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Glitz, gloss and appetite for art at Basel

True glitz and glamour associated with today’s top-end art milieu descended on Basel in Switzerland. A slew of private jets happened to line up at the airport; leading hedge fund honchos conducted business under giant uvulas as part of the event, invariably bringing the best of international art. Art Basel undoubtedly, is among the most important and largest art fairs across the globe, with art worth almost $2 billion estimated to be on sale, making it a perfect window to peep into the market.

As lively and large as ever, with over 300 galleries showing from 39 nations, Art Basel drew several big-money investors, renowned museum directors and art aficionados including New York financiers Leon Black and Donald B. Marron; Roman A. Abramovich, the Russian oligarch; collectors Donald and Mera Rubell; Richard Armstrong of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; president of the Paris –based Pompidou Center, Alain Seban; and the director of the London Tate, Nicholas Serota. An elaborate New York Times news report quoted as gallerist as saying that collectors are looking these days for artists with strong museum and curatorial support. An experienced art adviser from NY quipped galleries bring ‘what they know the market wants’.

The report stated: “The cavernous convention center that houses the fair has booth after booth filled with blue-chip masters like Warhol, Picasso, Bacon and Calder, or artists who have been the subject of recent museum exhibitions or are featured at the Venice Biennale. There are also examples of works similar to those that brought enormous prices at the May auctions in New York. Just weeks after the buoyant May auctions, collectors still appear to have money to spend.” Art Basel again demonstrated this year a resounding emergence of art among the most lucrative and visible exemplars of some major economic trends.

Even during a phase when financial instability prevails, joblessness persists and stock markets struggle, the art market today is booming, observes Katherine Boyle in the Washington Post. In backdrop of another successful showcase, the writer underlines trends that denote exactly what’s happening to wealth as well as consumption among those perched right at the pinnacle of global wealth creation.


A big boost to strong Asian art market

Art Basel, the most significant brand in the realm of art fairs, got an early start with Art Basel Hong Kong this year. It was, in fact, the first time the fair has exhibited in this part of the world, and its third location following Basel and Miami. Some felt that another edition might lead to ‘fair fatigue’. Art Basel HK just might have had an opposite, albeit positive effect, priming curious collectors for the bigger Basel extravaganza. Of close to 250 galleries that were present, more than half came from Asia, indicating Art Basel actually broadened its footprint by encompassing new galleries to it that cater especially to Asian collectors, who often prefer works of domestic artists.

Contemporary art prices will inch up in 2013

While currency meltdowns or stock market dips affect art sales rarely in the shorter term, schism in the wealth gap have been found to track them. As ultra-HNIs (high net worth individuals) become wealthier, prices of art soar higher, as more money tends to chase a finite supply of works by top artists. The rising global divide between ultra-high net worth individuals and the rest is probably the best indicator that contemporary art prices will continue to inch up in 2013.

Era of big art sales

There’s a general tendency toward herd behavior noticed among the ultra-wealthy not averse spending six, seven, or even eight figures on art. Right now this herd is lurching toward contemporary art, explains Boyle. Brett Gorvy, international chairman (post-war & contemporary art) at Christie’s, called their record-breaking sales in May ‘a new era in the art market.” There’s no doubt contemporary art is fast becoming the most important alternative asset class. The trend of big sales continued with Art Basel.

‘Bottomless demand’ witnessed for alternative assets

Contemporary sales, it appears, are not the only ones setting new records. The auctioneer at Sotheby’s, Mary Jo Otsea estimated to sell the famed ‘Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet’ for somewhere around $10 million to $15 million. It not only broke the previous record of $9.7 million for a rug offered at auction, and how? It fetched an amazing $33.7 million. All pieces at the rug auction went for double their high estimates, at least.

Bottom line

At a time of extreme volatility in global stock markets and weak returns on bonds, there is ample evidence of the healthy demand for art among the ‘ultra-wealthy alternative asset classes’. That can only mean more good news for the contemporary art scene.