The Second Annual DWN Art Basel "I Was There" Blog

For the second year in a row, I went to the incredible Art Basel show in Miami Beach. For those of you who are not familiar with this show, it has become quite possibly the leading art show in the world and it turns Miami into the Epicenter of the Art World for a week or two every year in early December. This year's edition of the fair was probably better for me than last year's (which I loved) because of the fact that I knew what to expect, was better prepared and was less overwhelmed. As I did last year, I'm going to share with you a couple of thoughts, using my vast experience in attending coin shows as a basis of comparison. 1.  Your money goes a lot (and I mean A LOT) further at a coin show then at a high end art show. Good art (I'm not even going to approach the subject of great art since it is so far out of my league pricewise) is fabulously expensive and it makes good to very good quality coins seem astonishingly cheap. I think my eye is pretty good when it comes to art and nearly every painting I priced at Art Basel was $100,000 and up. These were for artists that I thought I actually had a chance to buy. For great artists that I recognized (like the stunning Mark Rothko that hung, in its fiery orange glory, in the very first booth on the left as you entered the fair...) I didn't have the nerve to even ask what it was priced at. I know these great museum-quality works of art were going to run in the $5 million to $50 million and, tire-kicker that I was, I didn't want to waste the dealer's time.

2.  Coin dealers are much, much more approachable at shows than art dealers are at fairs. Unless you exude wealth or are known by the dealer, you don't get so much as a nod of recognition at Art Basel. At one booth, I was passed onto the most junior member of the firm when I asked the price of a painting. Sigh... (The real laugh here is that after I was told the painting was sold, the 23 year old junior dealer tried to upsell me to a $350,000 painting that was so large I would have had to hire a semi truck to get it to my house in Portland even if I had the 10,000 square foot house it would have required to show it!) I'm as guilty as any coin dealer of pre-judging someone approaching my table at a show but even if you are dressed in cheap jeans or a t-shirt, you are going to get my attention if you are a) polite b) interested in coins and/or c) knowledgeable about the types of coins I specialize in.

3.  Just like at a coin show, a little knowledge goes a long way at an art fair. Quick story: my fiance Irma saw a painting by an American woman artist named Edna Reindel that she loved at a ritzy New York dealer's booth. She was quoted $95,000. If I had that sort of art budget, I would have given it real consideration. That night, we went back to the room and on my computer, I searched for information about Edna. Within thirty seconds, I found an image of the painting. It had just sold, less than three weeks ago, in an auction for $28,500. Let's say you gave your interior designer a budget of $100,000 to buy "something special" at the show. Then let's say she bought this painting for $80,000, marked it up to $90,000 and hung it over your sofa. Looks great in your living room but how are you going to feel when (or if) you learn it just sold for less than 30 clams? Ouch!!

4.  Ethnic profiling is so fun and easy at these shows. The Italians are all wear bright red pants. The Germans have crazy architectural eyeglasses. The Brazilians (men and woman) are gorgeous. The Russians seem desperate. The American woman all have fake boobs and botoxed lips. Have you ever people-watched at Heathrow Airport in London or JFK in New York? Art Basel is ten times better with the added advantage that almost everyone is either rich or an artist. (Or a rich artist...)

5.  The art market for dead artists makes sense. A painting sells at auction for, say, $50,000 and this sets a level for comparable works by the artist. There are variables: is it a major work or a minor work? Was he in the middle of a glorious love affair with his mistress or had he just broken up with her and was clearly depressed? Is the condition nice or is it ratty?  But the market for living artists--especially emerging ones--is so fraught with variables. I saw one drawing at the show that was priced at $65,000 but I thought it was a great deal given the fact that it took the artist eight months to make (!) and it was staggeringly gorgeous and cerebral. Even without any auction comparables, I saw the value. On the other hand, I saw paintings for $100,000, $200,000 and up that I thought were hokey and derivative. Here's a thought: every generation produces maybe a half dozen truly great artists. Isn't it scary that artists are selling for $1 million and up today are almost guaranteed to be afterthoughts in thirty years (see Schnabel, Julian)? Give me a Dahlonega quarter eagle any day; at least I can figure values in that market.

6.  As with coins, freshness is absolutely essential in the high end art market. If you are a rich newbie at Art Basel, it is a virtual certainty you will be offered stale, overpriced secondary market pieces or B quality works by new artists. This is true even if you have a "consultant" who, in all likelihood, has his or her own agenda. It was interesting how often I heard obviously savvy collectors ask a gallerist at Art Basel about the provenance of a work of art or who it had been offered to already. If a painting had appeared at auction in the last few years and it failed to sell...instant kiss of death. Which is not the case, by the way, in the coin market where an auction dud can still attract interest.

7.  The level of passion for art at Art Basel is amazing. Sure, it's a see-and-be-seen atmosphere and more and more of the attendees are there for the parties. But I'm pretty impressed by the fact that in a single night out in Miami Beach, I ate dinner with a group of people ranging in age from around 30 to around 80 from all over the world wearing clothes that ranged from The Gap to Prada talking passionately about art and the art market. The demographic at a coin show tends to be, how shall I say it, a bit "different" and certainly far less diverse.

8.  Because of its proximity to Latin America and South America, the fairs in Miami tend to have a Hispanic orientation that I find fascinating. There is clearly a rapidly emerging upper middle class in countries like Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. Not only were there a number of dealers from these countries, there were a number of collectors at the fairs buying up a storm. This wealth is almost certain to touch the coin market and if I were a betting man (wink, wink...) I would start buying selected high end coins from these four countries.

9.  Art Basel dealers, I feel your "pain."  Up at 9am. Walk or jog on the beach. Interesting clients to schmooze with all day. Brazilian women. Talk about art. See art. Sell art. Eat great food in Miami Beach. Brazilian woman. Stay at Art Deco hotels. Party 'til dawn at exclusive boites. And then there's my life... delayed flights on glamorous domestic carriers, botched reservations at Westins and Sheratons, crappy convention food, hot spots like Long Beach, Baltimore and Rosemont, fascinating conversation about die breaks on early half eagles. Not a Brazilian woman in sight. SIGH....

10. I had a great time at Art Basel 2012 and hope to be back next year. Its a fascinating week and I think it not only makes me a better connoisseur but a better coin dealer. I'm refreshed, excited and ready for the 2013 FUN show in Orlando in a few weeks.




The Art Basel Fair Versus The FUN Show: An Analysis

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!