At This Year's Art Basel, Not All VIPs Are Created Equal

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Photo: Getty Images

MIAMI BEACH — Money walks. And strides. And even pushes, as it did when the huge metal doors swung open at Art Basel Miami Beach today and several thousand collectors poured into the art fair. Soon enough, developer Aby Rosen was chatting with Larry Gagosian by a Lichtenstein nude, Benedikt Taschen was inquiring about prices for most of the Zwirner booth's works, and Keanu Reeves was drawing a small, neck-turning crowd as he shopped. The Miami Beach Convention Center was so crowded that some dealers from rival fairs closed their booths for the afternoon. "Everybody's here," said Robert Goff, of the buzzy NADA fair, where Steve Cohen and Charles Saatchi are usual shoppers.

Art Basel is expected to attract 40,000 shoppers over five days, and a quick look at its wares shows how radically the art market has changed since last year's event.

In the past, collectors would wander from booth to booth, taking in everything; this year's crowd is more brand-loyal, packing only a handful of booths. Who drew the shoppers? Gagosian (showing Willem de Kooning and Damien Hirst, among others), Deitch Projects (with works ranging from classic James Rosenquist to rising star Kehinde Wiley), and Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Zurich-based gallery Gmurzynska, which often deals in Russian art or to Russian collectors, was packed, too.

The work for sale is classic quality: painting and sculpture by brand-name artists. There was a smattering of good video art but few elaborate installations, almost nothing designed to shock. Sexual imagery isn't so much taboo as old news — this Art Basel is a PG-rated show. Big paintings were big: Wall-eaters, they're called, and they're the mark of a strong art market. Robert Mnuchin's L&M Gallery was offering suite of ten giant Marilyn Monroe prints by Andy Warhol for $1.5 million. (And that's prints, not paintings.) Buyers alternated between haggling for deals and fretting they'd miss out if they waited to purchase.

After a few hours of window shopping — most art isn't cash-and-carry — collectors headed to the "VIP Collectors Lounge," a soothing oasis of white couches, champagne, Caesar salads, and a Bulgari booth. But there was a snag. There are now apparently two levels of VIP passes; both are white on the front but only the more elite one is pale blue on the back. Without the blue backing, there's no Collectors Lounge for you, at least not at prime times like the lunch hour. Silly, yes. But it just made the Caesar salads tastier. —Alexandra Peers

CORRECTION, Dec. 7: A previous version of this post misidentified art-book publisher Benedikt Taschen as Bernard. Also, the earlier version suggesting that VIP tags without blue backing did not allow lounge access; in fact, they allow lounge access during offpeak hours.