World

Buyers seek out works by emerging black artists at America's biggest contemporary art fair in Miami

by Katya Kazakina and Christopher Palmeri

Bloomberg

Wilbur Ross inspected a pair of hands in cuffs sticking out from a wall and clutching a wad of U.S. currency.

The sculpture, “Made Off,” was inspired by Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, created by Swiss artist Fredy Hadorn and priced at $11,000. Ross asked the gallery to email him more information.

The U.S. commerce secretary was among thousands who descended on Miami last week for its annual art bacchanal, more than a dozen fairs anchored by Art Basel Miami Beach, the country’s largest contemporary art bazaar. Supermodel Naomi Campbell, Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio and Blackstone Group LP Vice Chairman Tom Hill browsed the aisles. Steve Wynn held a fund-raiser attended by 80 people on his $215 million yacht Aquarius. U2 lead singer Bono flew in to raise money to fight AIDS.

Dealers reported countless sales during the week, despite mounting trade tensions with China and carnage in the stock market.

New York art dealer Christophe van de Weghe, a longtime exhibitor at Art Basel Miami Beach, feared he wouldn’t sell a thing. Instead, he quickly found a buyer for a Picasso priced at $17 million and went on to sell other works by Picasso, Warhol (asking price: $5.5 million) and Tom Wesselmann. All told, van de Weghe said, he sold about $28 million of art.

“It was my best Art Basel in Miami,” he said Saturday. “People who came to see me wanted to buy.”

His Picasso seemed to be an exception among the priciest works at the fair, most of which lingered on the walls, including a $50 million Mark Rothko painting and a $30 million Fernand Leger canvas.

But emerging art moved briskly, especially works by black artists, a growing trend marked by sold-out booths and long wait lists.

About 120 people put their names down for future works by Derek Fordjour after eight of his paintings of enigmatic characters inspired by marching bands and cheerleaders sold for $26,000 to $48,000, according to Josh Lilley, whose London gallery represents the New York-based artist. A Fordjour sculpture went for $65,000.

Collectors snapped up figurative and abstract paintings by Vaughn Spann, a 2018 graduate of the Yale School of Art with a sold-out exhibition in New York. One painting quickly sold for $25,000 at Art Basel Miami Beach, at the David Castillo Gallery. Across Biscayne Bay, at NADA art fair, a double-headed portrait went for $7,500 at Half Gallery.

Hauser & Wirth Gallery sold a large abstract painting by Mark Bradford for $5 million and, for $175,000, a portrait of a man on a pink background by Amy Sherald, whose Michelle Obama now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

“You can direct more of your investment dollars to artworks because you’re less concerned about missing out on the more rapid returns that a bull market can offer,” said Roger Kass, a collector who purchased several artworks at fairs recently.

The top of the art market was quieter.

“There weren’t a lot of Europeans or hedge fund guys,” said Stavros Merjos, a private art dealer from Los Angeles. “People are apprehensive about the world. You are going to be more conservative no matter how much money you have.”

In addition, many of the expensive pieces weren’t new to the market, having been recently shown at other Art Basel fairs or purchased at auction and offered with a big markup. Landau Fine Art had Leger’s “Le grand dejeuner” with an asking price of $30 million, up 55 percent from its purchase price at Christie’s in May. Acquavella Galleries displayed “Still Life With Head in Landscape,” by Roy Lichtenstein, at $14 million, up 33 percent from its purchase price at Sotheby’s in May.

Landau and Acquavella didn’t immediately respond to emails asking whether the works had been sold by Sunday.

“Fresh is as important as the price,” Merjos said. “People want to be surprised.”

Helly Nahmad Gallery’s stunning Rothko, “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” which once belonged to Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, had been shown in Basel, Switzerland, in 2015, also priced at $50 million. Galerie Gmurzynska brought the same 16-foot-wide Robert Motherwell painting it showed in Miami three years ago. Priced at $4.8 million, as it was then, it was unsold as of Sunday afternoon.

In the past few years, Joe Nahmad said, “we’ve noticed that many of the top collectors haven’t been coming to art fairs, and part of the reason is because galleries haven’t been bringing their best material.” He said of the Rothko, “We felt that showing a major American abstract expressionist painting would make a strong impact in America’s most important art fair.”

To Gmurzynska co-owner Mathias Rastorfer, “there’s no such thing as a burnt painting. There’s a right time to buy the right painting at the right price.”