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By Lindsay Pollock
Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) — Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross walked through Wednesday’s VIP opening of Art Basel Miami Beach, buying a six-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze monkey by the late French artist Francois-Xavier Lalanne whose sculptures cost between $300,000 and $600,000.
Opening day at the fair was an improvement over December 2008.
“Last year, there was a very bad tone and relatively few sales,” said Ross, standing beside his big chimp. “It feels busier than last year. The people look happier too. There are smiles on dealers’ faces. Hopefully this is a sign of things turning around more broadly.”
The fair’s first hours had some boom-time frisson, as champagne carts rolled down the aisles and billionaire collector Steve Wynn made the rounds, squired by former Guggenheim Museum director Lisa Dennison now a Sotheby’s executive.
Ross and wife Hilary Geary Ross bought the Lalanne from New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, having first admired it this fall when it was installed on Park Avenue and 57th Street. It’s bound for the backyard of their Palm Beach home.
Actor Sylvester Stallone generated heat for Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska, where he showed five paintings, tagged $40,000 to $50,000. It was the actor’s first gallery show and he hung in good company, amid works by Picasso, Matisse and Botero.
Stallone’s “Toxic Superman” depicts a decrepit superhero, missing limbs.
“Deep down everyone wants to be special,” Stallone said of the painting. By the afternoon, two Stallones had sold, including “Trapped Ideals,” a 1977 painting of a forlorn man with piercing green eyes.
While opening day lacked the frenzy of recent fairs, collectors showed up in force and were more acquisitive than last year amid the brunt of the financial crunch.
Dealers noticed the improved vibe. “There was a tension last year,” said New York photography dealer Edwynn Houk. “You don’t have that this year. People are in a much better mood.”
Connecticut collector Peter Brant, whose private museum exhibits works by Warhol and Koons, trolled the fair. “I think it’s improving,” Brant said of the art market’s health. “Dealers are selling.”
New York real estate developer Arthur Zeckendorf attended the opening with one purchase in mind: a work by Dana Schutz he had seen only in digital form. Zeckendorf and his wife, Constance, made their way through the maze of stands to the Zach Feuer Gallery to examine Schutz’s “Hugging, Mugging, Climbing,” depicting two intertwined, sneaker-clad boys who appear to be doing all three at once.
Zeckendorf’s face lit up as he stood in front of the canvas, admiring the Van Gogh yellows and cerulean blues. “This is beyond my expectations,” he said, concluding he would take it. By the afternoon, Feuer confirmed he had sold all six Schutz paintings to various buyers, priced $45,000 to $100,000.
Art Basel is the largest modern and contemporary art fair in the U.S. Stands in the Miami Beach Convention Center are stocked with works brought by 265 dealers from 33 countries. The fair opened yesterday to the public and runs through Sunday. Over 10 smaller fairs are taking place around Miami during the run of the main event.
Confidence returned to the fair floor, but sponsors were still taking a cautious approach.
“It’s been a difficult year for our shareholders,” said UBS’s James D. Price, head of the Wealth Management Advisor Group for the Americas in an interview with Bloomberg News. The Swiss banking giant is the fair’s main sponsor, but has reined in costs. The company canceled their usual beachside tented dinners in the wake of company layoffs and losses.
Holding the lavish dinner in this fiscal environment would be “totally irresponsible,” said Price. UBS expects about 3,000 invited clients and employees to attend the fair, the same number as a year ago, Price said.