From left: 'Chance (Anne)'; 'Chance (Vivien)'; 'Chance (Varinka)', all by Alex Katz (1990)
From left: 'Chance (Anne)'; 'Chance (Vivien)'; 'Chance (Varinka)', all by Alex Katz (1990) (Photograph: Alex Katz/ADAGP) © Alex Katz/ADAGP

Coming shortly after the mind-boggling New York sales in May, it seemed inevitable that the Basel art fair would be highly successful, and its opening day, reserved for VIPs, was indeed a smash hit commercially.

Much was already sold before the doors even swung open to the select “first choice” guests at 11am on Tuesday. Within the first hour, the big galleries were just finalising prepared sales: rolling her eyes, Monika Sprüth of Sprüth Magers said: “We’re talking about pre-, pre- previews now” – potential buyers had advance knowledge of what would be on view, both through emails and online sites such as Artsy.

Sprüth quickly sold an Andreas Gursky ink-jet print at €500,000 and a Sterling Ruby painting for $245,000. “Everyone who expressed an interest in our emailed previews showed up and bought!” said Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read, whose sales included Lynda Benglis’s gold-leafed wall sculpture “Indio” (1978) for $350,000.

Jay Jopling of White Cube produced a long list of sales, including a Damien Hirst medicine cabinet at $6m and Julie Mehretu’s “Mumbo Jumbo” (2008) for $5m. Per Skarstedt scored one of the highest numbers, quickly selling a Warhol self-portrait, priced at $32m. Thaddaeus Ropac was beaming, having found a European buyer for Alex Katz’s cut-out beach girls – at $1.5m – among other successes.

“The fashionable names are all sold,” complained one visiting New York dealer, commenting on large ink-jet prints with small variations by Wade Guyton, priced at around €350,000. His work figured on six stands – but none was available after the first hour. “If you can get access, you can immediately double or triple your money by selling at auction,” said the dealer, pointing out that a comparable example sold for $1.1m at Phillips New York this May.

Holman Hunt's 'Isabella'
Holman Hunt's 'Isabella' (Photograph: Christie's) © Christie's

Museum deaccessioning in the US (rarer in Europe, and illegal in some countries) continues to be a hot topic. Critics will seize on the sale of William Holman Hunt’s “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” (1867) this week as evidence of why museums shouldn’t send works for sale.

The painting, from Delaware Art Museum, was the cover lot of Christie’s Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art sale on Tuesday and estimated at £5m-£8m – a figure that doesn’t include fees. However, it flopped, raising just £2.9m with fees, going to an unidentified buyer. After the auction, the American Alliance of Museums voted to remove the institution’s accreditation, meaning it will no longer be able to borrow works from many other museums.

The sale has been contentious in the US because “Isabella” was being sold to sort out the museum’s finances after an over-optimistic expansion and renovation in 2005. Generally, museum deaccessioning is considered acceptable only when other works of art are bought with the proceeds. In this case, with a $19.8m bond debt, the museum said it had no alternative but to raid its 12,500-strong holdings. Hoping to raise $30m and replenish its endowment at the same time, the museum had earmarked “Isabella” and two or three other works for the chop.

While these have not been publicly identified, on the hit list seems to be one of the museum’s highlights, Winslow Homer’s “Milking Time” (1876) as well as Alexander Calder’s mobile “Black Crescent” (1959). Both have been taken off display and are no longer on the museum’s online database. With “Isabella” performing so poorly, another sale might have to be found to plug the financial gap.

There were warning signs. Last December, Sotheby’s failed to sell Holman Hunt’s “Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw” (1869), estimated at £3m-£5m, and then just last month Rossetti’s “Pandora” (1871), expecting up to £7m, was also bought in, again at Sotheby’s. Another sign might have been that the museum had failed to find a private buyer for “Isabella” before sending it to auction.

Having an artist’s work copied has landed a billionaire real estate developer with a $450,000 bill, according to a verdict handed down by a California jury this month.

At issue was a large, untitled granite sculpture created in 1992 by artist Don Wakefield and a collaborator, Joseph Glickman; it was a unique piece. Seeking buyers, Wakefield had sent emails to various Californian developers in 2004, including a link to images of the work. Among those he wrote to was Olen Properties, owned by billionaire developer Igor Olenicoff, one of the US’s richest men, according to Forbes.

Between 2008 and 2012, according to court papers, Wakefield discovered at least six copies of “Untitled” in various Olen properties in California – some were near-identical copies of the original, others derivatives. They had been titled “A Tear Must Fall”. Wakefield sued for copyright infringement and has been awarded $450,000 in damages but the case is far from over. Olen’s and Olenicoff’s lawyer sent me a statement saying that they challenge the evidentiary basis of the claims and that they “continue to vehemently deny the allegations made by Mr Wakefield.

“Although the jury reached a verdict, the defendants filed a motion prior to the jury’s decision with the US District Court for Judgment in Olen’s favour …Trial has, therefore, not concluded …We look forward to a favourable verdict from Judge Andrew Guilford in the coming weeks. Our clients will appeal if necessary to ensure justice prevails.”

Meanwhile, a separate but comparable copyright case comes before the same court next week, this time brought by another sculptor, John Raimondi. He claims that he was contacted in 2001 by Olenicoff to produce editions of two works, “Dian” and “Ceres”, and had sent photos and drawings. According to his complaint, after the initial contacts Olenicoff had “a change of heart” and decided not to commission them. However, Raimondi says he subsequently discovered in the Californian city of Brea “multiple unauthorised and infringing copies of the sculptures manufactured in China”.

These are not Olenicoff’s only brushes with the law: in 2007 he pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return, to settle charges that he had lied about his ownership of foreign accounts. He paid $52m in back taxes, interest and civil fraud penalties. The colourful, Russian-born developer, who allegedly held hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore accounts, agreed to repatriate funds to the US. He described the deal as “an excellent outcome”, and was sentenced to two years’ probation and 120 hours of community service.

This week Paris again demonstrated its position as the global centre for the sale of tribal art by racking up a new world record in the field. Sotheby’s sold an early 19th-century, monumental Fang statue for €4.4m (£3.5m), well above its high estimate of €3.5m. The 67cm-high figure had a sparkling provenance, having belonged to renowned dealer and collector Félix Fénéon and then to the equally famed Jacques Kerchache, both of whom fought for greater recognition of African arts in Europe. It was also the last remaining known example of Fang statuary in private hands.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper. Her book ‘Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century’ is published by Lund Humphries

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