Skip to content
Mitchell-Innes & Nash in ArtNews

With market prognosticators fearing a tepid start to Art Basel amid an international slowdown in art sales, the world’s biggest galleries shipped a ballsy set of offerings to Switzerland. On Tuesday morning collectors responded by buying a number of high-priced works, allowing some dealers to sell out their booths within hours. If the selling holds, it may be enough to stave off doomsayers, even as the art world enters the doldrums of July and August.

In addition to presenting dozens of institution-worthy canvases priced in the mid-to-high seven figures, a handful of galleries decided to up the ante with eight-figure works that could have easily been slotted into the lineups at the contemporary auctions last month in New York. Given the muted outcomes of those sales, it was natural to suspect these works might not find buyers.

One such work was Jackson Pollock’s Number 21, 1949 (1949), at Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s booth. It was listed at $25 million—a high price for a work at any fair, in any market climate—and just a few minutes after the fair began, it was already on hold, David Nash, the gallery’s co-owner, told ARTnews.

“It’s an expensive painting, and the fact that there’s a lot of attention means that there’s a lot of confidence,” Nash said, standing in front of the masterpiece.

The mega-galleries, rather than end a lackluster season by off-loading safe work at mid-level prices, relished an opportunity to show off their imperial brawn, and brought works on which world-class collectors would hopefully would spend serious cash. For Hauser & Wirth it paid off: by 2 p.m. on Tuesday it had nearly sold out most of its booth, with the rest of the offerings on hold, gallery co-founder and president Iwan Wirth told me.

“A lot was written about how the market was down, and I’m surprised—who knows so much more than I do when I do it everyday?” Wirth said. “But if you’ve done serious work before, as a consequence you are able to bring A-plus works, and in Basel you know you’ll find people who will step up.”

Among those works finding buyers were Maria Lassnig’s Macht des Schicksals (The Power of Fate), 2006, which sold for $1.2 million, and Paul McCarthy’s Michael Jackson Inflatable Drawings (2003), a series of 20 marker, pen, and pencil pieces that went for $650,000. The gallery also sold works by Dieter Roth and Philip Guston, though it would not confirm the prices.

Gagosian Gallery also came in with a war chest of its brightest and flashiest greatest hits—carefully guarded by unsmiling Swiss Army Men—that included Jeff Koons gazing balls, top-grade Picassos, a Damien Hirst black-on-black pill cabinet, and Gerhard Richter’s Prag 1883, which was on sale for $20 million. And while the Richter had yet to find a buyer by the early afternoon, the gallery had sold the Hirst and a Rudolph Stingel for around $2 million to $3 million each, and a Sterling Ruby was on hold for $425,000.

“We brought a bit more extremely desirable primary market work than in past years, and it turns out there’s a lot of demand,” said Sam Orlofsky, a New York gallery director at Gagosian. “People who didn’t get to buy a work at a show can get one here.”

Orlofsky noted that sales had come from various parts of the world, as they had at Hauser & Wirth. Likewise, there was a large amount of Asian collectors picking up works at David Zwirner Gallery: works by Bridget Riley, Luc Tuymans, Bruce Nauman, and Josef Albers all went to Asian collectors. The gallery also sold two works by Giorgio Morandi for over $1 million each.

Elsewhere, works failed to find buyers, whether they were of the highest price point or the lower end. Richter’s Bonley Landscape (1970), at Dominique Lévy Gallery, gauzily depicted a grey, fog-clogged landscape (pretty close to the weather here in Basel, actually) and had a wild backstory: the work had been discovered in a storage unit, wrapped up since Richter completed it, and was unveiled only after the storage unit’s owner died. It had never been sold before. But perhaps the $13 million price tag discouraged buyers, as it was left unsold by 3 p.m.

The crowds also passed on year-old works by Julian Schnabel, six of which were hanging in a special section in the booth of his new dealer, Pace Gallery. The booth addendum was a hexagonal hut with Schnabel’s purple untitled works on each panel, almost like the Rothko Chapel, but with Schnabels. The Schnabel Chapel, if you will. Each was priced at $375,000 and by midday, none had sold.

(Blue & Poe, right above them on the second floor, did manage to sell a Schnabel, Painting Without Bingo II, for the same price.)

A Robert Motherwell at Galerie Gmurzynska that was personally commissioned by Jack Welch for the General Electric headquarters attracted a lot of interest, but no buyer, at $6 million. And a pair of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat next door at Van De Weghe, at a similar price point, also had not sold by this afternoon. As Christophe Van de Weghe greeted collector Tico Mugrabi and Garage Museum founder Dasha Zhukova, he wheeled them over to Basquiat’s Year of the Boar (1983), a work of three black canvases on which are emblazoned the words “Chinese New Year.”

“Chinese New Year—five-point-seven-million!” Van de Weghe said, giving his best salesman pitch.

They seem unmoved. On to another Basquiat, Tuxedo (1983), which has a lot of white writing—”A pistol versus a dinosaur,” “No summer hot water Ossining,” “Big truck with strawberries coast to coast”—painted on the canvas.

“It has writing painted on the canvas!” Van de Weghe explained. “The best price is $4 million.”

“I see it, I see it!” Mugrabi said, sighing.

Mugrabi père, Jose, was also around, and at one point came up to greet Eli and Edyth Broad in their wheelchairs to have a chat, but after a hello, the couple was wheeled away, leaving Jose Mugrabi with his arms up in exasperation. A more unexpected collector at the fair was Paul Allen, who had not made the trip to Basel in 15 years, in his estimation—a fact relayed to us by a source who chatted with him. It’s unclear if he picked anything up on the trip (or if he had an opinion about the company he cofounded, Microsoft, buying LinkedIn for the mind-blowing sum of $26.2 billion—about eight times the value of all the art displayed at Art Basel this year).

The fair was also marked by a bit of overcrowding, perhaps a sign that Art Basel, forever the exclusive playground of billionaires and their scions, has finally opened the doors wide enough to include those that the “collectors” refer to as, simply, “buyers.” The line outside stretched beyond the end of the Messeplatz, with the entrance clogged due to a strict bag-check policy and pummeling rain.

Dealers also noted that, with the opening of the renovated Tate Modern set to go down later in the week, Tuesday was the only day to snap up works before everyone hopped over to London.

All in all, the results in the opening hours were positive, and if they continue through the fair’s run, a mixed year for the market will end on a bright note.

“In a challenged economy and political situation, dealers at the end of a season are really stepping up, and it’s reflected throughout these walls,” said Noah Horowitz, the director Americas for Art Basel. “And that helps instill confidence.”

Art Basel continues through Sunday, June 19.