The Sales of Big-Ticket Artworks at Art Basel Give a Peek Into the State of the Market

If you want to know how the art market is performing, one easy benchmark is the number of big-ticket artworks up for sale at Art Basel, and how they did on the fair’s first day.

Acquavella had several million-dollar works on offer across its booth, with the highlight being Mark Rothko’s 1955 Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) for $60 million. By day’s end, the work, which was mounted on its own wall, was still held on reserve. The gallery also had two works by Jean-Michel Basquiat in its booth, one for $9 million and the other for $8 million. Over at Simon Lee, a Basquiat painting in the $10 million–$15 million range was also on reserve.

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At Hauser & Wirth, meanwhile, several big-ticket works sold, including Louise Bourgeois’s Spider IV (1996), from an edition of six, for $22.5 million, as well as one of the artist’s “Personages” sculptures, from 1953, for $7.5 million.

“Being a Swiss-born gallery, Art Basel is of course our touchstone, and we bring the rarest and most exceptional works,” Hauser & Wirth president Iwan Wirth said in a statement. “But our stand is equally a reflection of our relationships with our collectors—the people who share our passions and rigor, and with whom we have worked closely and consistently for a very long time.”

Pace also reported several first day sales on the first day, but its highest priced item, a $14 million Joan Mitchell from 1963, was also still on reserve by the end of Tuesday. Similarly, a $6 million Keith Haring work at Skarstedt was also not yet sold.

One surprise at the fair was Sigmar Polke’s 2007 lens painting The Illusionist, a rare work to come to market, courtesy of Michael Werner. The piece was exhibited in Polke’s traveling retrospective, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014 before heading to the Tate Modern in London and Museum Ludwig in Cologne. The work most recently belonged to a private collection in Dallas, according to the gallery, and had featured in an exhibition at the Warehouse, the private museum founded by Dallas-based ARTnews Top 200 collectors Cindy and Howard Rachofsky. The Warehouse’s website lists the work as being jointly owned by the Rachofsky Collection and Jennifer and John Eagle, another Dallas collecting couple.

BASEL, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 13: A visitor looks at the artwork of Yinka Shonibare "The African Library", 2018 on June 13, 2023 in Basel, Switzerland. Art Basel is one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world, showcasing the work of artists selected by 284 of the world’s leading art galleries.  (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)
A visitor looks at the artwork of Yinka Shonibare “The African Library”, 2018 on June 13, 2023 in Basel, Switzerland.

Interestingly, the fair had two de Kooning paintings from the late ‘70s, both of which were put up for sale at Christie’s last year and are on offer for north of $20 million a piece.

Untitled XXI (1977) which is being exhibited by Mnuchin Gallery, sold at Christie’s in May for $25 million, backed by a third-party guarantee; Mnuchin declined to give an asking price on the record. However, a collector at the fair with direct knowledge of the price pre-fair said it was around $28 million. Meanwhile, at the Gagosian booth, a sales associate quoted the price of de Kooning’s Untitled III (ca. 1978) at $33 million; that painting notably failed to sell at Christies in November. As ARTnews reported at the time, the painting, which Christie’s guaranteed, had an asking price over $35 million and was declared a “pass” after a mere minute on the block. In the post-sale press conference, Christie’s executives said that the auction now owned the painting. Gagosian gallery confirmed that the painting, now in its booth, is on consignment; assuming it hasn’t sold between November and now, the consignor is most likely Christie’s. (The gallery did not return a request for comment by press time.) Other dealers said it is not unusual for auction houses to consign works to dealers’ booths at art fairs.

In an unusual move in an era where reporting secondary market sales and prices has become de rigeur for some large galleries, David Zwirner gallery sent out a press release noting second market sales for Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, and others, while also nothing that the gallery would, in the future, only report prices for works sold on the primary market. The statement once again raises the question of whether galleries are to be trusted when reporting prices of sold works. Unless otherwise noted, all prices in this report are asking prices; whether a collector was able to negotiate a discount generally remains unknown to the press.

Zwirner told ARTnews that he made the move in order to protect his consigners. “For their privacy,” he said, “we will not share prices post-sale. This protects a part of my business.” Zwirner added that he was fine with press having knowledge of asking prices before the fair, something that is all but unavoidable. (Case in point: a collector with knowledge of the pre-fair prices at Gagosian said the de Kooning had had a price tag of $35 M.) Zwirner added that he took issue with all of the doom-and-gloom reporting around the New York auctions in May, when reserve prices were lowered and some sales failed to produce fireworks.

“The May sales showed us where the market is, and we can have sensible conversations with our consignors,” he said.

Zwirner said that, overall, his sales so far this year—including primary works like Noah Davis’s painting Graduation (2015) for $2 million and Elizabeth Peyton’s painting Spencer Drawing (1999) for $1 million—are “vastly improved” over last year, and that when the clock struck 3 p.m. during today’s VIP preview he was 30 percent over what he’d sold last year by value, and even more by volume.

Correction, June 13, 2023: An earlier version of this article misattributed a statement from Iwan Wirth to Marc Payot.


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