(Bloomberg) -- What a difference a year makes.
Just 12 months ago, with the price of Bitcoin hovering around $57,000, it seemed that Art Basel Miami Beach was in fact a crypto celebration with an art fair on the side. At the time, the NFT craze was in full swing, and the medium’s many proponents were bent on establishing it as on a par with such traditional art forms as painting and sculpture. In tandem with the City of Miami’s all-out push to become a crypto capital, Art Basel Miami Beach had become a ripe venue for digital art patrons and crypto companies to stake their claim as forerunners of a new establishment.
Now Bitcoin is trading around $17,000, and the excesses of 2021—think crypto- sponsored yacht parties, NFT stunts, Web3 conferences and metaverse ragers—are mostly things of the past. Holdouts include the blockchain company Tezos, which is an Art Basel Miami Beach partner again and has sponsored a series of talks at this fair. But on the whole, art is front and center once again this week in Miami.
It’s a turn of events that many in the art market are greeting with something bordering on relief.
“It’s the post-FTX world,” says New York dealer David Lewis in his booth on the fair’s opening day, referring to the collapse of the crypto exchange founded by Sam Bankman-Fried. “The art world has always been really wary of the crypto world,” a wariness, he says, that appears to have been justified. “I think there's a lot of comfort in the fact that a lot of the ways of doing things that have been going on for years or decades—or if you think of painting, centuries—are back in the lead.”
As Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) opens its doors to a VIP crowd celebrating the Florida edition’s 20-year anniversary on Tuesday, Nov. 29 (VIP days Tuesday and Wednesday, with public days following through Saturday), it certainly feels as if analogue is ascendant. Many of the fair’s 282 galleries seem to have brought textile works and heavily layered paintings to the fair—“definitely things with texture, things that appear handcrafted,” says adviser Suzanne Modica, noting that she has yet to see the entirety of the fair. “I think the quality is quite good,” she says. “People have brought works to sell.”
In the first three or so opening hours, sales seem to be happening at a steady clip.
This is partly the result of a healthy amount of pre-selling, a phenomenon in which a gallery sends a PDF to clients containing artworks it intends to bring to the fair. Those clients might then put a work on reserve (or even better for the dealer, buy it outright), and consummate the transaction after viewing the work in the first few hours of the fair.
“We pre-sold a lot, so the first hour or two is people seeing the pieces,” says Malik Al-Mahrouky, a sales director at Kurimanzutto, a gallery with locations in New York and Mexico City. Its pre-sales included, he says, a painting by Gabriel Orozco priced around $500,000 and two paintings by Roberto Gil de Montes, which sold for roughly $85,000 and $35,000. While English was far and away the dominant language heard in the fair’s aisles, Al-Mahrouky says he is surprised by the number of serious foreign collectors. “There are lots of Europeans this time around,” he says. “Last year there weren't nearly as many.”
One collector with works on reserve is Pete Scantland, the Columbus, Ohio-based chief executive officer of Orange Barrel Media, who says that while he “wanted to show up at the fair and be surprised,” he couldn’t help himself and “did peek at a few of the PDFs.”
Even before the fair began, Scantland purchased a work by Igshaan Adams, an artist known for lavish tapestries on view in Casey Kaplan Gallery’s booth. For the most part, Scantland says, he spent the first few hours of the fair just looking around. “Leslie Martinez, who’s showing at And Now gallery’s booth—I’d seen images of her work, but to see them in real life? That’s what it’s about,” he says.
The art fair comes on the heels of New York’s November auction season, where a few record-setting weeks nevertheless showed signs of slackening demand. The spotty bidding on view was attributed by some to jitters over the prospect of global recession.
Multiple dealers wonder if such fears will trickle down (or flow sideways?) into the rest of the market. “I think every dealer in the world asks themselves that question,” says the dealer and former Goldman Sachs partner Robert Mnuchin. “Has it, is it or will it? And I think the answer is none of us know at the moment.” His major takeaway from the November auctions, he continues, is that “the strongest part of the market was the outstanding works. Anything that was outstanding, almost irrespective of the price—not totally, but that was the predominant desire.”
Given the size of the fair and breadth of its offerings, it would be a stretch to say that most of the work at the fair is outstanding. But at the end of the first day, multiple galleries reported major sales. Mnuchin says he sold a large work by El Anatsui for $1.75 million. Gladstone Gallery reports selling an Alex Katz painting for $1.2 million. And Jack Shainman Gallery says it sold a 1997 painting by Kerry James Marshall for $2.8 million.
Indeed, as Miami enjoys yet another week filled with parties, art fairs, product launches and yes, a few crypto-related events, it seems that rich people are still spending money, with not so much going to digital art.
“It's lovely to not have this kind of crypto frenzy,” says Kibum Kim, standing in the booth of his buzzy gallery Commonwealth and Council. “It’s just more calm, and there are more conversations about art. No one is sticking a phone into our faces trying to show us their digital wallet.”
So does he—or did he—have any crypto-rich clients? “Of course not,” Kim says. “We’re a serious gallery.”
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