Art Basel opens with a $60 million Rothko, a visit from Asia and a ripening pear

Nothing is certain in the fickle art market, but one element — the Art Basel fair in June — is going strong after 50 years. The 2023 event, which runs until June 18 with 284 selected exhibitors, opened on Tuesday with less glitz, an art show that underscored the intensity of the Rhineland glitz.

The sun helped subdued visitors inside an exhibition of Mark Rothko’s 1955 painting with a $60mn price tag in the booth of New York’s heavyweight Acquavella Galleries. The trademark work, once owned by banking heir Paul Mellon, was receiving „intense interest” on opening day, said gallery co-owner Alexander Acquavella, but had not yet sold at the time of writing. On the other side of the exhibition floor, Swiss-born, international powerhouse Hauser & Wirth reported an avalanche of sales, with Louis Bourgeois’ climbing, bronze „Spider IV” (1996) selling for $22.50 to an American collector. mn

Some sales were completed earlier or eventually sealed on the same day. “Art Basel is the center of attraction for collectors. The first day of the exhibition is the culmination of many, many months of preparation and conversation for us,” said gallery president Evan Wirth as he presented restoration champagne truffles at his Basel booth.

Mark Rothko’s 'Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Pale Orange) (1955) carries a $60mn price tag © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The first floor of the Messeplatz convention center is more experimental, where more sophisticated galleries show their wares. A conceptual work by Callie Spooner, €11,000 (“Still Life”, 2018, including pedestal), at Paris Galerie GB Agency, five dates on a pedestal that must be changed every two days. Beirut’s Marfa’ Gallery presents a reflection on consumerism with Raed Yassin’s project „Death Investment.” The artist uses animal skulls, whose teeth were restored by his childhood dentist, to suggest an alternative symbol of wealth and worship under the booth’s spotlights (est. $6,000 to $10,000). Six of the 12 works sold on the first day; „Bankers seem to like them,” said gallery founder Jumana Azeily.

London gallerist Sadie Coles has a unique booth featuring on-demand works by American artist Laura Owens. A solo exhibition of 16 works ranging from $90,000 to $1.8mn benefited from being largely kept under wraps until opening day. „We didn’t send things out in advance, which is unusual in 2023, because people are used to getting PDFs, so they had to come here instead — that’s how it was,” Coles said.

Five pears are displayed on a ceramic surface

The five pears in Callie Spooner’s 'Still Life’ (2018) must be replaced every two days.

The fact that this year’s fair was the first full-scale event since the Covid-19 emergency was declared officially over was in his favor. Dealers were surprised by the number of visitors from China and other countries in Asia, and the exhibition was last seen in 2019. However, there was less fanfare on the VIP day, with booths mostly uncrowded and queues. Bratwurst and champagne are relatively thin. „People are very selective about the art fairs they go to now,” said Samia Souma, a partner at Galerie Max Hetzler, whose work in Basel includes a large Jeff Koons „Celebration” painting that has not been released.

The heat that had fueled the market since its previous decline in 2009 has cooled, and the high interest rate environment has made art a risky place to park money. Noah Horowitz, CEO of Art Basel since November and overseeing its first edition in Switzerland, admits that „there is less urgency in the market,” but he says, „The base is still there. There are buyers for exceptional art and works that are unique or check a certain box.

The monkey's skull has three teeth in polished silver metal

Raed Yassin’s 'Monkey 3 Teeth’ is one of a series of works in which teeth are restored from animal skulls by a dentist.

Horowitz’s latest meeting points to winds of change within the longtime fair group, which now has editions in Miami, Hong Kong and Paris and whose anchor partner from 2020 is James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems. Horowitz says the group is more aware of the new, younger generation of „active collectors” and the increasingly blurred lines with other creative industries like fashion and music. „This year’s opening days were a reminder of the unifying imperative of this show and our industry. We want to continue to be what we have been for the past 50-plus years,” says Horowitz.

Until June 18,

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