The Back Room
The Back Room: Basel Beckons
This week: A breakdown of the biggest themes at Art Basel, Mondrian’s wonky market, a big moment for the Southeast Asian scene, and more.
Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.
This week in the Back Room: A breakdown of the biggest themes at Art Basel, Mondrian’s wonky market, a big moment for the Southeast Asian scene, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (1,877 words).
Top of the Market
Art Basel returned to the Messeplatz in its traditional summertime slot for the first time in three years. VIP activity was strong—but as art market players toasted a quasi return-to-normal, stock markets cratered, cryptocurrency prices nosedived, and inflation rates continued to skyrocket.
Reports from the fair’s opening days indicate that galleries have yet to directly feel the recession coming downwind, but some players already appear to be anticipating a new reality.
Here are five key takeaways from the week.
Art Basel is one of the few fairs where art is routinely traded for prices in the seven and even eight figures. Here are a few of the nosebleed-level transactions reported by galleries.
- $40 million: Louise Bourgeois‘s Spider (1996) at Hauser & Wirth
- $16.5 million: Joan Mitchell‘s Bergerie (1961–62) at Pace
- $12.5 million: Felix Gonzalez-Torres‘s Untitled (Tim Hotel) (1992) at David Zwirner
- $5.5 million: Georg Baselitz‘s Hirtenkopf (1986) at White Cube
- $2.5 million: Milton Avery‘s Bikini Bather (1962) at Xavier Hufkens
In the early hours of the VIP preview, gallerists expressed pleasant surprise about the return of Asian and U.S. collectors, who were conspicuously absent from Art Basel’s last edition nine months ago. Mera Rubell, Qiao Zhibing, Timothy Tan, and Richard Chang were among those spotted roaming the aisles.
Art Basel’s newly relaxed participation requirements for galleries meant there were 19 first-timers among the fair’s 289 exhibitors. Most of them were younger, including the Paris and Chicago-based Mariane Ibrahim and Proyectos Ultravioleta from Guatemala City. The crowd at the jam-packed First Choice VIP opening also included many younger faces, some of whom were unfamiliar to the pre-pandemic fair circuit.
Thirst for the Young
The yen for work by emerging artists accelerated during the pandemic, with speculative buying pushing up prices at auction and many blue-chip galleries adding younger talents to their stables. This trend was more evident than ever on the ground floor of the fair, which is usually reserved for blue-chip and historic fare.
- Thaddaeus Ropac placed millennials Alvaro Barrington and Rachel Jones on the booth with Georg Baselitz and Robert Rauschenberg.
- White Cube showcased Cy Twombly alongside Christina Quarles.
- Michael Werner had Sigmar Polke face off with Florian Krewer.
Most of the frenetic energy focused on trendy young artists, while bigger-ticket classics were slower to move (unless they were sales that had been arranged in advance). Still, despite complaints that some secondary-market inventory was not fresh enough to market, dealers managed to sell with lucrative markups.
- Helly Nahmad sold Francis Bacon‘s Pope (1958) for an offering price of $15 million. The same work was deaccessioned by the Brooklyn Museum at Sotheby’s in 2019 for $6.6 million.
- White Cube sold Michael Armitage‘s The Conversationists (2015), which was traded at Sotheby’s in 2019 for $1.5 million.
The Bottom Line
While the sky-high prices and continued demand for young art look like positive indicators, there are signs that a recalibration is in the offing.
Historically, recession hasn’t always been a bad thing for the art market: people want to move money into tangible assets and many bet on art as a hedge against inflation.
So while it is unlikely that collectors will stop buying art altogether, there may well be a sea change in the kind of art they are buying. Research suggests that material in the $100,000-to-$1 million price range by established brand names is the most recession-proof. What does that mean for work by artists only a few years out of school who are currently trading on the secondary market for $3 million? Only time will tell.
In this week’s Wet Paint, sought-after painter Jenna Gribbon joins LGDR (which kicked off Art Basel with the $70,000 sale of one of her paintings to an SFMOMA board member), and a glitch in Basel’s VIP card system caused a bit of a crush during the fair’s swanky preview.
Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…
- A new fair backed by the Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom launched in St Petersburg this week, overlapping with Art Basel. The 1703 fair hosts 16 Russian galleries—though some members of the country’s cultural world planned to boycott the event. (The Art Newspaper)
- The long-delayed Art SG fair in Singapore released its 150 gallery-strong exhibitor list, which includes Pace and Gagosian alongside local spaces Gajah Gallery and iPreciation. It runs from January 11–15, 2023. (Press release)
- MCH Group’s two major shareholders—the canton of Basel-Stadt and James Murdoch’s company Lupa Systems—will invest between CHF 27 million and CHF 34 million each in Art Basel’s parent company as it looks to bounce back from the pandemic. (The Art Newspaper)
- Continuing its investment in private sales, Sotheby’s is making its Monaco pop-up gallery, which launched last summer, into a permanent space. It will be led by Louise Gréther, the new director of Sotheby’s Monaco. (Press release)
- Francis Bacon’s 1964 portrait of Lucian Freud—unseen for nearly 60 years—could fetch more than £35 million ($42.2 million) at Sotheby’s Platinum Jubilee British art auction on June 29. (Artnet News)
- Phillips’s evening and day editions auctions achieved a combined £5.2 million ($6.4 million), the highest total for the sale series in London. The top lot was a 1985 Andy Warhol print of Queen Elizabeth II. (Press release)
- Stanley Whitney, whose market has been on a sharp incline of late, is leaving Lisson, which has repped him since 2015, for Gagosian. (ARTnews)
- Han Bing is joining Thaddaeus Ropac, which will represent her in Europe and Korea. The Chinese-born, Paris-based artist is still represented by Antenna Space in China and Night Gallery in the U.S. (Press release)
- Summer pop-ups are starting to touch down in Aspen: Christie’s reopened its seasonal space on June 16, while Marianne Boesky and Carpenters Workshop Gallery are opening a collaborative storefront on June 30. (Press releases)
- In personnel news: Olivier Gabet is stepping down as director of Les Arts Décoratifs to lead the decorative arts department at the Louvre; Amy Smith-Stewart has been promoted to chief curator of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut; and Liz Munsell is leaving the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to become the new contemporary art curator of New York’s Jewish Museum. (Press releases)
- The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents voted to officially deaccession 29 Benin bronzes from the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. No date has been given for their return to Nigeria. (Artnet News)
- The director of the National Museum of Slovenia, Pavel Car, was forced to step down while he is investigated for organizing an exhibition of purportedly forged works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, and Henri Matisse. (Artnet News)
NFTs and More
- The sale of an NFT based on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo sold by the Uffizi last year made €240,000—but, as it turns out, the museum only pocketed €70,000. The rest went to Milan-based company Cinello, which minted the NFT, and to production of the digital work. (The Art Newspaper)
- Auction-house veteran Saara Pritchard is joining rainmakers Amy Cappellazzo, Adam Chinn, and Yuki Terase as a partner in their newly launched art advisory, Art Intelligence Global. (Artnet News Pro)
- Documenta opened in Kassel with a bit of a surprise: It turns out that the 53 artists and collectives that Ruangrupa invited to participate got to invite their own sub-constellation of artists, leading to a whopping 1,500 participants in total. We have the most comprehensive list available. (Artnet News)
Not Enough Mondrian to Go Around
The Fondation Beyeler’s marquee exhibition during Art Basel, “Mondrian Evolution” (through October 9, 2022), has left many reflecting on the legacy of Piet Mondrian. For an artist as influential as the Dutch painter, his market is extraordinarily uneven. We dug into the Artnet Price Database to find out why.
- Mondrian’s market is characterized by a lack of supply. Since 1999, no more than 15 works in any medium have ever hit the auction block in a single year. On the rare occasion that Classical Period paintings do come to market, they generate big prices—even during recessions—and have outsize impact on total sales.
- These primary-colored canvases account for Mondrian’s top six auction prices, which are all above $20 million. In second place are the earlier, looser grid compositions made between 1913 and 1919; somewhat desirable, but far less valuable, are the Pointillist paintings from 1908 to 1910, as well the earlier landscapes, florals, windmills, and still lifes.
- Condition is a limiting factor. Buyers want to see Mondrian’s brushstrokes as well as the original mounts he created. Over the years, some surfaces have cracked, brushstrokes have been obscured by heavy-handed conservators, and mounts were discarded.
The takeaway? Renewed emphasis on the artist’s earlier material—clear in both the Beyeler show and a major exhibition at the Hague in 2017—suggests there may be room to grow in this segment of the artist’s market.
Yet supply, as ever, is the biggest problem. A lawsuit filed by Mondrian’s heirs against the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year offers a ballpark for how high the price for prime work could go: they claim the lozenge-shaped Composition With Blue (1926) is worth $100 million. Not bad for an artist who for years made flower compositions to pay for the radical experiments no one wanted to buy.
“Everything is fake, everything has been stolen. It’s frightening, and I hope justice prevails.”
—Jean-Claude Gandur on the scandal-plagued antiquities market. The Swiss collector believes he was duped into buying an Egyptian Fayum portrait in 2014 that now appears to have ties to the smuggling ring that ensnared former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez. (Artnet News)
Work of the Week
Yee I-Lann’s Tikar/Meja
Asking Price: In the range of $200,000
Buyer: National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne
Sold at: Art Basel
Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.
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