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Art/Basel: Fine Art & Fat Cat Feeding Frenzy

Imagine going into a fine modern art museum, where the usual suspects — Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, Leger, Klee, Kandinsky, etc. — are arrayed on the walls. Now imagine that each one has a price tag next to it, so if you have the bucks, you can take it home. That’s what Art/Basel is like. Of course, at this fair, your VISA better have a seven-figure credit limit.

Imagine going into a fine modern art museum, where the usual suspects — Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, Leger, Klee, Kandinsky, etc. — are arrayed on the walls. Now imagine that each one has a price tag next to it, so if you have the bucks, you can take it home.

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That’s what Art/Basel is like. Of course, at this fair, your VISA better have a seven-figure credit limit.

There is an especially fine selection of Picassos available at this summer’s fair, ranging from modest little sketches for a few hundred thousand to serious works like the beautiful Femme en Blanc (Woman in White) which has never been sold publicly. The price tag? A cool $25M.

Lots of these works have been smoked out by dealers after Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat sold for $95.2M — the second highest price ever paid for a work of art — at Sotheby’s last month in New York. Collectors holding other Picasso works are looking to cash out in what they see as a market flush with ready cash. After all, the anonymous Russian collector who bought Dora reportedly beat out Las Vegas’s Steve Wynn, the Limited’s Leslie Wexner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer for the honor of taking it home. Presumably, those guys still have money burning a hole in their pockets, and are holding space over the sofa for a new Picasso of their own.

But they better move fast. This market is ruthlessly competitive. Overheard, for example, in the Nahmad booth, a British dealer on his cell phone to a client: “I’ve spoken to my guy in New York. He can’t make it here ’til Saturday, so it’s off reserve. Asking pirce: 12M euro.”

At the Vernissage, the preview party where high rollers get a first look at the merch, it was instantly clear that in this crowd, prices like that are no problem. Hearing that the price of a particularly appealing Debuffet was $3M, one gentleman was delighted. “That’s good news!” he said, whipping out his checkbook. “I have one at home that’s just the same size.”

Upstairs, there were parties for the true fat cats, hosted by the private jet leasing company Netjets. They reported that 100 of its planes will land at the Basel airport, a 25% increase over last year.

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The crowd milling about was a mix of uptight European burghers, dark-suited Jeremy Piven-like Hollywood moguls, and open-shirted dudes who looked like they had escaped from Silicon Valley office parks. The Art Newspaper, put out by show sponsor UBS, reported that Michael Ovitz, Don and Mira Rubell from Miami, Los Angeles film agent Beth Swofford, real estate mogul Aby Rosen, Guggenheim president Jennifer Stockman, and financier Henry Kravis were in the crowd.

A large acrylic by Japanese artist Takashi Murakam, priced at $1.5M, was one of the show’s first sales. “All the big fish came by as soon as the fair opened and we sold it to a North American collector in the first hour,” gallerist Tim Blum told the paper. Why not? That’s sofa change for this crowd.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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