The Back Room: Split Decision?


This week in the Back Room: Art Basel in the rearview, James Murdoch holds court, a major Rothko returns to market, and more—all in a 6-minute read (1,646 words).


Top of the Market

Split Decision?

Visitors take in a pair of large-scale Richard Avedon photos at the 2023 edition of Art Basel. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images.

More than a year after prognostications about a recession and its potential effects on the market began piling up, Art Basel 2023 served as a beacon of measured optimism.

The art world’s premiere fair descended upon the Messeplatz this week amid myriad worries, including swelling geopolitical tensions, an uneven spring auction season in New York, and stubbornly high interest rates—which means people who had been parking excess wealth in art and using it as collateral to borrow more are facing a new reality.

However, market recalibrations so far seem limited to fairly specific sectors. While there are rumblings that the ever-higher prices for living artists in recent years are inching back toward earth, as well as signs of weakening in the secondary market, demand for fresh works soldiered on during the fair’s all-important opening day.

Bellow, an overview of the major themes, largely via our colleague Naomi Rea’s day-one sales report…


Back to Blue Chip

Last year, many high-end galleries were devoting ground-floor real estate to younger artists hung side-by-side with their most established names, reflecting the ravenous demand for art with upside.

But this year, classic blue-chip fare undeniably took center stage. Sales justified the shift, too, as major artists did major numbers early on. Standout transactions reported on day one included…

  • Hauser and Wirth placing Louise Bourgeois’s bronze for $22.5 million, as well as a rare “Personages” sculpture by the artist for another $7.5 million.
  • Gagosian selling a Cecily Brown we understand to have been priced at $6 million. (The gallery does not disclose prices.)
  • David Zwirner selling a Gerhard Richter for $2.5 million, plus a Barbara Kruger video installation for $1.3 million (in conjunction with Sprüth Magers).

The theme held up over the longer run, too, as two Joan Mitchell went stratospheric by end of day Thursday; Zwirner sold an untitled Mitchell from 1959 with a $20 million asking price, per the , while Pace placed a triptych by the artist listed at $14 million.


(Stage-)Managing Expectations

Galleries were working harder than ever ahead of time to manufacture the success of Art Basel 2023.

Some preview PDFs were almost comically thick—collector Jens Faurschourelayed that Gagosian’s included around 200 works, while Zwirner’s offered around 120—and dealers were pre-selling vigorously in the run-up to opening day, as evidenced during Zurich Gallery Weekend (see Paint Drippings).

Yet there was also a sense that gallerists took more care with their booths this year. One advisor noted that dealers might be catering toward “fewer advisors, more curators” due to the reduction in speculative buying.

If so, the target audience was well represented. Among the curators and museum execs spotted roaming the booths on day one were Cecilia Alemani, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, M+ deputy director Doryun Chong, and Stedelijk director Rein Wolfs.


No Ceiling on Select Young Artists

Even as blue-chip names reclaimed center stage, primary-market demand for work by some ultra-contemporary artists still appeared to be almost unlimited. To wit…

  • David Kordansky sold a Lucy Bull painting for between $100,000 and $150,000, as well as a Chase Hall for an undisclosed price.
  • Xavier Hufkens placed two paintings by Ulala Imai for between $90,000and $125,000, ahead of its exhibition with the artist this September.
  • Soft Opening sold well from its Statements sector solo booth of Baloise Art Prize co-winner Sin Wai Kin: two editions and corresponding “facial wipe” works for $22,000 and $29,000, and one additional “facial wipe” work for $7,000.


Secondary Slog

Cracks are starting to show in secondary-market demand, it would seem, mainly through slower sales and more opacity.

  • Buyers said it was easier to acquire works that would have been inaccessible to them 24 months ago, particularly lesser ones by hot (or once-hot) emerging artists.
  • David Zwirner announced his surprise decision to no longer disclose prices on secondary-market sales to the press going forward, making it more difficult to gauge shifts in demand at a major resale player.


The Bottom Line

The reckoning over art prices, which had long been rising out of control, is ongoing. And while it seems the market’s resilience has been affirmed by a more restrained but still high sales-volume Art Basel, further slippage could still be up ahead.

Remember, many Asian collectors only just returned to the fair circuit (and wider circulation) after onerous travel restrictions kept them away from Basel for years. That and the earlier-mentioned aggressive stage-managing of transactions could be distorting our perception of this edition’s early returns.

Still, compared to where many feared we might be within the past few weeks, most market players will take these caveated results as a blessing.

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Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint tracks the gossip blowing and the champagne flowing through the iconic Hotel Le Trois Rois during Basel’s hottest art nights of the year. (You’ll have to supply your own drinks for the recap.)

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

Art Fairs and Gallery Weekends

  • The sixth edition of Zurich Gallery Weekend seemed to reflect a market in transition, including plenty of pre-selling and pump-priming for Art Basel itself. (Artnet News)
  • This year’s edition of Liste was vibrant, as 88 galleries (including 20 newcomers) from 35 countries went against the grain by offering a bevy of three-dimensional and media works. Just as maverick, a whopping 75 percent of exhibitors presented booths dedicated to a single artist. (Artnet News)
  • Design Miami/ will hold a Parisian edition, concurrent with Paris+, at L’hôtel de Maisons in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district from October 18–22. Plans for last year’s event were scuttled by heightened security at the Place de la Concorde amid the Champions League football final. ()

Auction Houses

  • Sotheby’s will offer Gustav Klimt’s final portrait, , in its modern and contemporary evening sale in London on June 27, with an estimate “in the region of” £65 million ($80 million). reports that the house has already secured an irrevocable bid for the work.(Artnet News)


  • Emmanuel Perrotin is in negotiations to sell a 60 percent stake in his namesake gallery to Colony IM, a Paris-based private equity fund and real-estate investment manager. (Artnet News)
  • In gallery personnel news, Hauser and Wirth named Séverine Waelchlidirector of its Paris space (which opens October 14 with a solo show by Henry Taylor); Gagosian appointed Andreas Rumbler director of its Swiss locations; former Mnuchin gallery exec Sukanya Rajaratnam will join White Cube as global director of strategic market initiatives in September; and Ariel Lauren Pittman, the senior director at Vielmetter from 2019–23, took up the same role with Various Small Fires. (Artnet News, , )
  • Almine Rech is opening a temporary exhibition space in Gstaad and a new office space in Monaco. ()


  • Brett Littman stepped down as director of New York’s Noguchi Museumafter five years without giving a reason; deputy director Jennifer Lorch will serve as interim director while the board looks for a successor. ()
  • Ian Alteveer will leave his post as curator of modern and contemporary art at the Met to helm the department of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, effective September 13. ()
  • In institutional union news, workers ratified a contract with the Carnegie Museums, the umbrella org encompassing the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, and the Carnegie Science Center, after more than a year of negotiations; and the Brooklyn Museum allegedly made its final contract offer to unionized staff, who say the proposed deal falls far short of acceptability. ( Artnet News.)

Tech and Legal News

  • Embattled art advisor Lisa Schiff, who faces multiple lawsuits from former clients accusing her of fraud, is cooperating with federal and state authorities, according to court filings. She is also in the process of liquidating her assets in order to help pay creditors.  ()
  • A Florida judge dismissed a copyright infringement lawsuit brought against Maurizio Cattelan by another artist over Cattelan’s infamous duct-taped banana, (2019). (Artnet News)
  • Germany’s advisory commission on Nazi-era restitution recommended that an important 1907 Wassily Kandinsky painting, which has hung in the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus museum since 1972, should be returned to the heirs of the German Jewish businessman who owned it until 1940. ()

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“Now, in today’s age, you don’t go and say, ‘I’m just going to go have a live event and I’m going to go away.’ The question is, how do you build connectivity to those brands? How do you build connectivity within that community? How do you serve that community better?”

MCH Group anchor shareholder James Murdoch, coyly gesturing toward his plans for the future of Art Basel in his extended interview with our own Tim Schneider. (Artnet News / The Art Angle)


Work of the Week

Mark Rothko’s

Mark Rothko, (1955). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


Date:  1965


Seller: Steve Wynn


Seller: Acquavella Galleries 


Asking price:  $60 million


Selling at:   Art Basel


The most expensive painting for sale at Art Basel this year was hanging in the booth of New York’s esteemed Acquavella Galleries. Painted in 1955, the 6.75-foot-tall canvas spent years in the collection of Paul Mellon and was auctioned as part of his wife Bunny Mellon’s estate sale at Sotheby’s in 2014, where it fetched $36.6 million.

Reporting from the white-glove auction at the time, our colleague Eileen Kinsella spotted the buyers: “At the last minute, the Nahmad family of art dealers decided to jump back into the contest they had participated in just minutes before.” The family took the painting home that night but showed it at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2018, where it was priced at $50 million.

The picture’s current owner is mega-collector Steve Wynn, who now appears to be looking for a 20 percent increase on its asking price less than five years later. As of Thursday evening, the work was still available.

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Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.


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