It’s 10 am on Tuesday, the opening day of Art Basel and I’m talking to Robert Landau one of the fair’s "grand doyens’. In an hours’ time it will be ‘on your mark; get set; go’ as the doors open and the world’s elite art buyers rampage through dealer booths looking to purchase their favourite piece of art. It’s drizzling and I wonder how often billionaires stand in line for anything, for very long, and in the rain.
If someone designed an Art Basel version of ‘Monopoly’, using the value of art per square meter, Landau would be ‘Boardwalk’ or ‘Mayfair’. His booth features some of the best works by Chagall, Kandinsky, Miro, Picasso et al. – and feels like a cross between a museum and your living room. Noticeably absent are the long legged, sleek women with bright lipstick and thick-rimmed glasses; the rich daughter types who studied art history for lack of anything better to do. His is a family affair anchored by his wife, Alice – his soulmate in combat – and their two daughters Jennifer and Sara and son in law Tim.
As the Mecca for the world’s most sought after buyers, some 300 dealers from 33 countries do summersaults to show their most impressive pieces and outdo their peers in showcasing aspiration. Landau is no exception. Just weeks ago he bought rare sculpture by Marino Marini– in what he describes as a ‘lucky punch’.
I asked Landau how Art Basel has changed since its beginnings and what is in store for the art market. ‘’Rising waters have lifted all boats and attracted a new class of buyers’’; Landau points out. Global art sales were $64 billion in 2015 and while the market is softening, this is light years ahead of when Ernst Beyeler and a few dealer friends started Art Basel as a ‘boys club’ in 1970. It is a market made by and for the super-super-rich. And this playground, unlike most other markets, is booming.
There has been a considerable shift from buying art for pleasure to buying for status and investment returns. A valuable painting from a famous artist has become the ultimate in status recognition. Never mind a Patek Philippe, or a Bentley, or even a chic place in the Hamptons. High-rolling collectors who spend $100 million on a painting are boasting that they can afford to throw a massive amount of money at something that will never pay a dividend or rent. Their pleasure is complete when a rival buys a piece off them at a higher price. Landau laments that less than a handful of buyers at Art Basel understand what they are doing.
There are broadly two types of dealers: those selling work consigned from their clients for a commission of 15- 25%; and those that promote artists in the hopes that prices rise with fame (and variations of both). Landau is an odd duck. He is more a collector who deals on the side, with substantial capital tied up in his own inventory. ‘You earn a living selling art, but you make a fortune keeping it’ he said. ‘It helps to be able to write a check on the spot and be known and trusted in the trade’’. Landau feels the art sector attracts a lot of pretenders, and free riding middle men; and those at the top of the pecking order don’t suffer either fool lightly.
With limited supply, puffing up has also paid off. Larry Gagosian is said to be able to sell ice to eskimos, and if he can’t, he has offices spanning 16 cities to kick in. Hauser + Wirth and David Zwirner follow similar models with good success.
Landau doesn’t like this part of the ecosystem because he feels it forces dealers to sell to clients what they may not want and attracts speculators rather than owners. It also results in a disturbing amount of art stuffed away in crates, rather than draped on display as the artist would have wanted. An artist wants their work to be seen, not just bought. ‘’You must believe that an artist believes in what they are painting; and that they have something to say that speaks to you. If you like what it’s saying, ignore what others say and buy it. If it doesn’t resonate with you, walk away.’’
It’s 10:50 and Landau excuses himself; its pigs at the trough time. I wander around the exhibition after the dust settles and stumble on the cover of an old book mounted as an art piece written by Lord Boothby:
‘My Yesterday, Your Tomorrow’.
In a few hours on Tuesday, Landau sold 9 paintings, including a major painting by Joan Miro, not bad for a day’s work. I catch up with him in the afternoon, obviously knackered. A few experts from a foundation of considerable means, with ties to a Swiss industrial company, are meticulously surveying the painting just purchased with flashlights and magnifying glasses. The principal behind the foundation, the blissful new owner, has known Landau for 25 years. Doing business with people you like and trust was always Ernst Beyeler’s mantra and the foundation upon which Art Basel was built. Landau says ‘now that’s the sort of client I like to work with’ – as if he were wishing there were more, though mindful they are a rapidly diminishing species.
By the next day, all the private jets dispersed and the Landau family breathed a sigh of relief.
Another year, a different world.