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 price-wise) 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 up-sell 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 comparable, 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.