The Naked Truth About Basel: A Diary

'Trademark' (1970) by Acconci.

‘Trademarks’ (1970) by Acconci. (Courtesy the artist and Greider Contemporary)

Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator and writer. His writing has appeared in books on architect Zaha Hadid and artists Vito Acconci and Paul Thek, and he is a contributor to the British edition of GQ. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Friday, June 13

The evening before departing London for Zurich I attend a benefit dinner honoring artist Eddie Peake at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. At the peak of Mr. Peake’s performance, an actor screams at the top of his lungs, “Don’t flip!” Perhaps he is referring to the nine paintings about to be auctioned during the benefit evening’s proceedings, but the outburst inadvertently serves as an appropriate preamble to the art circuit’s largest annual trading platform: Art Basel, the stock exchange to the auction houses’ commodity pits.

Saturday, June 14

I know half of the people on the plane but can’t remember where from, or at this stage, who they even are. Call it art world amnesia. To be safe, for the next week I will adopt a strategy of smiling at everyone.

First stop is Zurich, for a Vito Acconci exhibition I’ve curated at Greider Contemporary. En route to the opening I am all but accosted in the parking lot of the hotel, where I’m awaiting a taxi, by a woman I apparently should recognize.  “I’m so mad at you for your last article, for failing to adequately understand or appreciate Alex Israel,” she exclaims. (I’m a fan—so far—which I guess was lost on her). “It’s the banal landscape which happens to be made at Warner Brothers Studio, and comparing him to Israel Lund, come on Kenny!” I begin to fear what the rest of the week has in store.

At the opening, I’m reminded of how Vito Acconci’s works, impactful and influential over decades, have been embraced institutionally and critically, but—perhaps due to his uncompromising sensibility and continually changing output—have failed to seduce the market. Needless to say, the museums lining up for the works at Greider and elsewhere so far exceed the punters, who these days seem to have a time horizon of five minutes, max.

Sunday, June 15

Lunch, dinner and not much in between—a palette cleanser. At lunch, a “collector” complains about having been coaxed by an auction house into selling off a work with an exceedingly low estimate that was supposed to incite frenzied bidding. The work went unsold and is now, as they say, “burnt.”

At dinner I’m told that there are rumors circulating that I am the person behind the Instagram sensation lambasting the art world under the moniker “I call bullshit” or @icallb. Nope. Not that I don’t embrace the spirit of the account. At the Eddie Peake ICA benefit a few days earlier I let it slip to a private museum owner that I had written about her. The next day, as I was preparing for my flight to Switzerland, I got a call demanding I forward the copy prior to publishing. So I changed the sex and rendered the tale a bit more innocuous to protect the guilty. When I bumped into her at dinner that evening, in Zurich, she complained my text was too bland. I call b.

 

A work by Harold Ancart in Art Unlimited. (Photo by Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

A work by Harold Ancart in Art Unlimited. (Photo by Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

Monday, June 16

Zurich train station, Basel bound, I encounter a small pack of art adviser/dealers on the platform and we take seats next to one another.

After I’m chided yet again for my last Gallerist piece, this time about flouting restrictive invoice covenants (RIC) by a fellow passenger who was a third party to an RIC I previously violated (don’t ask), the giant inbreeding beast that today’s art market has become rears its head when the dealer on my left asks if I’m interested in a particular painting, then tips her iPhone to reveal a familiar looking piece. When I respond that I’ve seen it already, she looks at me in disbelief and says that’s just not possible. I poke around on my laptop, find the painting, and show it to her.

As conversation ensues between the other adviser/dealers, I can see her, out of the corner of my eye, furiously tapping away on her phone. About what just happened? Accusing the seller? Another dealer? Me?

Soon enough, she cranes her neck to glance at my screen and spies another work from her client. She seems beyond exasperated.

Meanwhile, the consultant across from her asks if I’m interested in a different soup du jour. Again, I tell him I’ve already been offered the work, and, again, he denies that this could be possible. He actually owns the thing, he tells me, and goes on to say how rare it is nowadays that it’s not even part of a rev-share deal. Still, I ensure him that an image of the work, like the other one, is on my computer. He must have shared it with at least one other person.

At which point the third dealer chimes in, critiquing a Paul Thek show I recently curated at Pace London before stating to dealer number one that she too has been offered both of the paintings we’ve been discussing.

We arrive in Basel in time for the opening of Art Unlimited, the curated section of the fair reserved for oversized works. Among many other artworks, there is a football stadium’s worth of soft sculptures by Sterling Ruby, amounting to a $2 million stuffed animal. Balancing it out is a stunning Carl Andre floor piece that I already know I’ll be fantasizing about for weeks.

Tuesday, June 17

Inside the main part of the fair is a curated performance event that calls to mind the great sculpture room of the Victoria & Albert Museum but with real bodies, most of them nude. I’ve known one of the event’s curators—won’t say which, but it is not Hans-Ulrich—for more than decade, but he repeatedly looks me in the face throughout the performance-fest without so much as an acknowledgement. I miss high school.

The prices have grown so high at these events—it’s unremarkable that a Warhol sells on day one for $30 million—that even the priciest pieces now sport explanatory wall text. A $6 million Richter smudge, a wall text explains, is the only work on paper assigned a catalogue raisonné number. These fairs resemble Vegas casinos where everything from the outside world is on blackout.

The press likes to report on successes, but two dealers who represent large enterprises tell me business is shitty—and the fair’s first VIP preview day is not too early to judge, since most sales here happen sooner rather than later.

Art is as much a relationship-based business as it has been from the beginning, this evidenced by a dealer who calls his sales assistants security guards, commenting upon their selling skills, or lack thereof. Art is still no easy game.

It’s refreshing to hear that in the midst of all the new professionalism, the old ways are still operative. A friend who is owed money by a gallerist goes to the gallerist’s hotel room to collect his check. The gallerist answers the door buck naked, strides to the desk, fills out the check and hands it over without batting an eye.

 

Exhibition view of Christian Rosa's 2014 show at CFA in Berlin. (Courtesy CFA)

Exhibition view of Christian Rosa’s 2014 show at CFA in Berlin. (Courtesy CFA)

Wednesday, June 18

Here is the perfect illustration of the whole primary/secondary market quandary: Walking a client through the fair we spot a Harold Ancart painting on paper at Xavier Hufkens for about $35,000. Outside the gallery system, these are $60,000–$80,000. Unless you can worm your way up the waiting list or are prepared to wait a year or two that’s the way it is. The allure of the flip begins to make more sense.

Nearby, in the shadow of Warhol’s suckling protégés, Alex Israel (for $550,000) and Nate Lowman ($450,000), a Warhol “Shadow” painting hangs in the booth of Richard Gray. Meanwhile, I’m offered an Israel for $1 million, which goes down to $750,000 before settling at $525,000 by early evening. Such is art world math.

Works by Christian Rosa, priced under $50,000, are swiftly selling out at the booth of Berlin gallery Contemporary Fine Arts. At the same time I hear this, I hear from a friend of a price increase in a Rosa work she’s buying in a private deal. This after she’d already paid an agreed-upon purchase price—she’d paid just to secure the work. It’s not very good work altogether.

As for the Wyatt Kahns that, fresh from the studio, were $9,000 last year and $200,000 a few weeks ago, they are now approaching $400,000, someone tells me. It seems everyone wants one—humans are pack animals, after all.

At dinner, a famous curator complains that she is doomed never to make money and the host, a trendy dealer, mentions in his speech that he has mixed feelings about his participation in the fair and that all of this art stuff is not about money—a common refrain.

Thursday, June 19

A full day of off-site sessions with a class in art market studies that I teach at the University of Zurich. Our sessions are held in a former orphanage near the fair. Instead of the traditional artist critiques this time it’s the gallery version, analyzing booths in the fair. Later, after dealing with my students’ responses, I do the homework myself, tacking on a question at the end:

Do you see any common theme or medium used by artists on each floor?
I see a hell of a lot of paintings on every floor that look the same or are by the same artists.

Do you think that the most recent auctions in New York and the catalogues of the next auctions in London have influenced the choices of some gallerists?
When the numbers increase a certain percentage, they flood out of the woodwork whatever they are.

Do you think that Documenta has an impact on Art Basel?
Docu-what? Hardly. It’s pretty much MoMA, private museums and the market that affect the market.

Do you see any trends, or artists, over-represented?
Never enough Picasso, or, these days, Wade Guyton, a self-professed market moaner who yells at us for over-indulging on his sweets then feeds us some more.

Do you think that globalization has an impact on the selection of the galleries?
Yes. There are more galleries from more countries showing more of the same.

Which galleries do you think will be the next ones to move from upstairs to the high-priced, blue-chip downstairs section of the fair?
Sadie Coles, who should have been there years ago. By the way, while we’re at it: Guerilla Girls, what is the male-to-female ratio on each floor?

If your program would allow it, and you were in Art Basel, do you think that you, Kenny Schachter, would prefer to show downstairs?
Oh please, no, leave me with the hoi polloi a floor up. Better that than rubbing tails with the fat cats downstairs.

 

An untitled Eddie Peake painting, from 2012, on offer at Christie's London for £15,000–£20,000 ($25,600–$34,100). (Courtesy Christie's)

An untitled Eddie Peake painting, from 2012, on offer at Christie’s London for £15,000–£20,000 ($25,600–$34,100). (Courtesy Christie’s)

Friday, June 20

The art market is in rude health and, in my estimation, will continue to be so for some time to come. Certain artists’ markets will correct, other artists will be anointed, and the market will chug along. Then again, anything could happen; especially potentially disruptive is the powder keg that is the Middle East.

As for Basel, I can’t wait to leave, which seems to be a common sentiment among those making their way out of town. At the airport I spot the wife of a dealer I’ve written about recently, not exactly flatteringly. Will she lay into me? No, the market saves me: she’s a gallerist too and we briefly discuss doing some secondary business together.

It’s always fascinating to see which dealers fly up front and which shuffle along to the back. Knowing the business of a few of the business class passengers, I am sure their creditors would not be amused. I’m slightly embarrassed to take out my car magazine in front of the Hauser and Wirth-ie seated next to me.

There is much to think about other than cars. Like the upcoming test of Eddie Peake’s resale market. On July 1 and 2, two Peake spray paintings, both made in 2012, will appear at Sotheby’s and Christie’s day sales, estimated at £15,000 to £20,000 ($25,600–$34,100). Looks like the flippers didn’t hear his admonition.

But for the moment, I just want to zone out.

The Naked Truth About Basel: A Diary