Art Basel

Art Basel in Miami Beach fair opens with healthy crowds, strong sales

If anyone harbored doubts about the depth of hunger for big-ticket art at Miami Beach’s gargantuan Art Basel fair, or about organizers’ wavering commitment to the city, those were quickly stilled Wednesday morning as the headlining event of the week’s art fiesta opened its doors to a refined mob of well-heeled VIPs.

Fair director Marc Spiegler said Art Basel would stay in Miami Beach despite a brief flirtation with a move to San Francisco, born from concern over possible disruptions from the planned redevelopment of the city’s antiquated convention center. Although the scale of the plan is up in the air because of Beach political dynamics, Spiegler said any construction would be phased so that the fair would not lose any floor space.

Moments later, as the uniformed security guards hoisted open the doors to the vast convention center floor, fears evaporated that collectors were beset by Basel fatigue (fears fueled in part by a New York Times article claiming that the party atmosphere had overtaken serious art in Miami).

The slow crush went on for almost an hour as the wealthy and well-placed queued impatiently to get into the convention center, afflicted by what one insider called the FOMO factor — fear of missing out.

“We were slammed with high-level, last-minute requests” for VIP invitations, said Spiegler.

Buying art is part competitive sport and part see-and-be-seen, and hearing that art-world friends were coming drew out the undecided, Spiegler said. So did the ballyhooed opening of the new Perez Art Museum Miami, which seems to be fulfilling a key goal of its supporters: to cement the notion of Miami as an art-world magnet beyond the one week of Art Basel.

About 50,000 are expected to attend before the fair closes Sunday.

“The museum has ramped up the energy at the fair,” said Miami collector Dennis Scholl, the Knight Foundation’s vice president for the arts. “You can feel it.”

Many collectors were feeling it, too.

At London’s White Cube gallery, which represents stars Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Liza Lou, among others, owner Matt Carey-Williams said sales have been “very, very strong.” Three works priced at more than $1 million were sold by late afternoon.

Pace Gallery sold an Antoni Tàpies construction of marble dust, synthetic varnish, and acrylic paint on wood for $200,000 and a Jim Dine composition of acrylic and sand on linen for $120,000.

Ai Weiwei, the famed Chinese dissident and artist, is a large presence this year — both with his elaborate show at PAMM and in the opening hours of Art Basel. One of the first sales in the opening minutes involved one of Ai Weiwei’s iconic works — a set of handcuffs carved from jade at Lisson Gallery.

They resemble the manacles used on the artist when he was arrested by his government for “economic crimes” in 2011.

Donna Poile, a collector with homes in Toronto and South Florida, purchased the handcuffs for an undisclosed amount. “He’s a wonderfully important artist, with an incredible story to tell,” Poile said. “Even though dimensionally it’s a small object, but it just has such incredible strength.”

But there was action at the bottom of the price scale, too.

New to the fair this year is a sector grouping together and expanding a group of publishers and galleries who sell prints, many in relatively affordable limited editions, by consequential artists. For instance, a set of monoprints on which Dine also individually painted by hand could be had for a comparatively low price of $32,000 at London’s Alan Cristea Gallery.

The gallery also had on hand a set of prints by blue-chipper Josef Albers from an edition of 200 for $3,650 each, and still lifes of potted flowers made of sand and acrylic on varnished newspaper by England’s Gordon Cheung for $2,500, unframed. The gallery said the new sector was drawing considerable interest.

“Hopefully, people will hear that you can buy an original work of art for a price that the middle class can afford, and realize it’s not just for millionaires,” said gallery partner Helen Waters.

One notable trend at this year’s 12th edition of the fair: lots of painting, even though critics had declared it dead just a few years ago.

Most of the 258 galleries in the fair had large or small paintings, but not simply oils on canvas. The variety of painting showed off the diverse state of the medium today, from wildly colorful figurative Kehinde Wileys to abstract, metallic-painted monotone pieces from Teresita Fernandez.

“There’s lots of work that looks traditional until you look more closely. Then you realize it’s not,” said Miami Beach collector Mario Cader-Frech, fresh from snagging two Ed Templeton photocollages with his partner, developer Robert Wennett, while pointing to the Cheung still lifes.

Top collectors from the United States and around the world were very much in evidence, including Eli Broad, who unveiled plans for his new Los Angeles museum at the nearby New World Symphony headquarters Wednesday morning, as well as Chinese collector Qiao Zhibing and former Disney chief Michael Eisner. So was artist Jeff Koons, whose inflatable art recently set a record price.

And so were celebrities, some of whom, like music mogul Sean P. “Diddy” Combs, have become regulars. Leonardo DiCaprio walked around the floor in shorts and sneakers, on his phone while he pointed to artworks so that his “people” could stop and inquire about pieces as he kept strolling.

And, in a new Basel twist, so were a conclave of star architects with projects in Miami, including England’s Norman Foster, Mexico’s Enrique Norten, PAMM co-designer Jacques Herzog and Richard Meier. The last also had an exhibit of rather randy collages and an abstract steel sculpture on view at Gmurzynska.

The morning was also full of speculative chatter about the effect of recent record-shattering prices at the New York auctions, though no one seemed certain what that would be — whether it would dissuade some buyers, encourage others or simply have no effect at all. One collector called prices “crazy,” but then said they always are.

Ron Warren, a director at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery, said he didn’t believe the recent astronomical auction prices — a Francis Bacon painting of Lucien Freund sold for a record-breaking $142 million — had much effect on the fair’s economy. “High prices at auction are for a very limited number of artists,” Warren said.

As he strolled coolly through the galleries, Miami collector Marvin Ross Friedman said he was, as always, looking for “the unexpected, the one you didn’t know I was looking for.”

“The art world is like a moveable feast,” he said, referring to all the familiar faces and socializing at the fair. “I try actually see the pictures. At the end of the day, it’s all about the pictures.”

Miami Herald writers Anne Tschida, Douglas Hanks and Jordan Levin contributed to this report.