I recently returned from a week long trip to Miami where I attended the Art Basel art fair. I went primarily to look at art and to purchase some pieces for my collection but I also went to closely observe what has become the most significant art fair(s) in the world. For a person like myself, who attends many coin shows each year and who had never been to Art Basel, I found the contrast to be both educational and totally fascinating. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the annual Art Basel show with the upcoming FUN convention that will also be held in Florida. For those of you who aren't familiar with Art Basel, I think a little background information is in order. This was the 11th annual edition of Art Basel in Miami and this show is a spin-off of the original fair that is held each year in Switzerland. The main Art Basel show was held in the Miami Beach convention center and it featured virtually all of the leading dealers in the world. I believe there were in the area of 400-500 dealers and I saw booths hailing not only the United States but from all over Europe, Latin America, South America and the Far East.
I could go on and on about comparing/contrasting Art Basel with the FUN show but I will keep the points to a manageable number and try to be as relevant as possible.
*Art Basel is a far more international fair than any coin show I have ever attended. The FUN show is not an especially international show and a better comparison is the NY International show which, ironically, is held at exactly the same time as FUN and which, therefore, is now impossible for me to attend. At various times at the fair, I felt like English was a second language. It was an interesting polyglot of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and more. The international scope of the attendees and the material at the fair was really, really exciting.
*Art Basel has thematic dealer exhibits; something that is not typically done at a coin show. Because of the theme(s), some dealers at Art Basel had very challenging exhibits (bananas in cars, scattered boulders on the floor, odd video, etc). This was a definite contrast to the FUN show which is more straight-forward.
*A table at the FUN show for the average dealer costs around $1,500-2,500. At Art Basel, I was told that for most dealers, a table was upwards of $50,000 and that some of the prime tables were $250,000 and up. When you combine this along with the cost of attending the show, crating and uncrating the art, setting up and breaking down the booth and countless other expenses, the cost for a dealer to attend Art Basel is staggering. Thus, prices were reflective of this (more about this in a minute...)
*At Art Basel, if you weren't Puffy Combs, an A-list collector or introduced/escorted by a well-known dealer, forget it. I was ignored for three days at the main fair. At the FUN show, the average collector isn't ignored and if he is lucky, he can interact with such luminaries as Q. David Bowers, Mark Salzberg and David Hall. At Art Basel, dealers like Larry Gagosian or Edward Acquavella wouldn't have thrown water on my if I was ablaze (unless I was about to set one of their works on fire; then they would have sent an assistant to douse me).
*The iPad is clearly changing the way collectors and dealers buy and sell art. I noticed that most booths no longer had exhibit catalogs but now used an iPad to show collectors images of artists whose art wasn't on the walls or of paintings they might have had in stock but which they didn't bring. On at least two occasions, I searched for quick information about a specific artist I liked but wasn't familiar with on my iPad. You are starting to see iPads at coin shows but they seem to be more the province of dealers than collectors.
*I paid careful attention to which artists were common at the show and which were not; just like I do at a coin show. I noted an abundance of Leger, Miro, Dubuffet and Picasso. These are artists whose works typically sell for high six figures to well into seven figures. They are the art world's equivalent of High Reliefs or Stellas: expensive, beautiful and with a sexy back story but ultimately common and typically available except in the highest grades.
*Art Basel is a show that celebrates dealers and the relationship between the dealer and the collector. There are no auctions taking place during the show and it is not like FUN that sometimes seems like a huge Heritage auction with the bourse floor thrown-in as an afterthought. Art dealers have strange, conflicted relationships with auction houses and for good reasons. Sotheby's and Christie's are not only openly competing for clients but they also have retail departments, trust and estate planning services, consultation services and offer financing. This situation is a bit different in the coin markets where dealers tend to be able to co-exist, more or less, with the two major auction firms.
*I was surprised at how out-in-the-open deals were at Art Basel. I expected deals to be done in secret areas of each booth or, more likely over dinner but I saw collectors openly writing checks.
*I was also surprised at how poorly marked most booths were at the fair. I didn't expect most paintings or sculptures to have clearly marked price tags but I was very surprised at how few pieces had name tags. I was able to identify some paintings I saw but others, especially those that were from new artists or foreign painters, were unidentifiable. And there were definitely times that I didn't want to ask...
*It was hard to tell how well the art was selling. For whatever reason, many of the A-level dealers appear to think it is tacky to stick a red-dot (equating something is sold) on a $5 million dollar painting. I can certainly see their point but the dealer in me was hoping to have a vicarious thrill or two see a $5 million dollar painting with a red dot next to it.
*One of the major differences between Art Basel and the FUN show was the level of enthusiasm exhibited by collectors at the former. At a coin show, buyers seem excited to be there but at Art Basel the adrenaline level was palpable. Maybe Picassos are just sexier than Dahlonega quarter eagles or maybe I've been to so many coin shows that it's become hard for me to be excited but the buzz at Basel, especially as the week wore on, was great.
*To me, probably the most impressive thing about Art Basel was how it literally changed the entire city of Miami for a week. There were tens of thousands of people at the show and they were not bashful about booking the best rooms in the best hotels, the best tables at the best restaurants and generally pouring money into the local economy. I don't know what the impact of the FUN show is on Orlando but the average person at Art Basel, independent of his or her art purchases, was a lot more lavish than at FUN (where I have seen collectors who spend $25,000 on a coin balk at spending $250 on a nice room).
In case you can't tell, I came away very impressed with Art Basel. It was well-attended, very entertaining (unbeatable people watching!), extremely well promoted and it seemed flawlessly run. The FUN show, in my opinion, is about as good as it gets in the numismatic world but it seemed like a bake sale compared to the fair!