The Art Market: sprint to the finish

Art Basel flung open its doors to VIPs on Tuesday, and despite coming at the end of a six-week marathon that included the New York sales, Frieze New York, Art Basel Hong Kong and the Venice Biennale, the appetite for buying art seemed to be undiminished. As the first of two private view days ended, the cash registers rung up some hefty sales.

Galerie Gmurzynska said it sold an Yves Klein fire painting from 1961, tagged at $2.8m. Meanwhile London-based Helly Nahmad gallery, showing a powerful selection of works including Bacon, Rothko and Miró, reported placing Calder’s “Sumac” (1961) for $12m.

There was enthusiasm at lower prices as well: São Paulo gallery Mendes Wood sold all of its woven wall-based sculptures by Afro-Brazilian artist Sonia Gomes at prices between $8,000 and $25,000.

Unlimited, the section for outsized art projects at Art Basel, is often cited as one of the best things about the event, enabling artists to give free rein to their ambitions outside the booths. This year’s Unlimited has extended to 11,500 sq metres, but big doesn’t necessarily equal better.

‘Peinture (4 mars 1950)’ by Miró at Helly Nahmad in Basel

Some of the works on show are simple repeats of known pieces; others seem to have been sized up for the occasion. While sales from Unlimited are often slower than at the fair – you need a lot of room to accommodate them – Urs Meile sold Ai Weiwei’s “Fairytale 2007, Ladies Dormitory” (2007) – a tent containing simple metal beds with suitcases parked at the foot of each – to a private American collection.

The Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and his partner Dasha Zhukova were, as always, among the first visitors to Design Miami Basel, the fair held alongside the main Basel event and now housed in the new Herzog and de Meuron building that straddles Basel’s Messeplatz. Among early sales was Jean Royère’s cuddly “Polar Bear” sofa (1946) for €400,000 from Laffanour, while a Russian buyer bagged four 1930s chairs, made for the Red Army Theatre, for €27,000 from Moscow’s Heritage gallery.

Werner Spies, former director of Paris’s Pompidou Centre and an authority on the work of Max Ernst, has been sentenced by a French court to pay €652,883, equally with dealer Jacques de la Béraudière, to collector Louis Reijtenbagh.

Spies had authenticated a work by Ernst called “Tremblement de Terre” (1925), which subsequently turned out to be a fake produced by counterfeiter Wolfgang Beltracchi, who is serving a six-year prison sentence in Germany. The painting was bought by de la Béraudière in 2004, authenticated by Spies from a photograph and sold to Reijtenbagh via a Panama company. It was sent for sale to Sotheby’s New York in 2009 where it made $1.1m.

However, the auction was annulled when the doubts surfaced about its authenticity, and Reijtenbagh’s company had to pay back $969,000 (the sale price minus fees). It is for this reason that he took the dealer and specialist to court – to recover the sum he lost. De la Béraudière is appealing against the sentence; Spies and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

The whole Beltracchi affair is covered in detail in a book, available in German (Falsche Bilder – Echtes Geld – Galiani) and French (L’affaire Beltracchi – Jacqueline Chambon) by the investigative journalists Stefan Koldehoff and Tobias Timm, who name 83 paintings that are suspected of being Beltracchi fabrications (he was prosecuted for only 14). It makes sobering reading, as the whereabouts of many of the works of art listed are still unknown today.

A Persian carpet made more than $33.7m – almost five times estimate – at a Sotheby’s sale in New York of a group of 25 rugs from the cash-strapped Washington-based Corcoran Gallery. The auction was a knockout success, with everything flying way over estimate and all the lots sold. The pinnacle was the “Clark” sickle-leaf “vase” carpet made in southeast Persia and dating from the first half of the 17th century.

The Persian ‘vase’ carpet that sold for more than $33.7m at Sotheby’s in New York

The rugs had been left to the Corcoran in the early 20th century by William A Clark, a billionaire industrialist from Montana, along with paintings and other works. The institution had rarely taken them out of store: As Danny Shaffer, executive editor of specialist magazine Hali, explains: “Carpets are a pain to exhibit, they are light-sensitive, eat up space and get moths – and anyway the Corcoran is mainly about paintings, not carpets.”

The rugs were exceptional, he says: “We’ll never see anything like this sale again. These were the best of the best, with great old provenances. The price was absolutely justified.”

So who bought the carpet, and the others? Qatar is always fingered as a buyer, and its Museum of Islamic Art already has formidable holdings of textiles. But in fact there were four bidders for the vase carpet, which took a full 10 minutes to sell.

The Kingdom of Brunei, other Gulf states such as Abu Dhabi and even Russians were rumoured to have been in the running, and Shaffer says there are also US buyers for great carpets, including one “major collector” who underbid the vase rug through dealer Peter Pap. Private American buyers accounted for three of the top 10 lots in the sale, which achieved more than $43.7m, which will go to the Corcoran’s acquisition fund.

The latest in the bitter Perelman/Gagosian case, sparked last year by a deal involving a Jeff Koons sculpture: a New York judge has recommended that the two alpha males kiss and make up: “I really think that these two gentlemen ought to get together at a cocktail party in the Hamptons this summer,” said judge Barbara Kapnick. “This is a crazy case to have going on in this court and you ought to see if this can’t get resolved before I write a decision.” I am tempted to think that Gagosian would have been better to pay up and write off the money before getting involved with a deep-pocketed litigator such as billionaire Ron Perelman.

Another long-running legal saga, however, has ended: the tech entrepreneur Halsey Minor, who was involved with seemingly endless cases for non-payment against Christie’s and Sotheby’s, has filed for personal bankruptcy. He leaves a trail of 64 creditors and says he owes some $100m – but only has $50m left. This is the man who made $1.8bn by selling his start-up CNET in 2008.

‘Susanna and the Elders’ by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini in The Age of Elegance

The London antiques fair season is in full swing this weekend, with Olympia International Art and Antiques (which ends Sunday and Art Antiques London (which ends Wednesday), while Masterpiece is just around the corner (it starts on June 27).

Meanwhile in Mayfair, Mallett and Colnaghi have joined forces for a joint exhibition at Mallett’s Dover Street gallery, one of the best preserved 18th-century townhouses in London. The Age of Elegance starts on Tuesday, and features 18th-century decorative arts from Mallett, coupled with paintings from Colnaghi in a re-creation of atmospheric room settings. The furniture has grandly aristocratic provenance – including the second Earl Spencer and Viscount Ullswater. Prices start at £300,000 and go much higher – a pair of Chippendale commodes are priced at about £2m.

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

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