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For investors, art is an asset class just like property. However, rather than looking for rapid appreciation, art investors are mostly driven by passion and aim to build collections for pleasure.

July 2015

Every year Art Basel in Switzerland gets bigger, in 2015 hosting 284 galleries from 33 countries with 98,000 visitors. More than 80 museums sent representatives including such major players as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Guggenheim Museum from New York; Institute of Contemporary Arts and Tate, London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; National Gallery Singapore; Yuan Museum, Beijing; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

But major business happens primarily during the first two days of the annual mid-June event when the doors are open only to the galleries exhibiting and their guests, collectors, and museums. That’s when the professionals for whom art is a business and the collectors and investors for whom it is an asset class come together at Art Basel.

According to the Economist, Art Basel is one of 1,800 international art fairs held every year. It was created in 1970 as a market for modern and contemporary art, meaning works from the 20th and 21st centuries. The older ones tend to be by the best-known artists and command the highest prices. Several Picassos were on view, with asking prices of USD 14-16 million or more although some experts seemed to feel that the Picassos were not from his best periods and overpriced.

Exhibitor attraction

Otto Kallir founded The Galerie St. Etienne in New York in 1939. Its roots go back to 1923 in Vienna and 1938 in Paris. It focuses on Austrian and German Expressionism and self-taught artists from Europe and the U.S. like the American Grandma Moses. Since Kallir’s death in 1978, the gallery has been managed by his partner Hildegarde Bachert and granddaughter Jane Kallir.

Works by Oskar Kokoschka, the first Austrian Expressionist who died in 1980, were prominent in The Galerie’s exhibition space. Kallir points out that his works are undervalued today and “a major oil painting sells for well under USD 500,000.” The painting of her mother Henriette von Motesiczky in 1959 by the lesser known Marie-Louis Motesiczky might sell for USD 150,000. For smaller budgets, lithographs by Kaethe Kollwitz might sell for USD 7,500.

This is the 10th year that The Galerie St. Etienne has exhibited at Art Basel. Jane Kallir calls it, “by far our best art fair” with “the highest volume” of past clients and potential future ones. On the first day of Art Basel, “one to two dozen clients visited,” she adds and explains, “you cannot be a dealer without doing art fairs” because they provide a way to “generate relationships.”

Art Basel also attracts smaller and younger galleries selling less expensive work from newer artists from Europe, United States, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. In the Statements section were two galleries from Dubai, Third Line and Grey Noise, each featuring an installation by a single artist.

At Third Line it was Iranian Abbas Akhavan who lives in Toronto. His installation, Study for a Hanging Garden, is a commentary on the destruction of plants during the wars in Iraq. He recreated the plants in blackened bronze cast in Istanbul, enlarged them, and placed the pieces on white sheets. Gallery owner Sunny Rahbar said, “everyone comes to Basel” which is why she returned after sitting out 2014.

At Grey Noise it was three works by Lebanese artist Caline Aoun titled Remote Local. Aoun poured a rubbery substance on the road outside her studio in the mountains above Beirut and used that as the base for the installation Pine Needles. The needles are bronze casts of pine needles found in the surrounding area. Gallery Director Hetal Pawani said she expected Aoun’s installation to be sold during Art Basel.

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