It was at Basel Art Fair in 2006 between Charles Saatchi, publicist and collector, Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH and Steve Cohen, manager of the hedge fund SAC Capital Partners.
The object of their lust ? Pieces of bronze-casted HUMAN EXCREMENT covered in 24-carat gold and contained in glass boxes supposed to be the symbols of an anti consumerist statement.
Eventually Steve Cohen snapped the coveted shit from the lust of the two others wealthy fools with a bid at £68,000.
The golden shit was the work of sculptor Terence Koh (here with K.Lagerfeld) who was born in 1977 in Beijing, was raised in Mississauga, Ontario, and lives in New York City. Also known as Asianpunkboy, Koh received his Bachelor degree from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Vancouver and his work often borders on pornography.
Basel art fair is one of the four biggest 205 art fairs in the world where dealers come together for several days to offer their best works as the prize of each individual booth is never under $40,000.
The big Four are to art what Cannes Festival is to movies industry : a place where you must be seen or you are a non-entity. The big #1 is the TEFAF (European Fine Art foundation fair) : held in March it is known as the Maastrich Fair (Netherlands) under the patronage of French insurance Cy AXA. Founded in 1985, it exhibits art works for a global value estimated at $1 billion. It is 28,000 m2 (300,000 sq ft) which is roughly the size of four soccer fields. In 2008, 610 dealers applied to show and only 220 from 15 countries were accepted. No important art dealer wants to miss Maastricht where sales in 2007 had a value of some €790 million.
For Ben Janssens, Chairman of TEFAF’s Executive Committee, “there is no evidence that the jittery financial markets have discouraged art buyers and in fact the reverse seems to be true. Visitors said to me that they see no point in investing in stocks at the moment and prefer to put their money into art and antiques.”
The second is Art Basel (Switzerland) called "Olympics of the Art World" which draws during 6 days in June collectors and dealers to the Rhine city : this year 60,000 people attended the Fair and in 2009 circa 300 of the world's leading art galleries for Modern and contemporary art will display 20th- and 21st-century art works. Sponsored by Swiss Bank UBS, Art Basel is the mother of all fairs : in 2008, 900 galleries applied and only 290 were selected, over $2million were spent in advertising and dealers fees for the smallest stand started at €17,000.
A third Fair is Art Basel's spin-off, Art Basel Miami that begain in 2005 and is now the biggest fair in the world for Contemporary Art. It recently took place in December (3-6) : Art Basel Miami is the most important art show in the United States and has achieved world status for his blend of art, money and fashion. Critics call it the "All singing, all dancing art fair." This year, 250 leading galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa exhibited 20th and 21st century artworks by over 2,000 artists. The 80-sq-meter booth costs $110,000. According to art dealers, the 2008 edition was not so bad. Or at least not as bad as expected. Basel Miami is capable to attract more than 2,000 VHNWI (very high net worth individuals).
The last of the big four is the most recent edition, London Frieze in Regent’s Park, held in October since 2004 which features more than 150 galleries from around the world. In order to increase the number of exhibitors and make the exhibit's fees more affordable, Frieze launched in 2008 a new section dedicated to solo artist presentations which is open to galleries who have been in existence for less than 6 years and present a regular programme of exhibitions. In 2006, 470 galleries applied for 152 spots.
Maastrich, the two basel-fairs and Frieze are branded the "must-see" fairs and they attract consignments that might have gone to Christie's or Sotheby's evening sales. It is more or less a virtuous circles in so far as each of them attracts the same collection of dealers, artists, curators and art advisors and journalists. It is a bit of a circus but no more than Cannes Festival and probably more interesting and educating although Art Basel Miami began this year to resemble to a huge gypsy circus with movies and rock stars, even Marilyn Manson had a stand to exhibit his works that were IMHO very good.
Below the big four, one has 20 "nice-to-see" fairs which gives opportunities to mainstream dealers to show their assets. The big four costs the stars dealers up to $100,000 each and any dealer who wants to attend them all will have to cough up half a million dollar or more. Booths at Maastricht are not given away : the total cost of exhibit -including shipping, hotel, food and so on- for a 80- sq.meter booth reaches €80,000 ($120,000).
Will the fair system prevent the auction houses to bury the art dealers as something of the past between the axe and the spinning wheel ? It is hard to tell but the affluence of applications to each of the big four obviously show that the competition is not yet a thing of the past and that dealers are still capable and agressive players on the art market, especially contemporary. And averybody knows that the art market is more and more made of contemporary works as the Old Masters and the Moderr Art works tend to dry up and make themselves rarer and rarer.