Basel art fair suggests boom times are back

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Basel art fair suggests boom times are back

BASEL, Switzerland - Wealthy collectors at Art Basel, the world’s top fair for modern and contemporary art, had to dig deep into their pockets this week to get hold of high-quality works, amid signs the market was returning to precrisis peaks.

In times of low interest rates, many investors seek to diversify their portfolios and masterpieces by 20th century artists like Picasso and Miro, or contemporary stars such as Anish Kapoor or Antony Gormley, are in high demand.

Almost 300 private jets landed at Basel airport during the first day of the fair to fly in VIPs like supermodels Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, and the crowds were still large on Wednesday and Thursday when Art Basel was open to the public.

Art lovers and dealers peered at the works on display, took pictures on the latest mobile telephones to send back to clients and slipped handwritten notes into expensive designer handbags.

“There were more people than last year at the opening. The market feels solid, not crazy, but very solid,” said Sukanya Rajaratnam, director of New York art gallery L & M Arts.

She said the gallery had already sold some of its best lots on display. An orange Mark Rothko was sold for a price “in the range of $5 million,” while a giant red tripod by Paul McCarthy changed hands for about $2.5 million.

Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the Fine Art Fund Group which has assets under management of around $100 million, said his fund had sold pieces for around $8 million on the first day of the fair alone.

“With currency volatility, cash earning next to zero and inflation at 4.5 percent in London, a lot of people are looking at art right now as a safe haven for their money,” he said.

“We’ve seen a feeding frenzy of buyers and some very good works on sale fetching world record prices, above 2007-2008 levels,” he said, adding that fairly priced pieces could find buyers within an hour or two at the fair.

Several major galleries had to rehang their spaces due to brisk sales of their original displays, and at Daniel Templon, around 90 percent of the art was snapped up by Europeans.

“There are very few Americans this year,” said the gallery’s director Anne-Claudie Coric. “I suspect this is due to the weakness of the dollar.”

The buoyant mood was in stark contrast to 2009, when the volumes of private sales and public auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and their smaller rivals contracted dramatically.

Turnover bounced back sharply in 2010 - Christie’s, the world’s largest auctioneer, saw sales hit $5 billion last year, up 53 percent from 2009, while Sotheby’s posted revenues of $4.3 billion excluding private deals, versus $2.3 billion in 2009.

The emergence of super-rich Chinese investors and collectors has been a major factor behind the surge in prices for Chinese art as well as for “blue-chip” Western names like Picasso.

Some analysts warn, however, that the rate of increase in some sectors of the art market is unsustainable and a bubble could be developing.

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