Calculations at Art Fairs Can Sway Money and Fame – The New York Times

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Picking the right pieces to display at art fairs can sway money and fame.

When art dealers decide to participate in fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the many tricky decisions they will make is this one: Whether the pieces they choose to feature fall into the primary market category — meaning that they have never been owned by anyone but the artist — or the secondary market, for works that have been bought and sold before.


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That distinction may seem important for only insiders, but it significantly shapes what people see at art fairs.

At the highest echelons of the art world, many galleries stock both types of art, though some are weighted in one direction or the other.

Financially, the distinction between primary and secondary market sales can be meaningful for galleries. Secondary market works have in many cases higher price peaks, said Noah Horowitz, Art Basel’s chief executive. “That’s the place where you’re seeing things in the eight-figure range.”

Generally, those works are being offered on consignment from a collector, with a percentage going to the gallery if it is sold. But they may also be inventory that is owned outright, with all of the sale proceeds going to the dealer.

“Owned inventory is radically different from something on consignment,” Mr. Horowitz said.

When primary works are sold, the gallery shares the price with the artist. A 50-50 split is the longstanding norm, but it can vary. Artists normally don’t see any proceeds from secondary market sales.

The Paris+ by Art Basel fair, for instance, has seen notable sales of each type.

Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Black and Part Black Birds in America: (Magpies and Baltimore Orioles)” (2023), which was fresh from the artist’s studio, was sold by David Zwirner Gallery for $6 million on the fair’s very crowded first day in October. Last year, at the Paris fair’s first edition, Pace Gallery sold Robert Motherwell’s “Je t’aime No. II” (1955), a secondary market work, for $6.5 million.

Gallery presentations at fairs can be radically different from one fair to the next, reflecting the changing aesthetic and financial priorities for dealers.

“Fairs are a billboard,” said Steve Henry, senior partner of New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery. “They give people an opportunity to see how we present work to the world.”

Alma Allen’s “Not Yet Titled” (2023) at Kasmin Gallery.The artist and Kasmin Gallery; Photo Charlie Rubin
“Leigh” 2007, by Alex Katz, at Kasmin Gallery.The artist and Kasmin Gallery; Photo by Christopher Stach

This week in Miami Beach, the booth of New York’s Kasmin Gallery will include pieces from both categories, including Alma Allen’s “Not Yet Titled” (2023) and Alex Katz’s painting “Leigh” (2007). Both are by living artists, but the latter is a secondary market piece.

“At Miami, it’s really important to have a one-two punch to show both sides of our program,” said Nick Olney, Kasmin’s president. “We’re more focused on primary work, but we have a strong slate of estates and secondary work too.”

If a painting from an artist’s estate has never changed hands, it is counted as a primary market work.

As for why a collector who wants to sell a work would do it through a dealer at a fair, as opposed to an auction, Alex Glauber, the president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors, said that the duration of most fairs was a plus.

“You can make your pitch to a collector over several days,” Mr. Glauber said.

Dealers try to strike a balance between primary and secondary for various reasons, including that the two categories can flatter each other. A drawing by a well-known modern master, for instance, may burnish the work of an unknown young painter just by being side by side in a booth.

“A gallery can use a secondary consignment to get more of the same”— meaning more of such consignments—“but they also use it to shine a light on a contemporary artist in their program,” Mr. Glauber said. “There’s a strategy to it all.”

The dealer Thaddaeus Ropac — with galleries in London, Paris, Seoul and Salzburg, Austria — said his work with secondary material has a distinct focus across all the fairs where he shows, including Frieze London and the European Fine Art Fair, known as TEFAF.

“We are invested in the secondary market, but from the perspective of the artist we represent,” Mr. Ropac said. “We want to have a certain control over that material.” Being part of those sales helps the gallery manage the reputation of, and market for, that artist’s work.

He gave the example of an artist he represents, the German painter Georg Baselitz (who also works with Gagosian and White Cube galleries). In June, Mr. Ropac’s booth at the fair in Art Basel’s original home of Basel, Switzerland, offered Mr. Baselitz’s oil “Spekulatius” (1965), a secondary market painting from early in the painter’s career.

“We want to be the experts in his work,” Mr. Ropac said.

But he does make exceptions.

At Paris+ this year, he sold an oil by Simon Hantaï, “Les larmes de Saint Ignace” (1958-59), for more than $1 million. Though a secondary market work by an artist whose estate he does not represent, he thought it connected with the rest of the gallery’s program.

“Hantaï was an influence on this generation of European painters that we show,” Mr. Ropac said.

He added, “We try to only take works that we think we can deliver on. Because I’m Austrian, we get offered works by Gustav Klimt all the time, but we feel we can’t bring the expertise.”

Paula Cooper Gallery will show a mix of works this week, including a piece that is new to the market, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s large trowel sculpture, “Plantoir, Red (Mid-scale)” (2001-21), and one that is not, Jennifer Bartlett’s gouache “In the Garden # 57” (1980).

“Plantoir, Red (Mid-scale)” (2001-21) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, shown by Paula Cooper Gallery at the fair.The artists and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
“In the Garden # 57” (1980) by Jennifer Bartlett, shown by Paula Cooper Gallery at the fair.Paula Cooper Gallery, NY, Marianne Boesky Gallery, NY; Photo Steven Probert

Mr. Henry said that the lineup reflects the long history of the gallery’s founder; Ms. Cooper pioneered SoHo as an art gallery destination, setting up shop there in 1968.

He added that the gallery is a representative of Ms. Bartlett’s estate, and so it fits with the stand.

Secondary market works are a relatively sure thing because they have a track record. But familiarity can be complicated, Mr. Henry said.

“Collectors are more well versed in those artists, but it’s not the same urgency as the primary market — they can see a Ryman over at Zwirner, too,” Mr. Henry said of Robert Ryman, an artist whose work his gallery has shown over the years. The Ryman estate is represented by David Zwirner Gallery, but Ms. Cooper included his work in her gallery’s very first show in SoHo.

The seesaw between the two markets also says something about the fairs themselves and who attends them.

Mr. Horowitz said that the Paris+ fair, having had only two editions, was still in experimentation mode.

“People have been trying to figure out the balance,” he said.

Art Basel in Basel has long been considered a top place to bring a secondary market masterpiece.

“It has the largest pool of collectors coming from all over the globe,” said Vincenzo de Bellis, Art Basel’s director of fairs and exhibition platforms. “And there’s a strong, solid presence of European collectors who buy modern art.”

Collectors and dealers say Art Basel Hong Kong is more weighted to primary market work, and the same is true of explicitly contemporary-focused fairs like Frieze London; its sibling fair, Frieze Masters, delves into older work.

Mr. Olney of Kasmin said Art Basel Miami Beach was appealing for its versatility. “It has such great clientele, and there’s interest in both markets,” he said. “They both do very well.”

Mr. de Bellis said that at the most recent Paris+ fair in October, the balance moved a bit toward primary market works. Although he cannot play favorites, he found something to like in the shift.

“Seeing primary market works in some of the biggest booths got my heart pumping,” he said. “We come to see what’s new.”

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