Art down but not out at Art Basel Miami Beach

MIAMI (Reuters) - Even Picassos seem to be less than recession-proof these days as the art world succumbs to the global economic downturn.

Art Basel Miami Beach, which is billed as one of the world’s most lavish art fairs, closed on Sunday to mixed reviews about whether the fine art boom of recent years has definitely turned to bust.

The fair was held in a week when it was confirmed that the U.S. economy has been in a recession for the past year and as the turmoil gripping world financial markets continued unabated.

“We’re in a moment, like every other part of the economy, where there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said fair co-director Marc Spiegler as the show ended its seventh annual appearance in the cavernous Miami Beach Convention Center.

There was a lot of talk of discounting and collectors gunning for huge markdowns on the sidelines of the fair, after prices plunged as much as 50 percent below pre-sale estimates at last month’s post-war and contemporary art auctions in New York.

But Spiegler said the fair had exceeded expectations, highlighting the resilience of art even in hard times.

“To the extent that you can draw a conclusion from this show, there’s still a lot of money out there for art works of high quality,” said Spiegler.

“A lot of art work was sold for a lot of money despite the economic conditions.”

Three multimillion-dollar works by Picasso were among pieces that still hung unsold as the fair neared its end Sunday, as were many other works that might have been snapped up quickly in previous years.

“There’s been interest but no offers,” said Nicholas Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries in New York, when asked about demand for Picasso’s “Buste d’Homme,” a 1969 oil on canvas that hung in his display at the show.

The asking price for the painting was $7.5 million.

Many dealers said the level of sales had been reassuring, however, despite declines that Art Newspaper, a trade daily, reported ranging anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent compared with last year.

Astrid Hamm, with Berlin-based Eigen-Art, said the gallery has sold 80 percent less than last year in Miami. But she also said it had placed two important pieces with collectors at the fair, including “Der Altar, 2008,” a painting by Neo Rauch that fetched more than $500,000.

“This wasn’t too painful. It’s been a soft landing but definitely you feel it’s hard times,” she said.

Putting on a brave face despite it multibillion-dollar losses and write-downs this year, the fair’s main sponsor, Swiss bank UBS AG, threw a sumptuous opening night beach party, said Baird Ryan, managing director of Art Capital Group, a New York-based provider of financial services to art dealers and collectors,

“It almost did feel out of place,” Ryan said.

It was just a very kind of opulent, beautiful party,” he added, saying the bank was still highly regarded in the art world despite its alleged involvement in a scheme to help wealthy U.S. clients conceal assets from U.S. tax authorities.