The Art Market: Fight to buy

There is always a scrum to get into Art Basel but this year’s opening degenerated into a stampede as impatient VIPs, waving their access cards, finally burst through the tapes and into the fair as the Swiss security guards struggled and failed to keep them in order.

Once inside, however, the visitors quickly forgot their frustration and set to buying seriously. Sales across the board were buoyant from the start. Nicholas Maclean, of the London and New York dealership Eykyn Maclean, said: “One adviser told me that he had carte blanche to buy and one of my clients told me much the same. The quality of the art on offer is high – the problem is actually buying as there is such competition.”

In scenes reminiscent of the art boom in 2007, some collectors even ran through the fair and, in the case of collector and philanthropist Jean Pigozzi, were right to do so. He managed to get ahead of another potential buyer to bag a large painting of a recumbent woman by the young Japanese artist Satoko Nachi at Tomio Koyama for $70,000.

“It’s a very confident market,” said Iwan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth, who sold strongly. In the Art Unlimited section, which shows oversized works, Jason Rhoades’ “Untitled” neon installation was snapped up for about $1m by Dasha Zhukova, the partner of Russian billionaire and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Sales continued briskly after the opening: Lehmann Maupin sold three editions of a Tracey Emin neon (tagged at $55,000) while, again in Art Unlimited, Sudarshan Shetty’s disquieting sculpture of a carved wooden gate with swinging sword in its centre went for €125,000. Art Basel ends this Sunday.

Still in Basel, the Australia-born hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck was shown for the first time in an art fair – and sold immediately. Mueck started by making puppets for children’s television programmes before being encouraged to become an artist by his mother-in-law, the Portuguese painter Paula Rego. His career took off after Charles Saatchi included his work in the 1997 show Sensation. For years represented by the now retired dealer Anthony d’Offay, Mueck is now working with power gallery Hauser & Wirth in London, and will have a show in its Savile Row space next year. Two pieces from his 2009 sculpture “Youth” (in an edition of four) sold for £450,000 each.

Can a house be art? The design fair at Basel features one of Jean Prouvé’s wartime prefabricated bungalows, which is built and dismantled every day on Patrick Seguin’s stand during the event. The “Dismountable House” dates from 1944, when about 160 were commissioned by the French government for the devastated Lorraine region. Few survive and are now sought after by museums and private collectors. One is now a teahouse in Korea, another belongs to the designer Azzedine Alaïa, who uses it as a guest house. There is something incongruous about a piece made in the simplest of materials and born out of hardship becoming se desirable but it is not the only example of the art world diverting works from their original intentions – just look at Banksy. The Prouvé house is priced at €600,000 and other examples can sell for up to €10m.

Next week sees impressionist and modern art go on the block in London. Christie’s starts on Tuesday with a 92-lot sale that includes 40 lots from the estate of legendary dealer Ernst Beyeler. Picasso, Giacometti, Klee and Gaugin are among the blue-chip names for sale and there seems little doubt that the never-to-be-repeated chance to acquire works from such a great gallerist will work its magic.

The group is a little mixed but includes some real corkers, including a Calder mobile at £800,000-£1m and a £24m Monet “Nymphéas” (1914-1917). The proceeds of the sale will go to the Beyeler Foundation, which is now showing Brancusi and Richard Serra until August 21.

On Wednesday, Sotheby’s follows with a smaller, 35-lot sale that features a knock-out Schiele. “Hauser mit Wäsche (Vorstadt II)” (Houses with Laundry, Suburb II, 1914) is being sold by the Leopold Museum in Vienna to pay for another Schiele, which it bought back last year for $19m after a protracted court battle in the US. It is sure to set a new world record as the painting is backed by a guarantee and an irrevocable bid, meaning it is effectively pre-sold.

Bonhams is embarking on a major project at its Bond Street premises in London, with a $30m refit that should turn the rambling space into a modern auction house. The new building will have three new salerooms, complete with skyboxes to allow clients to observe and bid without entering the saleroom floor. The work should be completed in December 2013.

How Bonhams can afford this is something of a mystery as its sales are very much lower than Christie’s and Sotheby’s, its rivals. Its last published turnover figures date from 2007 when they were about $600m (Christie’s reported $5bn for 2010) so it is difficult to verify its claim to be “one of the fastest growing international houses in the world”. Chinese auction houses are certainly growing faster.

But Bonhams is ambitious and has been hiring staff from other auction houses as well as expanding internationally. Recently, it put up its buyer’s premium to match Sotheby’s and Christie’s, with its owner Robert Brooks stating slightly confusingly that “we are now competing with Sotheby’s and Christie’s globally in all areas of art and antiques, so it is important that we maintain our competitiveness, which means matching their buyer’s premium rates.”

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

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