Where are the American Collectors at Art Basel

Craig Kauffman
Untitled, 1967/2008
Acrylic lacquer on vacuum-formed plastic
52 x 72 x 15 inches
132 x 182.8 x 38 cm
Courtesy Frank Lloyd


The dulcet strains created by Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz didn’t stand a chance Tuesday morning, amid the abrasive din of fairgoers at the hectic VIP opening of Art Basel, the world’s most highbrow trade show. Philipsz’s sound piece, New Oysters (2010), played over three white speakers, perched in the corners of Berlin dealer Isabella Bortolozzi’s stand.

The artist’s angelic Baroque chrous was a welcome respite from the thousands of paintings and sculptures on view around the convention hall. Priced at just over $28,000 from an edition of three, none of the installations had sold at the fair, said gallery representative Marta Lusena. “It’s not easy to show a sound piece in a fair,” noted Lusena.

But overall sales were reportedly brisk, and the fair’s first couple hours were something of a stampede. “Everyone was trampling each other,” said New York art adviser Linda Silverman who waited 20 minutes to reach the gate. “It was like being squeezed on a subway car,” she noted.

Collectors came ready to shop. New York’s Luhring Augustine sold works by Albert Oehlen, Elad Lassry and Tom Friedman. A 1996 black-and-white abstract Christopher Wool painting was layered with dots and drips. The asking price was a $2.2 million. At the other end of the pricing spectrum, Galerie Karsten Greve, headquartered in Cologne, displayed elegant 2-inch-tall painting of figures without faces by Gideon Rubin, tagged at $1,100 apiece. By Tuesday afternoon, six were marked with red dots.

Though American collectors appeared to be in short supply, New York’s Sperone Westwater reported sales to Asian buyers based on relationships formed at the recent ArtHK fair in Hong Kong—which Basel MCH, owner of this fair, recently acquired. They had a dramatically carved honey-hued sculpture of a woman draped in a veil by Barry X Ball, who recently defected from Salon94. Also on the stand, Otto Piene’s dramatic pulsating orange-and-red 1957 untitled painting sold in the mid-six figures to a European collector. New York-based Cheim and Reid sold to buyers from China and Turkey as well as Europe. “There’s been a real range of determined collectors,” said Sperone director David Leiber.

New York’s Tilton Gallery offered an array of works by African-American artists who all worked at various periods in Los Angeles, including a powerful wall of David Hammons pieces dating from 1969 to 1976, priced from $600,000 into the low millions.

No less museum-ready was a 1964–2009 mini-survey of sleekly bulbous sculptures by Craig Kauffman, who died last year. The works were conservatively priced at $30,000 to $250,000 by dealer Frank Lloyd, who recently sold Kauffmans to the Los Angeles County Museum and a Los Angeles MOCA trustee.

Another recently deceased U.S.-based artist, painter Sylvia Sleigh, was given a moving tribute by young Zurich dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, who showed seven portrait paintings—a blend of David Hockney’s wit and style and the humanism of Alice Neel. Priced $30,000 to $80,000, they include a dignified roster of fellow women artists.

New York dealer Andrew Fabricant, of Richard Gray Gallery, paused to pick up a stash of cigars in the VIP lounge. “The world is in turmoil and the art market is still chugging along,” he said before heading back to the escalators and the crowded fair floor.