Art Basel fair’s physical return lifts spirits — and sales

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Newsletter: FT Weekend

Spirits were high at this week’s opening of Art Basel, the first edition of the Swiss fair since the pandemic struck. The last-minute news that the Swiss Federal Council had reconsidered and approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for entrance to the fair came too late for some — including me — but made the processes smoother and improved the vibe, according to those on the ground.

As expected, the number of visitors from Asia and the US is down, but there are plenty of seasoned collectors and museum representatives from Europe, dealers say. Continuing travel restrictions have even increased the pace of presales for some. “The people who couldn’t come were worried that works would go, it was a bit crazy,” noted London gallerist Sadie Coles before the event’s physical opening on Tuesday.

An untitled piece by Dan Flavin from 1974 that sold for $3m © Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society/David Zwirner

Elmgreen & Dragset’s ‘The Outsiders’ (2020) caused a stir at Art Basel © Sebastiano Pellion di Persano/Pace

Talk of the fair, which runs until Sunday, is a vintage Mercedes-Benz, with a Russian number plate, parked outside the halls and in which two silicone, highly realistic male art handlers sleep together. Titled “The Outsiders” (2020), it is the work of artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset (Pace gallery, $365,000). Postwar works of note include an early, jazzy work by Robert Ryman (“Untitled”, c1963, $28m) and a majestic 1974 work in pink fluorescent light by Dan Flavin, which sold from the Unlimited section for large-scale art for $3m (both David Zwirner gallery).

In general, exhibitors have opted for less pricey pieces — a strategy that seems to be working, with a slew of sales reported early. Art adviser Bona Montagu said: “People were pleasantly surprised on day one. There was a lot of smiling behind those face masks.”


Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier has claimed a ‘complete’ court victory © Vanessa Franklin

Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier has called “a complete victory” against Russian billionaire art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev after a court in Geneva dismissed the last of nine criminal cases brought against him since 2015. Lawyers for Rybolovlev’s family trusts say their client will appeal “the one-sided decision” of the prosecutor’s office to the Swiss Criminal Court. They say the “merits” of the case have yet to be heard.

Bouvier’s statement describes him as an “art dealer” — a significant definition as the crux of Rybolovlev’s suits is that Bouvier overcharged him by $1bn on 38 works bought for $2bn between 2002 and 2015, as an agent rather than an art dealer. The purchases included Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (c1500), which Bouvier bought for $83m in 2013 and sold to Rybolovlev for $127.5m. In 2017, Rybolovlev sold the work at Christie’s for $450.3m (with fees), still by far the highest public price paid for a work of art.

Bouvier features in the recently released documentary The Lost Leonardo, which charts the riveting history and mysterious whereabouts of the painting. Rybolovlev chose not to appear, a spokesman confirms.


Frida Kahlo’s ‘Diego y yo’ (1949) is expected to sell for more than $30m © Sotheby’s

A heart-wrenching self-portrait by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo comes to Sotheby’s in November, estimated at more than $30m and guaranteed by the auction house to sell at about this price. “Diego y yo” (1949) includes a smaller portrait of Kahlo’s muralist husband, Diego Rivera, literally in her head as she weeps. Rivera was having an affair with the actress and singer María Félix, of whom he had painted a passionate portrait, also in 1949.

Kahlo’s painting was last sold publicly in 1990 for $1.4m and has since sold to a private collection in Texas, whose descendants now offer the work. When it sells officially in November, the jilted painter will at least posthumously pip Rivera to the top spot for the priciest work by a Latin American artist at auction. This now stands at $9.8m for his appropriately named “The Rivals” (1931), which sold in 2018. Kahlo also has a shot at becoming the most expensive female artist to sell at auction, currently led by Georgia O’Keeffe for a 1932 flower painting that sold in 2014 for $39.5m ($44.4m with fees).


Dawn Zhu is Thaddaeus Ropac gallery’s new director of Asia

Georg Baselitz, ‘Untitled’ (2021) © Jochen Littkemann/Thaddaeus Ropac gallery

Thaddaeus Ropac gallery has hired Dawn Zhu, previously on the sales team at Gagosian, as director of Asia. The Singapore-born Zhu, 36, will be based in London but will spend half her time in Asia, particularly China. “We are building our team fast in Asia. And China, as the biggest market, is the future,” Ropac says. Zhu’s role includes managing the gallery’s presence at art fairs in China, as well as working closely with the country’s museum, with one “major” institutional showing of the German painter Georg Baselitz on the slate for 2022, Ropac says.

Zhu’s appointment comes as the gallery prepares to open its first space on the continent in Seoul on October 6, run by Kyu Jin Hwang. The opening show here will also be of Baselitz, who has made 12 paintings and 12 drawings, based on figures of his wife Elke, specifically for Ropac’s Hannam-dong district gallery (October 7-November 27). Ropac says there are no plans to open elsewhere in Asia.


Ben Nicholson’s ‘1935 (White Relief Quai D’Auteuil)’ © Angela Verren Taunt

Yorkshire’s Hepworth Wakefield has acquired a 1935 white relief work by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), valued at more than £4m. The museum is named after British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), who was born and brought up in Wakefield, and was married to Nicholson between 1938 and 1951.

The acquired work, “1935 (White Relief Quai D’Auteuil)”, marks the shift in his relationships from his first wife, Winifred Nicholson, to Hepworth, as well as the artist’s transition from painting to sculptural works, notes Andrew Bonacina, chief curator. The work “helps us tell in a more fulsome way the significant story of Nicholson’s role, together with Hepworth’s and [Henry] Moore’s, in British Modernism”, Bonacina says.

The carved relief had previously been on loan to the museum via its anonymous owner, who died recently. Its purchase was therefore made possible partly through England’s Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme, which accepts works of national importance in place of inheritance tax. The work is now on display in the museum’s Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life exhibition (until February 27, 2022).

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