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Decoding Art Basel

It was that time of the year in Hong Kong, March 23-25, when Art Basel displayed outstanding and premier works from all over the world in one eagerly anticipated event—considerably the most important contemporary art fair in this side of the world.

Its website boasts that this year’s edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong featured “242 premier galleries from 34 countries.” A modest spread, you could say, compared to its counterpart in Miami where the parties are legendary and the visitors overflow with money. (Granted there are always a lot of rich people in Miami. But there were droves of them at Art Basel.)

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Last year at Art Basel in Miami, Madonna enticed during her performance: “Spend, baby, spend.” Well, that’s exactly what people came there to do. Some of them had already purchased artworks presale, and just attended the show for the parties. On the other hand, as reported by The New York Times, impulsive purchases were still made, particularly of works priced under $1 million.

Art Basel is really all about art, after all. Which is what makes it so indulgent. It seems that these days, wealth is best displayed through one’s possession of artworks. It’s nothing new, art being a status symbol. Nonetheless, it’s no longer like the old times when hectares of land were one’s ticket to the social registry. In the era of billionaire startups and new money, Art Basel speaks about the economics of high-end art and high-end everything.

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Art Basel in Hong Kong was a great opportunity for artists, dealers and collectors. This year marked Hong Kong’s fifth edition, making it the youngest of all three Art Basels (the original is Basel in Switzerland). Nonetheless, it was reported that a crowd of 80,000 attended the event, including the very young, lured by the parties with lines that were longer than the usual.

But the art fair is just a slice of the huge art pie. A few years ago, there was an initial anxiety over a growing art bubble. Recent reports say the bubble has burst.

Bloomberg reported early this month that Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev had incurred a 74-percent loss on Paul Gauguin’s 1892 painting “Te Fare (La Maison)” at Christie’s in London. The art collector purchased the painting for $85 million almost a decade ago, and this year he netted a mere $25 million for it. “Te Fare (La Maison)” was just one of the other pieces that the Russian billionaire had offered for sale. In the same report, Bloomberg said Christie’s sales fell 17 percent and Sotheby’s 27 percent.

And the drop involves not just impressionist art, either. Art collector Niels Kantor purchased an abstract work by 28-year-old artist Hugh Scott-Douglas for $100,000 and resold it at an 80-percent discount late last year.

Even the 2016 edition of Art Basel was more subdued, but sales figures were still reported to be healthy. “The VIPs are just not as crazy,” gallery owner Lawrence Luhring told Art News.

Perhaps contemporary art is just lucky. The Atlantic reported two Art Basels ago that contemporary art was outpacing all other subcategories of art, including impressionist, old master, and modern. Maybe this Jeff Koons era of art is fueled by growth in global wealth. According to Art Market, Asia produces a new billionaire every three days. These new entrants into high society, armed with their new money, crave all things that are just as new and conspicuous. Art included.

If the art bubble does exist, then it is telling us this: that value is sometimes created based on fantasy, as surreal and abstract as the expensive art on display. It is only when we wake up from the fantasy (as always happens) that we see the true price of tangible things. Often, this price cannot be met by money alone.

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Of course, there is more to art than the interesting people who buy the stuff, and the parties and commerce that surround fairs as big as Art Basel. But as Jamie Johnson said in Vanity Fair, “it’s their money that truly drives the industry.”

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