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BASEL, Switzerland — Each June, the Swiss city of Basel gives itself over to Art Basel, the world’s biggest and most influential contemporary art fair, where established galleries make deals with some of the biggest spenders in the global market.

Four Tokyo-based galleries were selected to participate in the 38th Art Basel, nearly all well seasoned in the art-fair world.

“In comparison, Art Fair Tokyo is very domestic, where the mostly Japanese buyers have limited budgets, reaching at the most to $100,000 per piece,” said Maho Kubota, the director of SCAI the Bathhouse, a Tokyo gallery. SCAI, at Basel for the sixth time, also attended the Gulf Art Fair in Dubai in March and will be going to the Shanghai Contemporary art fair in China in September.

This year, the Basel fair was preceded by previews of the 52nd Venice Biennale and followed by the opening of Kassel, Germany’s Documenta exhibit — heldevery five years — and Sculptur Projekt Munster in Germany — held every 10 years. Despite this simultaneous amassing of art events, most galleries agreed that business was good, even if the buyers’ behavior was slightly different from before.

“The sales were very high on the first day this year,” said SCAI’s Kubota. “Eighty percent of the transactions were done that day, probably because people are rushing through Basel after the Venice Biennale, and before going off to Documenta and Munster.”

He also noticed that his buyers were mostly Europeans, rather than Americans as in the past, probably because of the weak dollar.

Atsuko Koyanagi of Ginza’s Gallery Koyanagi, which has appeared six times at Basel, has no plans to go to any other fairs this year. “I want to bring the best works to the fairs,” Koyanagi said, “as opposed to the leftovers, which happens if a gallery goes to too many fairs.”

Tomio Koyama of the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Kiyosumi, Tokyo, has also been to Art Basel six times, after a few appearances at a satellite fair. The list of the art fairs he plans to attend this year is long. Koyama observed a big increase in the number of Japanese buyers and visitors attending this year.

“There were five times as many Japanese people at the fair this year, which is an indication that there is a growing interest in the art market in Japan,” he said.

Galleries that are too new to be accepted to the main fair, Art Basel, join either a satellite fair called LISTE or one of the growing number of newer and smaller fairs — VOLTA, Balelatina and SCOPE. While Art Basel is mainly about big-money transactions, those other events are more about galleries getting their foot in the door before eventually making it to the main event.

Magic Art Room’s Haruka Ito, at LISTE, said she was “excited to be at an international art fair, to learn from other galleries and to try to establish contact with them and introduce our own artists.”

Ito pointed out that many collectors found her artists’ works “atypical of contemporary Japanese art” — broadly speaking, the Takashi Murakami style — which, luckily, is the gallery’s aim.

Czech gallerist Filip Polansky, at VOLTA for the second time, had been invited to Art Basel in the past, but had to enter the younger fair this year as there were only three spots for Eastern European countries at Art Basel. Still, this wasn’t a problem.

“It’s good to be at Art Basel, as it is good for business,” said Polansky, “but VOLTA is fresh and a very high-level art fair.”

Czech and Japanese gallerists have similar complaints about their national art markets, both of which are currently smaller than other countries’.

“There are no collectors of contemporary art in the Czech Republic,” Polansky said, “and those who collect art do not buy contemporary.”

Japanese gallerists felt the same way about Art Fair Tokyo, held in April at Tokyo International Forum. Nearly all agreed that the Tokyo fair is too domestic and not concentrated enough on contemporary art.

But in general, business at Art Basel was upbeat for Japanese galleries. Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs sold well at Koyanagi, after his works fetched very healthy auction prices earlier in the year. And SCAI was the big winner when a “PixCell Deer” by their artist Kohei Nawa sold for slightly more than $100,000.

For related story:
Asian artists echo biennale director’s themes

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