European Markets Fall, Art Basel Soars

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Kurt Andersen: But first, I want to talk a little bit about the European economy. Which, I don't need to tell you, is teetering. Greece has been in serious trouble for years and now Spain and Italy. This may be one of those great, historical inflection points that ends very badly, but there's one place in Europe this week where the good times are rolling. Art Basel, the continent's oldest and biggest contemporary art fair in the Swiss city where Switzerland, France, and Germany meet. Art Basel has grown offshoots in Miami and Hong Kong, but the original Swiss edition is still a must go place for tens of thousands of collectors and dealers from all over the world and art journalists as well, of course. Sarah Thornton is author of Seven Days in the Art World and she's covering Art Basel for the Economist magazine. Sarah, welcome to Studio 360.

Sarah Thornton: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

Andersen: So, you're just getting back from a full day at the fair. How are collectors and dealers and all those art people dealing with the European economic crisis?

Thornton: They seem to be ignoring it.

Andersen: Wow. Nice.

Thornton: Yes. Yes. Remarkably, Art Basel is a kind of parallel universe where the market is not teetering, but chugging along as usual and that is partly because high net worth individuals, as they're called, are fleeing the Euro and one of the attractions of Art for them is that you can buy your Andy Warhol or your Jeff Coon in any currency and then you can sell it off in whatever currency is powerful at the moment.

Andersen: Interesting.

Thornton: Whether it's Brazilian real or Hong Kong dollars.

Andersen: So because the art market market is, as we've been told, the largest unregulated global market in the world, it sort of transcends the currency crisis of the moment.

Thornton: And as do these super rich people. They seem to live in their own economy. One quite different from our's.

Andersen: As you walked around today, what were the most interesting or telling moments or things you observed?

Thornton: Well, there seems to be a lot of buying going on and a fair amount of excitement and one of things that's interesting to note is just the emotions of collectors as they go through the day. They tend to get really high when they make a purchase and then can become quite angry and dejected if someone else beat them to a work that they deemed to buy and so there seems to be a fair amount of activity going on. Quite a bit of art trading hands.

Andersen: I read that there's a London dealer offering for sale a Mark Rothko painting called Untitled 1954, asking 78 million dollars. Is that one of these classic modern masterpieces that is causing a lot of buzz and interest?

Thornton: Well, there are very few people who are in the market for a 78 million dollar Rothko and possibly only three people. One of whom bought a Rothko for 86 million in New York at Christy's a few weeks ago. So it may be the person that won the Rothko at Christy's in May would also like to acquire this one or it may be that their desire for Rothko has been satiated. There are very few people who can afford 78 million dollar works and then an even smaller group of them want an orange, abstract Rothko.

Andersen: Yeah. The meltdown that we are still experiencing began and continues with the popping of property bubbles around the world, including the United States and all over Europe. Is there any sense that this too a bubble? Because the art market never had its big 2008-2009 correction, right? It's just sort of stayed in these busy, expensive heights.

Thornton: Well, there was a correction of sorts in the autumn of 2008 all the way through to the autumn of 2009. There was about a 12 or 15 month recession, I guess, but it's come back in full force. I mean, the metaphor I tend to use is that of the bubblebath. So we have lots of little bubbles and they're always kind of bursting and then new bubbles are forming and because the art market is not a unified thing, it's incredibly fragmented and really it's a combination of hundreds of artist's markets.

Andersen: The collectors and the dealers, I guess, aren't feeling the heat and terror of the Euro meltdown and the political upheaval, but presumably, artists being artists are attuned to this. Are there any signs of that? Any protest art or political art happening on the fringes of Basel?

Thornton: Very, very little. I remember seeing a Thomas Hersch one work, who is a French artist based in Paris, who does a lot of very politicized pieces on this stand. I think of Stephen Friedman, a London-based dealer, but that's. They really are few and far between. The super rich don't tend to be left-leaning and they'd rather not put it up in their dining room.

Andersen: Well, Sarah, enjoy your 65 dollar, 10 minute, cab rides in Basel.

Thornton: Yes. Yes, I will. I'm trying to avoid cab rides. I'm walking as much as possible.

Andersen: Thanks very much.

Thornton: Thank you.

Andersen: Sarah Thornton is author of Seven Days in the Art World and she's covering Art Basel for the Economist.