Art Basel’s 20th-Century Online Fair Sees Slow Sales in First Days

Maximilíano Durón and Angelica Villa, ARTnews, October 29, 2020

On Wednesday, Art Basel launched the second iteration of its revamped digital fair, “OVR,” which features six-work presentations from 100 galleries. In its first wholly digital endeavor, the fair placed a focus on work made in 2020. For this edition, named “OVR:20c,” Art Basel has spotlighted art made in the 20th century.


“Art Basel, as an entity within the art world, is known not just for contemporary work but also for historical work,” Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director, told ARTnews of the digital experiments that have replaced the now-canceled main Swiss fair. “I’ve always felt that the historical material is important in terms of grounding the contemporary material, and the contemporary material is important in making the historical work feel topical.”


This second version of Basel’s online concept saw sales trickle in more slowly compared to its counterpart in September. In both editions, mega-galleries like Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, and Gagosian were absent from the roster of participants, making room for midsize and smaller local galleries from 23 different countries in this edition.

Blue-chip galleries with international branches like Lévy Gorvy and Blum & Poe were part of the lineup, though neither had confirmed sales during either of the first two days. Almine Rech, which has locations in Paris, Brussels, London, New York, and Shanghai, sold a 1998 piece depicting a floral still-life, Study for Mixed Bouquet by Tom Wesselmann, in the price range of $120,000–$150,000.

For smaller and midsize galleries, without the draw of an in-person event, Basel’s online fair is less useful for making quick sales than it is for launching long-term relationships, according to dealers. Some said that, through the platform, they were able to cultivate new clients and test the waters of the online art marketplace.

“As a gallery that specializes in highly curated exhibitions, the format of Art Basel ‘OVR: 20c’ has worked very well for us,” said Barbara Mathes, president of her eponymous New York gallery. The dealer sold a work by Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven, known for his monochrome sculptural wall reliefs, in the first few hours of the fair to a New York–based collector. The gallery declined to report the sold price of the work, but it had been listed at a price of $50,000–$100,000.


Spiegler agreed with Mathes, saying that he had checked in on the first day of the OVRs with several galleries, who reported that they had kept busy, but were not sure whether their work would translate into sales. “A lot of these works are not impulse purchases by any means,” he said. “These works aren’t ones that people are necessarily going to buy without a lot of discussion with the galleries, especially because they’re not standing in front of it.”


The six-work format also forced galleries to be more selective in choosing what to present. Richard Saltoun Gallery in London reported selling a rare lead poem by British Minimalist Bob Law titled, I Worked All Night On This Web (1988), to a private collector for a price in the region of $36,000 and an early field drawing by the artist to a California collector for a price in the region of $38,000.


“The smaller format forced us to think about Law’s work in an entirely new way as, firstly, his work doesn’t lend itself to the digital, being incredibly minimal in aesthetic content but rich in narrative,” said Niamh Coghlan, a director at the gallery. “To choose only six works out of a prestigious career which spanned 50 years … wasn’t an easy task.”


Jenkins Johnson Gallery, with locations in San Francisco and Brooklyn, sold three paintings by Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams, who was active in Britain in the 1960s and was a founding member of the era’s Caribbean Artists Movement, for prices between $25,000 to $55,000. Williams, who died in 1990, will be included in forthcoming exhibitions in Europe, according to the dealer.