Selling less

The art market is one of those rare places where selling less can also involve selling for higher prices. What I mean by this is that following a long period when younger artists were overwhelmingly considered to be the market’s raw materials, nowadays it’s the artists seen in one way or another as safe bets who are the stars.

Art Basel

It’s becoming much harder for galleries who champion a welter of young talent to make sales, whereas at the 2019 art fair in Basel running until Sunday 16 June with 290 participants, enormous sums are being asked at numerous booths for artists with more established profiles.

Primary and secondary market

As has long been the case for living artists, the market is divided into two categories: primary and secondary. The primary market, considered to be the one with more affordable prices, is where galleries trade the recent output of the artists they are promoting.

Tested by art lovers

The secondary market is where artworks are traded that have already circulated, having already been “tested” by art lovers, and these are more expensive.

What’s different these days is the fact that the prices set by the leading galleries on the primary market are the same as those on the secondary market.

Kerry James Marshall

Take one of the most powerful galleries in the world: Zwirner based in New York and London. It’s promoting Kerry James Marshall (born in 1955), who is probably the most relevant voice in African-American painting today. He’s invented a very colourful style of figurative painting in which the human subjects are painted black (not brown or any lighter shade) in reference to their “invisible” status within contemporary American society (See the report on the subject). One of Kerry James Marshall’s recent paintings is on sale at Zwirner gallery’s booth at Basel for the colossal sum of 3.5 million dollars.

Marc Spiegler

The director of the fair, Marc Spiegler, who is delighted with the standard of offerings this year, explains this price level by “the desire for galleries to avoid speculation when it comes to their most prominent artists.”

Watch the video to find out more:

Prices in the millions

It should be noted that it’s become commonplace to measure prices in the millions, and this unit is very much present at the 2019 edition of Art Basel.

Jeff Koons

One of the stars of the fair is a bust of Louis XIV in glittering polished metal by Jeff Koons, which dates from 1986. It’s being exhibited at the booth of the Mnuchin gallery, named after its owner Robert Mnuchin – father of the current United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – on sale for 10 million dollars.


But when it comes to prices everything is relative, if we compare it to the sale in May 2019 of a rabbit by the same Jeff Koons for 91.1 million dollars, made from the same material and dating from the same year (see the report on the subject).

Lucio Fontana @Hauser&Wirth

At the space of another mega gallery, Hauser & Wirth, a 1965 painting by Lucio Fontana is presented, a red monochrome, the largest known of its kind, struck through with a multitude of slashes – through this gesture the slash turns the canvas into sculpture – entitled “Spatial Concept”, apparently on sale for around 20 million euros. It was bought for 15 million euros at auction in 2015.

Lucio Fontana @Art Unlimited

But to see the largest painting of its kind on the market, you have to go to the area of the fair reserved for the very large-scale works, Unlimited, where five dealers, including the London-based Ben Brown, have come together to promote a slashed white monochrome work measuring 8.14m x 4m. It was designed to be hung on the ceiling. Proof that size isn’t everything when it comes to value, it’s on sale for 12 million euros.

Watch the video to find out more:

Alighiero Boetti

The postwar Italian avant-garde has the wind in its sails. Michele Casamonti, founder of the Tornabuoni galleries which specialize in this field, explains that “in order to exist at the Basel art fair, it is necessary to have very targeted exhibitions”. This year he is presenting eight “Mappa”, the eight types of world maps created by conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994) between 1971 and 1994. These tapestries illustrate the geopolitical status of our planet at a specific moment in time. The largest is on sale for a little less than 20 million euros and the smallest from 1.5 million.

Watch the video to find out more:

Paula Rego

At Marlborough there’s a one woman show dedicated to the Anglo-Portuguese artist Paula Rego, who was the subject of an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in the autumn of 2018. We see in her paintings and pastel works scenes reminiscent of a fairy tale aesthetic, but these are in fact stories relating to childhood traumas, as the artist said herself. (On sale for between 450,000 and 4.5 million dollars).

Watch the video to find out more:

Laure Prouvost

Naturally, there’s a number of works with lower prices also presented at Art Basel. At the booth of one of the excellent London galleries, Lisson, we find in addition to the new work by English star artist Anish Kapoor, a translucent red sculpture which gives the illusion of depth (on sale for 1 million pounds), a stunning large-scale tapestry produced in triplicate made by the French artist who trained at art school in England, Laure Prouvost (born in 1978).

She represents France at this year’s Venice Biennale (see the report on the subject). The gallery’s founder, Nicholas Logsdail, thinks that the sale prices for the work of younger artists like Laure Prouvost, without reaching excessive levels, must take into account the studio production costs.

Watch the video to find out more

Her wild tapestry inspired by a film she made about a journey in Los Angeles is on sale for 75,000 euros.

Jill Mulleady

The young Freedman Fitzpatrick gallery based in Paris and Los Angeles is exhibiting another artist from the Venice Biennale, Jill Mulleady (born in 1980), who lives in Los Angeles. This figurative painter started by observing and visiting abandoned houses in her city, to create scenes of daily life placed next to objects that she’d collected there. The paintings are suffused with a haunted atmosphere. They were all sold on the day of the fair’s opening for between 6,500 and 30,000 dollars.

Watch the video to find out more:

Xinyi Cheng

Likewise for the portraits of young people and intimate scenes conceived by the Chinese artist based in Paris, Xinyi Cheng (born in 1989), who is exhibited by the Parisian gallery Balice Hertling. These were sold for between 10,000 and 30,000 euros before the painter had even received the Baloise Art Prize, awarded on the occasion of the fair.

Promising artists

For there’s nothing more satisfying, of course, than taking an interest in a promising artist at the beginning of their career.

Early Picasso

Pablo Picasso was only 29 when he painted a little still life, just after the iconic “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, in around 1908. This work, which is one of the most fascinating at the fair, is on sale at the booth of Mitchell-Innes and Nash for 1.5 million dollars.



Until 16 June.


The opening at Art Basel Unlimited:




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