The art market: And so to Basel ...

Art Basel opened this week with a two-day invitation-only vernissage designed to avoid last year’s pandemonium, when collectors, impatient with waiting, stormed the barricades to get into the fair. The new arrangement allowed visitors into the central courtyard before the 11am “VVVIP” opening on Tuesday. There was some grumbling among those who were not given the prized “black” card but had to settle for the 3pm “silver” but on the whole the new system worked.

Once inside, deals were made, particularly by the major galleries; elsewhere, trade seemed more patchy. Art Basel came this year at the end of a fair marathon that saw three major events in six weeks, with the new Frieze New York and the Hong Kong fair. Even the most committed fair-goer must be flagging. And the world’s flagging economies must also be an issue, although dealers were hopeful that some jittery currencies would be converted into art.

With the mega New York auctions just over, a few exhibitors brought major secondary market works with prices aligned with the new levels. Pace quickly sold an abstract Richter, “AB Courbet” (1986), priced at about $25m: Marc Glimcher of the gallery would neither confirm nor deny that it went to hedge fund manager Steve Cohen. Even more pricey is a huge Rothko from 1954 at Marlborough, tagged at a mind-boggling $78m and not far from the $86.9m made by a Rothko from the Pincus collection at Christie’s New York last month.

The Rothko was not reported sold by press time, but there was activity elsewhere, with Louise Bourgeois selling at Cheim & Read and at Hauser & Wirth (“Arched Figure”, 1993, went to a European private collection for $2m). The Parisian gallery Lelong sold a marble sculpture by Luciano Fabro for €650,000, and Sprüth Magers also found a European buyer for a knitted work from 1986 by Rosemarie Trockel (€380,000). The fair ends on Sunday.

I recently wrote about the Austrian dealer Thaddaeus Ropac opening a huge new space in Paris, with a Kiefer show. Well, now the world’s biggest dealer, Larry Gagosian, is opening a huge new space in Paris ... with a Kiefer show.

Ropac is furious. “It’s unbelievable,” he says. “I have been planning my new space for two years, and I announced my Kiefer show about six weeks ago.” A Gagosian spokesperson says: “Kiefer is one of the gallery artists. He will be making all new work for our show.”

Gerhard Richter’s ‘AB Courbet’ (1986), sold at Pace gallery

The Gagosian space, which brings the gallery’s global outlets to a round dozen, is in Le Bourget, once the site of Paris’s northern airport and still a landing place for private jets. The 1950s factory offers 1,650 sq m – smaller than Ropac’s space, but large nonetheless. It is being redesigned by the French architect Jean Nouvel and will open in October, about the same time as Ropac.

Kiefer is certainly prolific. In Hong Kong, White Cube currently boasts 10 new works in a show entitled Let a thousand flowers bloom, some with Mao figures jutting out of fields of flowers and which is described as “ironic”. How does the artist manage to make it all?

One of the most talked-about pieces at Art Basel this year is the restaging, at the Sean Kelly Gallery, of Marina Abramovic’s famous performance “Imponderabilia”, first shown in Bologna in 1977 and revived two years ago during her retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In the original outing, Abramovic and her then partner Ulay stood, naked, facing each other in a narrow doorway. This year a team of performers recreates the piece. They stare impassively at each other as visitors squeeze between them to get into the Sean Kelly stand. So how do people react? Generally the women turn towards the woman, and men towards the man. Most people, however, duck in through the other entrance.

Is the piece for sale? No, but you can buy a video of the 1977 performance, in an edition of five: one has already sold at Basel for €180,000. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the generous donation of contemporary Chinese art that the Swiss collector Uli Sigg is making to Hong Kong’s planned new museum, M+.

The quality of the collection is tip-top, comprising examples of all the key figures in the field, from the 1970s to today. The donation is huge – 1,463 works valued by Sotheby’s at $163m, plus another 47 works which have been bought from Sigg for $23m. “It’s a ready-made museum collection,” says Lars Nittve, executive director of M+ and former director of Tate Modern. “It would be impossible to create a collection like this today.”

The funding comes from the Hong Kong government, which has earmarked $177m for the museum, and at one stroke the gift has transformed its holdings. Sigg comments that, “Exhibitions from my collection have tended to focus on a few artists westerners know, but there are many more artists in the group that will now be on view.”

He is keeping another 600 works, mainly personal works, gifts or ones of similar quality to those in the donation.

Most important, the donation/purchase should transform the outlook for the museum, which has struggled even to come into existence through a 14-year squabble about the West Kowloon Cultural District, the $2.8bn, 40-hectare public project which will include the museum. It is still undeveloped, but it finally looks as if its 2017 deadline will be met: “I’ve signed it in blood!” says CEO Michael Lynch.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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