Selling art for 71 million euros in two hours: the Art Basel hardly notices 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 across the Messeplatz in Basel on Tuesday. On the first VIP day of 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 soaring inflation figures, the art market seems immune to uncertainties for the time being. Changed hands in May at the spring auctions in New York for 2.6 billion worth of modern art, the art hunger has not yet been satisfied at the first regular Art Basel since the start of the corona pandemic. Basel airport was full of private planes for the first time in three years from American and European collectors and gallery owners could afford to give interested parties only a few minutes to think about multi-million dollar purchases; candidates were sometimes literally standing in line.

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

The ‘new normal’ is a bit different from the old normal, said trade fair director Marc Spiegler in the run-up to the event. “One of the few positives of the pandemic is that issues such as structural racism have been looked closely at.” 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 artists of color and more women of color”. By Bar-thélémy Toguo (Cameroon, 1967) Unlimited features 45 special, carved portraits of slum dwellers from Douala, a tribute reserved for African kings.

The pursuit of more diversity is not always so favorable. Many gallery owners have rather boring paintings with portraits of dark people. The contrarian black American David Hammons seems to comment on the commercialization of black bodies and the appropriation of black culture. At New York’s Mnuchin Gallery is a traditional wooden African mask that Hammons has covered in 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 clothing.

More 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, emerging artists. A development that the smaller galleries on the first floor are looking at with dismay. Mariane Ibrahim of the Chicago gallery of the same name: “We take risks by raising young artists; the mega galleries don’t do diapers. If they now also bring young artists, they will make it difficult for us.

The fact that the market for NFTs, the digital investment objects, has almost completely collapsed since September is also apparent in Basel: they are offered almost nowhere.


The only Dutch participant in the main fair, Annet Gelink of the 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 quite nervous beforehand about how things would go after the pandemic. The Chinese collectors stayed at home, but the Americans and most of the European collectors came by.” Although her American customers are sometimes difficult to recognize because of their mouth caps, she says with a smile.

Gelink sold work of all the artists in her stand. And not unimportant: two museums ordered the large video installation by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana on Unlimited, for which Gelink and four fellow galleries invested heavily.

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

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