Dolphin Balloon Sells for $5 Million in Art Basel Spree

Jun 19, 2014 1:27 pm ET

(Updates with gallery sales in 23rd paragraph.)

June 19 (Bloomberg) -- A sculpture of an inflatable dolphin by Jeff Koons sold for $5 million. A 1971 Sigmar Polke painting depicting purple monkeys, an alligator and a penis was snapped up for $4.5 million. An abstract painting by Joan Mitchell fetched $1.5 million.

Sales were brisk among the world’s leading galleries at Art Basel in Switzerland as 285 exhibitors from 34 countries offered as much as $4 billion worth of art, according to an estimate by insurer AXA Art. Attendance is expected to reach 86,000 by the time the fair ends on June 22, organizers said.

The most expensive artwork sold so far at the world’s largest modern- and contemporary-art fair is an Andy Warhol self-portrait for $32 million, bought in the first 15 minutes.

“It’s a new world we are in,” said Bruno Brunnet, a partner at Berlin-based Contemporary Fine Arts gallery. “Yesterday and today, we had collectors from China, Mexico and South Africa come to our booth. They are well informed. They are buying. It’s a pretty broad base. I don’t think we have reached the top.”

Billionaire money manager Steven A. Cohen just missed a chance to buy a 1950s abstract blue painting by postwar minimalist Ad Reinhardt at the David Zwirner Gallery’s booth.

“He came a minute too late,” said David Zwirner, the gallery’s owner who sold the work within the first hour of the preview on June 17. Zwirner declined to disclose the price, saying only it was bought by a European collector for more than the nearby Koons sculpture that sold for $5 million.

First Dibs

Cohen, billionaire activist investor Daniel Loeb and money manager David Ganek were among the throngs of international collectors who stormed the fair on June 17 as VIPs got first dibs on works by modern masters and contemporary stars.

“It was like the running of the bulls,” Angela Westwater, co-owner of Sperone Westwater gallery in New York, said about the first 30 minutes of the fair.

Cohen, who runs Point72 Asset Management LP, his family office and successor to his hedge-fund firm SAC Capital Advisors LP, singled out the Reinhardt when asked what had caught his eye at the fair.

“It’s just beautiful,” he said about the 1951-53 vertical, more than 6-foot-tall canvas, depicting a grid of rectangular shapes in subtle shades of blue. Reinhardt’s auction record is $2.7 million for a square red painting made in 1953.

Spiky Wig

Warhol’s 1986 self-portrait in a spiky wig, which was priced at $32 million at Skarstedt Gallery, sold to American collectors.

“We gave them 15 minutes to decide,” said Per Skarstedt, the owner of the New York and London-based gallery. “This is the closest you come to an auction house as a dealer.”

On the ground floor, multiple pieces by major galleries were sold for $1 million to $5 million, dealers said. Zwirner, who has branches in New York and London, sold the sculpture of an inflatable dolphin by Koons and a pair of stacked wax heads by Bruce Nauman for $3.2 million.

Skarstedt Gallery found buyers for a large 1982 painting by Georg Baselitz, “Edward in front of the mirror (Munch),” priced at $3 million, and Richard Prince’s 1987 painting, “You No Tell -- I No Tell,” offered at $2.2 million.

Hauser & Wirth, which operates multiple spaces in New York, London and Zurich, sold a white and blue totem sculpture by Louise Bourgeois for $1.95 million and Paul McCarthy’s messy figurative painting “WS, Dior” for $950,000.

Older Works

Some galleries paired older works with recently created art. Zurich-based Thomas Ammann Fine Art displayed a 1963 blue canvas by Pablo Picasso, priced at $12 million, and a $14 million Fernand Leger 1919 painting, next to new paintings by Bruce High Quality Foundation, a New York collective whose members are anonymous. Priced from $50,000 to $200,000, they riffed on popular culture and art history with paintings depicting celebrity magazine covers and a black-and-white version of Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” framed by white neon lights.

“It’s about staying relevant,” Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s chairman of North and South America, said about the striking pairing at the booth. “Galleries have to think about the future and the next generation of artists” as modern art supplies diminish.

Purple Monkeys

Michael Werner gallery, with branches in New York, London and Berlin, sold the Polke painting. Once owned by advertising mogul and collector Charles Saatchi, the work depicts purple monkeys, an alligator and an erect penis.

Contemporary-art galleries, which occupied the second floor of the convention center, did booming business with lower prices. An abstract painting by Jeff Elrod sold for $95,000 at Simon Lee Gallery, based in London and New York.

A Miro-like abstraction by young Brazilian-born artist Christian Rosa sold for 25,000 euros ($34,000) at Contemporary Fine Arts.

“I could have sold it 20 times,” said Brunnet, the gallery partner.

A massive black painting by Glenn Ligon sold for $700,000 to a private collector, according to London-based Thomas Dane gallery. Sherrie Levine’s cast-bronze sculpture of an alligator’s head went for $300,000.

Hockney’s Landscape

“Amphore de Muse,” a bronze by Jean Arp from 1959-1960 sold for about $1 million at Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s booth. The New York-based gallery also sold an Alexander Liberman oil on canvas for about $50,000.

David Hockney’s painting of a country landscape “Vista Near Fridaythorpe, Aug, Sept. 2006” sold for more than $4 million at Annely Juda Fine Art. Paul Cooper Gallery sold three works on paper by Sol LeWitt for $50,000 each.

Most of the works at Zurich-based Galerie Eva Presenhuber were spoken for by the end of June 17. Ugo Rondinone’s three new cloud-shaped paintings sold for 180,000 Swiss francs ($200,200) each. Joe Bradley’s sprawling painting consisting of several white canvases and one pink canvas, sold for $300,000.

The ranks of collectors from traditional markets, including Europe and the U.S., swelled as buyers from China, Russia and the Middle East flocked to Art Basel, dealers and organizers said.

Big Necklace

Collectors from Kazakhstan bought a Murano-glass sculpture resembling an outsized necklace by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel priced at 290,000 euros on the booth of Paris- and New York-based Galerie Perrotin.

“It’s crazy but why not?” said Othoniel, who attended the fair along with dozens of other artists. “There are new collectors all over the world.”

Emmanuel Perrotin hosted a dinner for more than 100 guests on a moored barge after selling works ranging from $5,000 to $850,000 at the fair. It culminated with a live concert by French pop band Naive New Beaters, who wore fur hats and used a palm tree as a stage prop.

“If you don’t do well during Art Basel, you might as well close your gallery,” said Perrotin as he headed for the dance floor.