As Art Basel opens, buyers confront a 'cooling' but still very active market

BASEL, Switzerland (AP) — Multimillion-dollar works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yayoi Kusama and Alberto Giacometti went on the market this week as the Art Basel fair opened in Switzerland.

Thousands flooded the exhibition center for VIP previews before doors open to public Thursday. Arriving guests strolled through a large plaza filled with stems of wheat resembling a field, a work by conceptual artist Agnes Denes that was first staged in 1982.

More than 280 galleries exhibited everything from paintings and sculpture to video installations and performance art.

“Art Basel is like the Super Bowl of the art world,” art market expert Magnus Resch said.

The Art Market Report 2024, published by Art Basel and Swiss investment bank UBS, found that sales fell by 4% year-on-year in 2023, to an estimated $65 billion, against a backdrop of high interest rates, inflation and political instability.

Sales were particularly thinner at the top end of the market.

“We’ve seen a bit of a slowdown,” said UBS Global Wealth Management’s chief economist Paul Donovan.

Once the buzz of the art world, sales in art-related NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — on NFT platforms outside the art market declined sharply, according to the report, from a peak of $2.9 billion in 2021 to $1.2 billion last year.

But there is still enthusiasm. The report found transaction volume grew in 2023 by 4%, driven by sales at lower price levels.

“We’re not seeing art sales plunge off the edge of a cliff or anything like that,” Donovan said. “So ‘cooling’ is probably the right way to think about what is happening."

Austrian gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac said that “I think people are now reflecting a bit more, taking a bit of time, but they are still very, very active."

Some dismissed any dour analysis. In an opening day sales report, the president of international gallery Hauser & Wirth, Iwan Wirth, described it as “doom porn” while New York-based Sean Kelly said the market had already turned a corner since last year.

“There’s always something to be concerned about. But the market has proven to be extremely resilient," Kelly said.