Ah, June in Basel. When the sun sparkles off the Rathaus, the Rhine flows sweetly under the Wettsteinbrucke, and 56,000 rabid art hounds descend on this little Swiss city to snatch up the latest works by the art world’s most sought-after players — Neo Rauch, Damien Hirst, Lucien Freud and their kin.
This year, Art Basel celebrates its 37th anniversary as the world’s pre-eminent art fair. (Those who can’t trek to Switzerland in June get a second crack when the show arrives in Miami, its winter home, on Dec. 7.)
While the rest of Europe is consumed with non-stop, sun-up-to-sun-down World Cup spectating, the action around Basel’s Messeplatz is more engaged with who sold what to whom. Make no mistake: There’s serious money here, and the competition to get at the good stuff can be as fierce as a footballer with his eyes on the goal. (Handily, there is a constantly running TV set up in the courtyard for folks who take their soccer as seriously as their art.)
Last December, for example, the Times reported that one California couple beat out their best friends for a painting they both coveted by sneaking into Miami for the preview before the show opened. Who needs friends when you’ve scored a Lucien Freud for over the mantle?
Some of that frenzy is driven by a simple supply and demand problem. There’s a global market for great art, but a scarcity of high quality modern work. Sam Keller, the show’s urbane, bald director, opened this morning’s press conference by announcing triumphantly that he had signed a slew of new galleries showing modern art, “without sacrificing quality.”
Meanwhile, in a handy bit of synergy, the Swiss banker representing the show’s long time sponsor, UBS, took the podium to tell the audience (clearly the wrong people, since the crew assembled at 9:30 a.m. was a gaggle of scruffy journalists, not art world high rollers), that his bank was now the “predominant wealth management firm in the world.”
Whew. So when I cash in my Google shares and need to pick between the Richard Tuttle and the John Currin, I’m relieved to know there’s a banker standing by who’s as adept at art as he is with money. On to the show!