Basel or Bust: The Art World Flexes Its Muscle, Strains Its Wallet in Switzerland

Koons' 'Hulk' at Gagosian. (Photo by Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

Koons’ ‘Hulk’ at Gagosian. (Photo by Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

Tuesday morning at Basel, Switzerland’s spacious Messeplatz, the site of the annual Art Basel fair, a mosh pit of millionaires in fancy sunglasses watched a giant clock tick down the minutes until 11:00 a.m., when the VIP preview would begin. At the top of the hour a scrum formed, briefly engulfing Peter Brant and his seersucker pants.

Gagosian Gallery was selling a Jeff Koons sculpture of the Hulk pushing a wheelbarrow of flowers, price sadly undisclosed. (Koons’ vast retrospective opens at the Whitney Museum later this month, stoking interest in the artist’s work.) Later in the day, Mr. Gagosian was taking a breather on the bench across from his gallery’s booth. “It’s been a good day,” he told the Observer. When asked to elaborate, he looked down and said, “I don’t want to talk right now.” Well, there’s always tomorrow.

Pace Gallery unloaded works by Korean artist Lee Ufan, but had less luck with the impressive array of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen pieces, including the giant Leaning Clarinet. That work, with its $3.5 million price tag, is as yet unspoken for. A few booths over, at Hauser & Wirth, someone had put on hold a work by Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely, La Vitesse Totale (Bleu Affolé), from 1958. It was for sale for $6 million.

The talk during New York’s auction season last month was of collectors from Asia, but Asian collectors, and particularly the Chinese, didn’t seem to be such a notable presence in Basel today, based on what we heard. Americans have made the trip, but not necessarily in droves. “It’s been basically all Europeans,” said Bridget Donahue, director at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. She added that the first day was “exceedingly good” for the gallery and that they unloaded an enormous Joe Bradley for $185,000.

Over at David Zwirner, Alberto Mugrabi was giving some serious attention to Dolphin, a Jeff Koons from 2007–13. Mr. Zwirner told us that this was “the best first day we’ve had at Basel,” though a towering Donald Judd from 1980, Untitled (Bernstein 80-4), had yet to sell at $6.8 million.

It had been a late night for Mr. Mugrabi, and for others in the tiny Swiss canton, as the festivities around the fair had already begun, many of them, per tradition, in Zurich over the weekend.

Monday night a cluster of galleries, including Gladstone, Regen Projects, and others, threw a dinner at an 18th-century estate outside of town, one that concluded with guests indulging in Davidoff cigars in a gold flake-lacquered parlor room. There was a World Cup match on in the converted barn next door, but not a soul seemed to be paying attention.

As gallery dinners at pricey places along the Rhine wound down, the vortex of the Kunsthalle Bar sucked revelers in for another few hours of Campari and soda and smoking and dancing. As an unsmiling DJ spun “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”—a big hit with this crowd—Art Basel Director Marc Spiegler overlooked his dominion in a white dinner jacket and chromed-out white spats. “You should really head over to the Three Kings,” he told us. “All the major collectors will be there.”

Taking his advice, we found young Russian philanthropist and collector Dasha Zhukova with a crew that included dealer Vito Schnabel, Phillips auction house specialist Ben Godsill and Warhol collector Alberto Mugrabi, with Lyor Cohen sitting a few feet away at the bar. (There’s a reason Mr. Spiegler presides over this event.)

The DJ started playing “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” and Mr. Schnabel lit a cigarette, before announcing to no one in particular, “I better smoke this outside or I’m gonna get in trouble.” When he returned, he beelined back to Mr. Mugrabi and put two hands on his shoulders.

“I want to talk to papa,” he said, referring to Alberto’s father Jose, the Mugrabi clan’s powerful patriarch. He got his wish: Mr. Schnabel and the older Mr. Mugrabi were still at the bar when we left, just a few hours until the VIP preview was to start.

Art Basel continues Wednesday, with a second VIP preview.