slipped into recession, while the US central bank raised interest rates to the highest level in 16 years last month. But the impact of these headwinds on the art trade is complex, as the many loosely related sub-markets that make up the “art market” seem to be reacting differently.

Blue chips are up?

Conservative times usually prompt buyers to pivot to more tried-and-tested artists. As the art adviser Nilani Trent, who is in Basel this week, notes, “a shift in consumer confidence” is leading to money being diverted to different parts of the market. “For many years money has been flowing into speculative artist markets, and in moments like this collectors see more long-term value in established markets like Warhol.”

Art Basel has always been a haven for the most blue chip of art, and names such as Picasso, Richter, Basquiat, Calder and Bourgeois are—as ever—regulars this week, though many works are proving slower to sell. The most expensive piece reported at the fair, a sunset-hued Rothko painting from 1955, offered at Acquavella Galleries and reportedly consigned by Steve Wynn with a $60m price tag, remained unsold at the time of writing.

Acquavella’s director, Esperanza Sobrino, notes that the canvas, formerly in the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, is “the most expensive work we have brought to Art Basel in some years”. Why now? “The secondary market works differently; you don’t pick and choose,” she says. “This work was consigned to us in the past few weeks and our client wanted us to place it sooner rather than later.”

According to Trent, it is taking significantly longer to place secondary market works with clients. Deals that she previously concluded “in about a week pending viewing” are now “dragging on for several weeks with a lot of back and forth between buyer and seller”.

Pace sold Girolata Triptych (1963), an early multi-panel painting by Joan Mitchell, to a private US collector for $14m David Owens

Short supply

The Swiss dealer Dominique Lévy says a scarcity of material is another major factor impacting the secondary market as cautious sellers hold on to their wares. At the fair this year, “some [galleries] have made exceptional efforts to bring fresh, high-quality, well-priced works”, while others “have chosen to bring already-seen works known to the market”, she says. “It’s a tale of two cities.”

In the latter camp is a Picasso that sold for $9.9m at Sotheby’s in November, which is being offered by Landau Fine Art for $25m. (At the time of writing it was yet to find a home.) Gagosian is selling Willem de Kooning’s Untitled III (1978-80) for an undisclosed sum; it also last came to market in November, but went unsold at Christie’s, having been estimated to fetch in the region of $35m. Hauser & Wirth managed a quick turnaround, however, for Louise Bourgeois’s Spider IV (1996), which sold for $22.5m on the fair’s opening day after achieving $16.5m at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in April 2022.

Lévy detects a “clear readjustment” in the market, especially following the May auctions in New York, which appear to have sapped US buyers’ spending. Observers noted few Americans at the fair, though Asian clients are in evidence. “The market at Art Basel is like all other markets; it is reacting and adjusting,” Lévy adds.

Private sales up

Another sign that the market is becoming increasingly price sensitive is the growth in private sales over public auctions. At the fair, David Zwirner gallery announced it will no longer publish prices for secondary market sales. “I believe that it is the gallery’s responsibility to look after the best interests of our consignors,” Zwirner says. “We have a responsibility to our clients to value their privacy and to appreciate when they choose to sell through the gallery versus taking the works to auction.” A gallery spokeswoman says that its business on the first VIP day was up by more than 30% on last year; sales fetched a reported minimum $17.8m.

For younger galleries who present experimental works on their primary programme, secondary market sales can provide a crucial lifeline. The Zurich-based gallerist Pier Stuker, who sold out his stand of works by Monica Mays (priced between SFr4,000 ($4,500) and SFr12,000 ($13,000)) at Liste, sells between five and ten secondary market paintings a year by blue-chip artists such as Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol to help sustain his business. “We’ve been facing low offers lately,” he says. “It has also become more difficult to source good works from private hands.”

Younger artists in demand

There is cause for optimism when it comes to the primary market. Trent says younger artists from established galleries “are still commanding robust waitlists with no room for discounts”. She adds: “I suspect galleries are pre-selling shows earlier than normal to secure cashflow.”

Liza Essers of Goodman Gallery has seen a “sharpened focus” among collectors for acquiring art “that delivers on quality and value”. Clients are “eager to invest in emerging—and sometimes late-career re-emerging—talents”, she says. The gallery’s key sales so far include new works by established names such as El Anatsui, whose Untitled (Blue) (2023) sold for $1.9m, and Zineb Sedira, whose DREAMS HAVE NO TITLES (Lightbox) (2023) was acquired by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art for €80,000.

The market for works consigned directly from artists’ studios “remains strong”, according to Louise Hayward, a partner at Lisson Gallery. “And this is across the board—be it for Sean Scully, Anish Kapoor, Li Ran, Liu Xiaodong, Hugh Hayden or Ryan Gander.” Scully’s Tappan Deep (2023), for example, sold for $875,000 during the VIP preview.

As Hayward sums up: “Some elements of the market are on balance predictable, and some are more variable. The market that continues to be active is very diverse.”

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