Selling art for 71 million euros in two hours: Art Basel hardly feels war or inflation

In a dress made of red gas masks and a Ukrainian flag covered with bloody handprints over one shoulder, Olesya Lesnaya walked over Messeplatz in Basel on Tuesday. On the first VIP day at Art Basel, the world’s most important fair for modern and contemporary art, the Ukrainian refugee reminded art collectors of the war in front of the stock exchange building, just two thousand kilometers away.

Despite that war and despite the crashing stock and cryptocurrency markets and the sky-high inflation figures, the art market is currently immune to uncertainties. Changed hands in May at the spring auctions in New York for modern art worth 2.6 billion, and the art hunger has not yet been met by the first regular Art Basel since the start of the corona pandemic. Basel airport was for the first time in three years full of private jets, from American and European collectors and gallery owners could afford to give interested parties only a few minutes to think about millions of purchases; candidates sometimes stood literally in line.

Immediately after the opening, it rained with red dots. The Swiss gallery and art dealer Hauser & Wirth sold art for 71 million euros within two hours; including a large bronze spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois worth 38 million euros. That makes it, according to the gallery, the most expensive work of art by a female artist ever at this fair.

The ‘new normal’ is a little different from the old normal, trade fair director Marc Spiegler said up to the event. “One of the few positive things about the pandemic is that issues like structural racism have been looked at more closely.” The exhibition organization itself did the same. The 289 participants include galleries from Africa (Angola and Senegal) for the first time, and the fair now also includes galleries from Saudi Arabia and Guatemala.

In addition, Spiegler said, the organization selected for Unlimited, the prestigious presentation with always some seventy XL artworks, “more women, more color artists and more colorful women”. By Bar-thélémy Toguo (Cameroon, 1967) Unlimited contains 45 special, carved portraits of slum dwellers from Douala, a tribute reserved for African kings.

The pursuit of more diversity does not always turn out so favorably. Many gallerists have rather dull paintings with portraits of dark people. The unruly black American David Hammons seems to comment on the commercialization of black bodies and the acquisition of black culture. At New York’s Mnuchin Gallery is a traditional African wooden mask that Hammons has covered with orange pigment. The title, Orange is the new blacknods to the series of the same name about the women’s prison system in the United States, where so many black Americans stay in orange clothes.

Several market developments are visible at Art Basel. In the past, the large art shops on the ground floor of the stock exchange housed almost exclusively established names, but now they often combine their Picassos, Warhols and Basquiats with works of art by young, new artists. A development that the smaller galleries on the first floor look at with dismay. Mariane Ibrahim from the Chicago Gallery of the same name: “We take risks by educating young artists; the mega-galleries do not make diapers. If they now also include young artists, they will make it difficult for us.

That the market for NFTs, the digital investment objects, has almost completely collapsed since September is also clear in Basel: they are hardly offered anywhere.


The only Dutch participant in the main fair, Annet Gelink from Annet Gelink Gallery in Amsterdam, already called the fair, which lasted until Sunday, a complete success on Thursday. “We are participating for the sixteenth time. Still, I was pretty nervous beforehand about how it would go after the pandemic. The Chinese collectors stayed home, but the Americans and most European collectors came by. “Although her American customers are sometimes hard to recognize because of their oral cavities, she says with a smile.

Gelink sold works by all the artists at her booth. And not insignificantly: Two museums commissioned the large video installation by Israeli artist Yael Bartana on Unlimited, in which Gelink and four other galleries invested heavily.

There is more Dutch success. At Unlimited you can see installations by Fiona Tan (photos) and by sculptor Folkert de Jong (a group of sculptures). On the opening day, David Zwirner’s gallery sold two paintings by Amsterdam-based Marlene Dumas to European collectors. Turnover: more than 10 million euros. And elsewhere in the city, at the various satellite fairs, other gallery owners from the Netherlands did good business. The sun shone outside, but also inside.

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