Day in the Life: Auction Veteran Simon de Pury Chats Up Old Friends at Art Basel and Shows Us Some of Its Many Delights
Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.
This was the 51st edition of Art Basel and as a native of this city devoted to art and culture, I am proud to say that I have visited every single one of the 51 editions. One forgets how revolutionary it was back at the start to show art in a fair building that would normally only exhibit things like washing machines.
David Nahmad is the first person I saw shortly after the 11 a.m. opening of the private viewing. The booth of the Nahmad family is in a sort of pole position, as it is the first one you see when you walk into the Messehalle. David also happens to be one of the first people I met when I started in the art world a little while back. Together with his brothers Joe and Ezra, he was starting to build an empire. Today, his passion for art is unabated. With Ezra and their children, they look after one of the biggest treasure troves of 20th- and 21st-century art. He is the best raconteur ever and one could listen for hours to his fascinating stories and anecdotes.
To get four Nahmads at once was an opportunity not to be missed! A magnificent large Dubuffet in grisaille proved to be the perfect backdrop for this snapshot. There are, of course, more Nahmads. I remember when, at the big evening auctions of Sothebys and Phillips, an entire row of seats would have to be reserved at the front of the room for the whole Nahmad family.
A little further, I saw the booth of Thaddaeus Ropac. I took this photograph of him in front of a Baselitz masterwork from the early 1980’s. It is unquestionably one of the strongest works at this year’s Art Basel. I remember meeting Thaddaeus when he opened his first gallery in Salzburg. He has not changed physically one iota since then. Like in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Thaddeaus simply does not age. But contrarily to the unpleasant character of Oscar Wilde’s novel, Thaddeaus is one of the great gentlemen of the art world.
Daniella Luxembourg with a true gem by Paul Klee in her booth. Together with her daughter, Alma, she runs a gallery on both sides of the Atlantic. Her impeccable eye is a guarantee that whatever you will see in her booth is exceptional. I spent many exciting years working with Daniella, first at Sotheby’s, then as partners of de Pury & Luxembourg, and subsequently at Phillips.
Almine Rech owns galleries in Paris, Brussels, London, New York, and Shanghai. She lives with her husband, Bernard Picasso, in Monaco. She has a knack championing the work of artists whose markets take off the minute she starts looking after them. She stands in her booth in front of a strong new work by red hot Ewa Juszkiewicz, who was one of the sensations of the November contemporary art auctions in New York.
Max Hetzler, with Samia Saouma and their son Max Jr., run the Max Hetzler Gallery in Berlin and Paris. Here he stands in front of what is possibly the best work ever of Glenn Brown.
Benedikt Taschen and Amy Cappellazzo in front of a work by Bridget Riley at the Max Hetzler Gallery. The star publisher who revolutionized the market for beautiful art books and the former rainmaker at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s clearly seemed very happy to catch up with each other in person at Art Basel.
On my way onto the next gallery, I bumped into Pierre Huber and Roberto Gomez Godoy. They used to run Art & Public in Geneva, where I had my first exhibition as a photographer in the 1990s. After a big sale of part of their contemporary art collection at Christie’s in New York, they closed their gallery but continued to feverishly collect ever since. They spend their time between homes in Pierre’s native Switzerland and Roberto’s Colombia as well as in Portugal.
Edward Tyler Nahem in his booth in front of a work by Christopher Wool, an artist I worshiped ever since I first came across his work in the 1989 Whitney Biennial Exhibition. Edward has a parallel career as a successful producer of musicals and music documentaries.
In 1977, Marina Eliades founded with Jean Bernier the Bernier Eliades Gallery in Athens. She instantly became one of the key contemporary art dynamos in Greece and participated in every single edition of Art Basel ever since. In 2016, she opened a second gallery in Brussels. Here she is in her booth under one of several fine works by Thomas Schütte that she is showing this year.
Ever since I first saw a painting by Robin at Frieze New York in 2018, I have been fascinated by her work. She constantly evolves and is getting better and better.
Cristina Banban demonstrates that she holds her own when shown next to works by Georg Baselitz, Eric Fischl, or Martin Kippenberger.
The demand for works by Party has been red hot for a while. Too much commercial success can sometimes creatively present a real challenge for an artist. As this work testifies, Nicolas Party so far is coping really well and he continues to grow. Please forgive the reflections on the top left. It’s always difficult to photograph a work that is behind glass.
If you look at this work by Doug Aitken more closely, you can read the text and realize that the mirror pieces transform into an edge-of-chaos selfie.
This painting is a double whammy for me, as I love the work of the hugely talented Eliza Douglas and have a passion for anything related (from close or far) to The Simpsons.
This is a gem of a work on paper by the great Surrealist master. André Breton liked so much Le Viol, one of Magritte’s masterpieces, that he asked the artist to do this as maquette for the cover of his book, Qu’est-ce que le Surréalisme?
Francesco Vezzoli continues his singular path of sophistication, refinement, and humor. He is, in my view, currently undervalued.
I always had a soft spot for the work of Victor Brauner. The various recent surveys of Surrealism, like the one currently being shown at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, only fortified it. This is a small but strong work of his at Applicat-Prazan gallery.
The booth of Gagosian is every year by far the most packed with eager collectors from all over the world. There is a high-octane atmosphere with the killer sales team in full action. Larry sits on a bench along the corridor opposite his booth and observes it all, I imagine with a good degree of satisfaction. Every work on view by various art stars has maximum wall power and delivers a punch. As this image shows, John Currin simply gets better and better with time.
“Mondrian: Evolution” at the Fondation Beyeler is an absolute must-see exhibition at the moment. It includes this painting that I helped Baron H. H. Thyssen-Bornemisza acquire in the 1980s, when I was the curator of his collection. It was being sold by Israeli collector Markus Mizne in an evening auction at Sotheby’s in London. I accompanied the Baron to a private dinner at the U.S. Embassy in Paris that night. In middle of the dinner, we asked the ambassador if we could leave the table to go and bid over the phone in another room. As soon as we had obtained a line, a power cut plunged the whole embassy into total darkness. Luckily, the phone line was on a different circuit and we were able to get the work against the reserve in an auction where most of the other works had been bought in.
The Trois Rois is the place to be where everyone mingles for a night cap. Founded in 1681, it has hosted many illustrious visitors. The most famous photograph of Theodor Herzl was taken on its balcony. Pablo Picasso described a sleepless night that he spent on the balcony between the time he heard the last tram crossing the bridge, right up to the time of hearing the first tram.
Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is now an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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