Art Inspection

What's Really for Sale at Art Basel?

“Art is transportable, unregulated, glamorous, arcane, beautiful, difficult. It is easier to store than oil, more esoteric than diamonds, more durable than political influence … ” Nick Paumgarten, 'The New Yorker' (December 2nd, 2013)

In the pandemonium of Art Basel Miami Beach—or any of the major art fairs—it’s easy to forget that before there can be billionaires, brand managers, and Beyoncé, there must first be ideas, ideas that percolate in solitude in a quiet room and mysteriously, miraculously, find their form. Brush hits canvas, a shutter lets in light, a 3D printer molds plastic, and suddenly there are these things, these useless, beautiful things. How is it then that they end up, however many years and miles later, at the Miami Convention Center, where they are viewed, admired, instagrammed, tweeted, leveraged, loved, bought and sold? 

“It is, in some ways, what galleries do,” Tamsen Greene, Senior Director of the Jack Shainman Gallery, explains. “We’re like these mediators. We are the ones who get to know artists really well and hopefully bring the work into a wider context.” And never has the context felt so wide. The unofficial art fair circuit, which includes Frieze London and New York, Art Basel in Basel, Hong Kong and Miami Beach, The Armory Show and the slew of smaller satellite fairs, has grown over the last decade into a major commercial platform as well as individual snapshots of the contemporary art world.

Top: "Don't Fall In" Above: Jonathon Schipper, "An Attempt to Capture the Unclear" Photos: Chris Mosier

“We’re transparent. Galleries are not.”

But what sort of snapshot is it? What are we looking at when we walk the booths? One can’t generalize all 267 galleries showing in Miami this year, but it’s essentially highlights from each of the galleries’ programs, a complicated mix of what’s good, what makes sense, what fits together, what will sell. For the Jack Shainman Gallery, it’s a yearlong conversation that heats up in September. “We usually start by talking to all our artists, asking them what they’re working on, seeing whether they have works that they feel would be a good fit,” Greene explains. “It has a lot to do with what’s available, what’s strong. It’s a constant give and take.” One of their artists, Nick Cave (who you may remember galloping through Grand Central Terminal), has had several recent museum shows, and one piece in particular would make an excellent contender. “It’s not a work that has never been seen before, but bringing it to an art fair after the exhibition is a nice way to say, ‘It’s made its rounds and it’s ready to go into somebody’s collection.’” 

Now, just exactly who gets to collect and who doesn’t is a bit of a sore spot, depending with whom you speak. Microeconomics teaches us that there’s a buyer and a seller and they agree to a price and Bob’s your uncle. It should be pretty straightforward, but when it comes to art, rarely is anything simple or straightforward.  

Gallerists sitting in front of a Farhad Moshiri Photo: Chris Mosier 

“The primary market is very, very exclusive,” a contact at a large auction house explains.  “We’re transparent. Galleries are not.” This is true. Auction houses (the secondary market) simply sell to the highest bidder and make their sales records public, while galleries (which deal in primary and secondary markets) pick and choose their buyers and do not always make sale prices public. This can cast the galleries in a bit of a mean-girl light, but it’s not done with snobbish intent. It’s done to protect the artists’ long-term careers.  

“I would say that it’s the responsibility of every good dealer to place works in homes and collections that we feel will be excellent stewards,” Greene explains. “We like to find a forever-home for an artwork, or at least a home that will be respectful should ownership change in the future. The best scenario is a donation to a museum. What we try to avoid is selling to collectors who are notorious for what we call ‘flipping works’ at auction. That’s not great for our artists.” And while auctions may be financially transparent, they are almost completely anonymous. The works can be bought by proxy and never seen again. And because their sales records are public, that becomes the price associated with an artist’s work, even though that artist might be selling at a different price privately.    

Though the rules of the game are a little confusing, where everyone finds clarity is the knowledge that they are dealing with very special, very important cultural commodities that belong with art-lovers, not short-sellers. And this is where the fair’s social component becomes so vital. It is during the dinners and the schmoozing that the dealers get to know their collectors, what excites them, what leaves them cold, where their intentions lie. It’s exclusive, sure; it’s also just good old-fashioned client relations. 

Rafael Lozano Hemmer's "No Hay Mariachi" Photo: Chris Mosier 

So where does this impulse come from, to layout five, six, seven, eight figures on a work of art? Ms. Greene explains, “There’s something about art—especially contemporary art—that people are worried about understanding. It feels opaque. I always see art as part of a continuum of all kinds of arts—books, film, etc. Often I have to take somebody outside of visual art, to something they are more familiar with, to understand that, well, they don’t have to understand. Anyone can have a relationship with an object without knowing anything about it. Everything else builds on that.” 

Our auction house contact echoes that idea: “There is a standard of beauty. There is a historical resonance, but some people don’t buy a work because it’s beautiful. They just love the idea behind it. If there is a hierarchy to all this, the best person to be is the artist, because then it’s your idea and the rest of us are all just spinning around it.”  

(When you are finished spinning, join us at the Spa for a relaxing massage.) 


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