The Business of Art: Art Basel-Miami Beach

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Note: No representation of accuracy is made of the price, sales, and gallery information.

Over 30,000 visitors attended the third installment of Art Basel-Miami Beach. The art business is symptomatic of a specific stage in the business cycle. The volume of sales indicates the extent to which art is an investment strategy, a store of value, and an alternative instrument of exchange. The feverish activity during Art Basel-Miami Beach was foreshadowed in New York. Sotheby’s and Christie’s reported a considerable jump in sales from $482 million a year-ago fall, and from $400.5 million in the autumn 2002. Both auction houses noted the intense competition for the better quality modern masters.

Acquisition and collecting point to the economic structure that shapes a social system, praxis, and legitimating practices. Art Basel-Miami Beach affords a picture of the current aesthetic debate, the demand and uses of the Masters, contemporary taste, patronage, and collecting practices. In the case of contemporary works, Art Basel – Miami Beach allows a glimpse at the dynamics of art merchandising and the tactics of positioning. Key players in the international market need not be identified within the Miami Beach mixture of fashionistas, models, social climbers, poseurs, and assorted party stuffing. The purchase of art in South Florida speaks to the possibility of legalizing and investing ready money from a shadow economy. In a young city of fluid social lines and mobility, the purchase and exhibition of important works of art constitutes the rigorous entry point to validation and respectability.

Collecting by the laity emerged in the XVth century, following the tradition of collecting curiosities and natural history specimens. Venice in the XVI century and the development of oil painting allowed visual art easy mobility, thus adding to the element of commodification of the medium. The Dutch bourgeoisie in the XVII century used art as a vehicle of social escalation. Acquiring works of art may be motivated by aesthetic preferences, investment, speculation, scholarly study, or even as a social statement. Patrons began to provide space for pioneering works as in the impressive XVIII century holdings of the Countess of Verrue.

According to the curators of “The Business of Art” at the Getty: “Fascinated by the high prices achieved by contemporary (postwar) art, the German art critic Willi Bongard developed a system, known as the Kunstkompass, for ranking artists based on indicators of fame.” Getty experts explain that “using data gathered from museums, commercial art galleries, and art journal reviews, Bongard calculated the success of an artist from year to year and compared it to gallery prices, thus determining the artist’s investment potential.” The curators traced the economic approach to art to the late 50’s when “dealer Spencer Samuels attempted to change the marketing approach of the New York firm French & Company, with a decided emphasis on art purchase as an investment opportunity. In 1959 he began publishing a newsletter for businessmen, Currency of Art, which presented the acquisition of art as a classic investment. Taxes and Art took this marketing approach to a more refined level. The publication gave detailed instructions on how to purchase magnificent works of art while deducting great amounts from one’s taxes. These instructions were accompanied by glossy illustrations of works of art, all owned by French & Company.”

Idyllic winter weather in South Florida, trendy and sophisticated restaurants and hotels, a great party atmosphere, and the strength of the Euro made Art Basel-Miami Beach a natural alternative for the European art buyer. For quite some time, low interest rates and stock market instability have made art a sound investment option for Americans.

The third installment built on the successful formula of previous fairs. Modern Masters were carefully placed around a central axis and at a premium core space close to the main entrance. An affluence of Picassos characterized this last installment: a 1913 Compotier ($20 million at Gray Gallery), a 1956 Buste de femme ($2.75 million), a 1949 Femme assise (sold), the impressive Les dormers (12.5 million at Landau), a spirited Bacchanale on paper ($245,000 at James Goodman Gallery), a 1957 Juan les pins at Munich’s Galerie Thomas, a 1945 Tete de femme (2.8 million at Cologne’s famous Gnurzynska Gallery). Other important European Modern masters included Chirico’s Trovatore (sold) and his Piazza d’Italia ($320,000) at Waddington Gallery. Mattise’s great bust Jeannette III ($4.5 million) came to Miami via Acquavella Gallery. His Carmen ($950,000) was found at Landau and his 1940 Grand Figure ($550,000) at James Goodman Gallery. Goodman also showed Miro’s 1967 Femme ($550,000). Among European Masters, a rare treat was Max Ernst’s Hommage to Velasquez ($215,000) at Galerie Thomas.

Cologne’s Gnurzynska’s Gallery boasted of Motherwell’s never shown landmark Arabesque ($1.8 million) commissioned for the corporate headquarters of General Electric. The piece had languished in a warehouse until last week. Two other Motherwells (Open No. 16 and Ultramarine and Charcoal) were shown at Ameringer and Yohe Fine Art accompanied by a great Helen Frankenthaler Castle that sold during the fair. Among the other American masters represented were Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XII (1.650 million) at C&M Arts. Nevelson’s Wall Relief ($168,000) could be seen near her Skygate II ($58,000) at Galerie Thomas, Munich. Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square (1980) was sold for an undisclosed amount. Adolph Gottlieb’s The Bent Arrow ($375,000) was prominently displayed facing an important traffic lane. Rothko’s 1959 Brown, Maroon, Rust and Plum ($1.6 million) was part of Acquavella’s exhibition.

Important Latin American art made its presence felt at Art Basel-Miami Beach. Matta’s Argemouth (1.3 million) was shown at Acquavella. Ramis Barquet sold Kuitca’s Baroque Theater and displayed two great Bedias: Vamos a tener que mudar la mesa y Tenemos todo el tiempo por delante. The New York gallery brought Tamayo’s 1958 Tete and Matta’s 1957 Oscillation du present. Nina Menocal also displayed two wonderful 2004 Bedias. Marlborough Gallery displayed Claudio Bravo’s virtuoso 2004 Three Colored Papers (sold).

There was a marked difference in the catalogue’s emphasis on contemporary art and the main fair’s emphasis on important modern works.

Art Basel-Miami Beach has already acquired a distinctive profile that distinguishes it from other U.S. events of that nature. The very effective mix of Modern Masters with carefully selected contemporary works from leading international galleries has made it a remarkable business success. The event has also contributed significantly to the revitalization of Miami and the positioning of the city as an important arts venue.

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