At Art Basel Miami Beach, a Tale of Two Markets: Lean at the Top, But Robust on the Lower End

Galleries found success with smaller-scale and more modestly priced work.

Galerie Nagel Draxler at Art Basel Miami Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Art Basel.

Artist Kathleen Ryan has created monumental sculptures. But for her participation at Art Basel Miami Beach this week, dealer Francois Ghebaly chose a four-foot-tall piece, Beach Scene, featuring a pink parasol and semiprecious stones. Priced at $175,000, it sold during the VIP preview on Tuesday.

“They don’t take too much space,” said Ghebaly, whose booth displayed other small sculptures by the gallery artists who often work on a much larger scale. “They are more manageable for the clients and for us.”

Signs of renewed pragmatism were visible throughout the largest contemporary art fair in the country as art-market players continued to adjust to rising shipping costs and braced for more sober times after two years of market frenzy. Most booths featured commercial, easy-on-the-eye material that wouldn’t be too challenging either in terms of price or scale. 

While sales were still buoyant across the fair, especially for emerging artists, many big-ticket items faced resistance and remained unsold during the two-day VIP opening at the Miami Beach Convention Center. 

“Art Basel is a big buffet of artworks, but compared to years past the works are less spicy, easier to digest, and are much more pitched to the taste of a general audience,” said Tom Danziger, a lawyer who specializes in art transactions. “Lots of pretty pictures.”

A pocket-size work by Curtis Talwst Santiago at Rachel Uffner Gallery. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

Curtis Talwst Santiago, Soca in the Suburbs Grande Fete II (2022) at Rachel Uffner Gallery. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

Blum & Poe featured its rising stars, including Lauren Quin and Asuka Anastasia Ogawa, with prices topping at $75,000, but chose not bring Mark Grotjahn, whose large-scale paintings command $5 million. Rachel Uffner displayed four miniature sculptures by Munich-based artist Curtis Talwst Santiago, who transported them to the fair in his suitcase. Two sold quickly for $22,000 and $25,000. 

Asking prices throughout the fair topped out at $32 million for Warhol’s self-portrait in a fright wig at Acquavella Galleries. Nahmad gallery, typically a good barometer of the high-end segment of the market, brought an impressive large-scale Dubuffet painting priced at that level—but not a $50 million Rothko as it did in 2018. David Zwirner had a $20 million Jasper Johns, which, dealers whispered, had been previously offered privately for $35 million. None sold during previews.

Peter Blum Gallery didn’t bring a single painting by Alex Katz, typically a staple of its art-fair booths, despite the artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York. Instead, the gallery dedicated its booth to two solo presentations by emerging artists Rebecca Ward and Kamrooz Aram, whose prices don’t exceed $60,000. Most were sold by day two. 

neugerriemschneider gallery's presentation at Art Basel Miami Beach 2022. Courtesy of Art Basel

neugerriemschneider gallery’s presentation at Art Basel Miami Beach 2022. Courtesy of Art Basel

“The market is more selective,” said Christophe van de Weghe, whose booth was one of the priciest at the fair. While several works priced between $1 million and $5 million found buyers on opening day, the more expensive pieces remained unsold, including a $20 million Basquiat.

Legendary Swiss dealer Karsten Greve featured brand new figurative paintings by Israeli artist Gideon Rubin on the outside wall of his booth, priced at $14,500 to $34,500, with red dots next to many—but not the pricey Cy Twombly paintings and works on paper inside.

Demand for emerging artists remained strong at the main fair as well as satellite shows like NADA and Untitled. “I haven’t found any bargains,” said Lio Malca, a New York-based collector and private dealer. “Instead of having 10 people in front of you, there are three or four now.”  

He bought several works priced at $10,000 to $100,000, but was outbid on many others, including a $4.5 million Keith Haring painting that had been pre-sold at Gladstone, he said.

Things were slower above $5 million—a sign of the dislocation between what sellers expect and what buyers are willing to pay.

Jeff Koons's work at White Cube's stand at Art Basel Miami Beach 2022. Photo by Kaya Kazakina.

Jeff Koons’s work at White Cube’s stand at Art Basel Miami Beach 2022. Photo by Katya Kazakina.

At White Cube, a yellow basket with giant eggs by Jeff Koons was unsold at $7.5 million. So was another show-stopper, a massive glittering ball by Olafur Elliason, priced at $1.25 million, dangerously close to the artist’s auction record of $1.5 million, at Neugerriemschneider gallery. There were no immediate takers for a 1962 Calder sculpture, priced at $7.5 million, at Gray Gallery, or a 7-foot-tall red Calder at Pace priced at $12 million.

“If the super rich believe we are heading into a down-cycle, they expect discounts,” said Evan Beard, a former Bank of America executive. And if they experience too much sticker shock, they walk—at least if the hospitality industry is an indicator. 

Some hotels have become so expensive during the Art Basel week that even ultra-wealthy collectors are saying no – and looking for better options, said Tim Blum of Blum & Poe.

“This is certainly something I haven’t heard in years past,” he said.

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