High-Priced Art Is Booming: The Business of Basel

Dec 1, 2013

Credit Christie's


Sale 2791. Lot 8A. "Three Studies of Lucien Freud." $142.4 million.

On the evening of Nov. 12 at Rockefeller Center in New York City, the 1969 oil painting on canvas by Francis Bacon set a record price for publicly auctioned art. Its auction price may bode well for those hoping the upcoming Art Basel Miami Beach will lead to big business. But even if there are no nine-figure sale prices, a rebounding housing market and rallying stock market are expected to lift the spirits, and possibly prices, of the business around Basel.

The strong performance of the high end of the contemporary-art market may mask a less robust market for lower-priced items. Michael Moses, co-inventor of the Mei-Moses Fine Art Index, has found price increases of the low to mid-priced contemporary art market to be less impressive. He says this could be credited to the increasing riches of the global 1 percent, helping drive up prices of the highest-priced art. Moses talks more about this trend on Monday's Sunshine Economy as we explore the business of Basel.

A potential customer is Chicago-based investment-firm chairman Marshall Front. He has attended many Art Basel Miami Beach events over the past 12 years. While he doesn't buy at the show itself, he uses it to "showcase."

That's a retail term popularized in recent years. It refers to shoppers who go into a brick-and-mortar store to look at merchandise only to actually buy it online. While Front admits to using Art Basel Miami Beach to look, he points out buying contemporary art is a lot different than buying a new big-screen TV.

Bill Hansen has run his Coconut Grove-based catering business since 1980. Normally, business slows down over the holidays but since Art Basel came to Miami Beach in 2002, his Decembers are busy. About a fifth of his monthly business will be done in just four events associated to this year's art show. It requires plenty of planning and flexibility to hire enough staff to work a private dinner party for 40 ultra-rich, global art patrons or a corporate cocktail party for 500.

Art is commerce but it also tells us something about ourselves. Hope Torrents is an art-museum educator at the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum. She reflects on how we look at art produced millennia ago and what today's Art Basel installations says of our future.

Hear the Sunshine Economy's "The Business of Basel" episode at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Dec. 2, and follow along a live chat below at 9 a.m.