Issue #182  8/5/2011
Art Basel 42: a Commercial Success?

By Alex Novak

As usual I spent most of my June in Europe trying to rope in some bargains for my clients. This is a quick report on the action there during much of that month. I may take some of the events slightly out of order at times, but that will just keep you as jet-lagged as I was some days.

With record-breaking crowds variously reported at between 60,000 and well over 65,000, this year's Art Basel appeared to signal that the art market was nearly back to "normal" with "estimated" sales that were said to approach $2 billion. Now if we can only get the rest of the world to agree after the debt limit cliffhanger in Washington DC and the still unresolved European economic mess, but that's the real world. What we will report on is the "art world", quite a different story.

Gagosian Gallery alone claimed to have sold $45 million worth of artwork here, most in the show's opening 15 minutes. Those kinds of results are usually--let us say politely--"massaged and interpreted" a bit.

Talking with the photography dealers at the fair, the conversations did seem more down-to-earth. I got the feeling that most did ok, perhaps even a bit better than last year; some, of course, did a bit worse.

This year's Art Basel photography group had one change: Hans P. Kraus, Jr. decided to shake up his schedule and tried out the second edition of Masterpiece in London instead of taking his normal corner booth at Art Basel. That allowed Budapest's Vintage Galeria to slip into the group of photo dealers here, and Bruce Silverstein Gallery to claim Kraus's coveted corner real estate.

Steve Daiter was one of the dealers that told me he had done modestly well here--or at least better than the previous year. I helped by buying a Gyorgy Kepes of the photographer's wife Juliet with a peacock feather over her eye, one of the classic images from the New Bauhaus School period.

Helping the market out a little more myself, I also scooped up a photo in the Paviots' booth here that I had caught a glimpse of in Paris, as well as a Heinrich Kuhn and an Andre Kertesz from Rudolph Kicken. The Kertesz was not up on the wall. I also was blown away by the Hans Watzek Sailboat in Kicken's closet.

All three of those booths had some superb work up on their walls, as did most of the other photo dealers at the fair. I asked my friend, artist-photographer Paula Chamlee, to give you her impressions of the artwork at the fair from her perspective as an artist. Her article on the work at the show is further down, so don't miss it.

Suffice to say, some of the booths were stunning, particularly--as always it seems--the Kicken and Fraenkel booths, where I often found myself in front of pieces mumbling like a 60s hippy (that I was once and had hair too): "Wow! Man, what a fantastic, magical piece." I also thought that Edwynn Houk's booth was one of his strongest outing.

But as one dealer told me, the difficulty here is not that you don't make great sales, but that even when you sell over $200,000, you find yourself basically breaking even for an extraordinary amount of work and risk. While exhibit shows have been a trend for quite a while, the economics of these shows--at least for most photo dealers--are making less and less sense to exhibitors. The costs of exhibit space, shipping, hotels, travel, framing/crating, etc. are climbing out of sight, but sales and profits just aren't keeping pace. The only question is: What's the alternative?

For the high-end collector and curator, Art Basel is certainly worth a trip due to the generally high level of work shown here, even if it is a bit of a circus--maybe even BECAUSE it's a bit of a circus. But for dealers there may be more questions than answers, as there are for most exhibit shows today.

Novak has over 45 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.