June 16th, 2010



June 16 (Bloomberg) -- A $15 million Pablo Picasso sculpture was among sales yesterday as Switzerland’s Art Basel opened to invited guests, including Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and Hollywood actor Val Kilmer.

Several works by the late Louise Bourgeois were sold at the world’s largest fair of modern and contemporary art as collectors snapped up museum-quality works by established names. Greece-based Dakis Joannou, U.S. collectors Howard Rachofsky, Peter Brant and Irving Blum, and London jeweler Laurence Graff were also in the VIP crowd.

“The top things are continuing to sell well,” dealer Nicholas Maclean, of the London and New York partnership Eykyn Maclean, said in an interview. “If the auctions are successful, it adds to confidence. The middle-quality modern works haven’t returned to the levels of 2007, though.”

The 303 galleries at the 41st fair are hoping for demand to increase as the market for contemporary works recovers from the biggest slump since 1991. The decline of the euro against the dollar is encouraging non-European buyers, said dealers.

The Picasso dancing figure, “Personnage” (1960), was shown by the Geneva- and New York-based dealers Krugier. The 3- foot (90 cm) white-plaster piece was bought by an American collector, said New York-based fine art representative Sara Kay.

The day before the fair, an Amedeo Modigliani sculpture fetched 43.2 million euros ($53 million) -- a record price for an auction in France -- at Christie’s International, Paris.

“It’s different from last year,” said Sandy Heller, who advises Steve Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors LP. “It feels pretty frenzied. I haven’t heard ‘Sorry, it’s already sold’ for a while.”

Bourgeois’s Baudelaire

Pieces by Bourgeois, who died last month aged 98, were among the early sales. Her 2009 mixed-media work on paper, “A Baudelaire (#7),” priced at more than $650,000, found a buyer at the booth of the Brussels-based dealer Xavier Hufkens.

Hauser & Wirth, with galleries in Zurich, London and New York, sold a 1998 Bourgeois fabric-and-steel sculpture, priced at $850,000. New York-based dealers Cheim & Read found U.S. museum buyers for a 1996 sculpture of fabric-covered forms hanging from a frame and a series of 28 gouache drawings from 2010, titled “Les Fleurs.” Both were priced at $1.5 million.

“As soon as Louise died, we saw a surge of interest in her work,” Adam Sheffer, a director at Cheim & Read, said in an interview. “It’s a mortality issue. People seem to have realized that she was the heir to Giacometti.”

‘Snow White’

Hauser & Wirth also sold two sets of five 6-foot-high silicone sculptures of dwarfs by the Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy. New works inspired by Walt Disney’s “Snow White,” these were priced at $3 million per set. Cheim & Read sold a canvas by the French-based painter Joan Mitchell for about $2 million, said Sheffer.

“We’re back to 2007 price levels for some names,” the New York-based dealer Per Skarstedt said. He listed a 2002 Christopher Wool abstract at $800,000, a 1992 Cindy Sherman photo at $500,000 and a 1987 Barbara Kruger silkscreen at $700,000 among his sales. The Sherman went to a Swiss collector, the Wool and the Sherman to U.S. buyers.

Hauser & Wirth was keen to avoid being overly exuberant about its recent signing of Matthew Day Jackson. A new life-size recycled wood sculpture of the artist as an astronaut sold to a European collector for $150,000. U.S.-based Jackson’s work was recently exhibited at Francois Pinault’s Punta della Dogana museum in Venice. One of his works sold for a record 601,250 pounds ($890,000) in February.

“We’ve been careful about pricing this artist,” gallery director Iwan Wirth said in an interview. “Otherwise, the market is pretty much back to the world we knew in 2008. The crisis in the art world lasted for six months, then it went back up.”

Art Basel’s main sponsor is UBS AG. The event takes place at Messe Basel, Messeplatz, 4005 Basel through June 20.

Information: http://www.artbasel.com/go/id/ss/lang/eng/

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in Basel at sreyburn@hotmail.com.