2016-12-05 21:56:16
On the Trail of the Sale at Art Basel Miami Beach

MIAMI BEACH — On the Monday before the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, as collectors and curators descended on the city, the Miami gallery owner Fredric Snitzer found himself at Hyde Resort & Residences on Hollywood Beach to begin his week of deceptively casual interactions that compose this genteel bazaar.

Mr. Snitzer, 66, had a lot riding on this fair. He was the only local dealer selected for every Art Basel Miami Beach since its 2002 debut and one of only two Miami gallerists in this year’s edition, which concluded on Sunday evening. Despite that rarefied position, and the resultant sniping from his hometown rivals, he still felt uncertain about his role in the larger art world pecking order — and hopeful about using exposure at Basel to leap to the next economic rung.

“Gagosian has hundreds of thousands of square feet in galleries all over the world,” he noted with exasperation about the powerhouse dealer Larry Gagosian, “and people in Miami think I’m the one in control?”

Unlike blue-chip name brands such as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Andy Warhol, whose paintings sell themselves, Mr. Snitzer’s represented artists include emerging talents like the 26-year-old sculptor Rafael Domenech, whose work was being showcased at the Hyde by its developer, Jorge M. Pérez, the billionaire named on the facade of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. To help distinguish the Hyde, a new high-rise just north of Miami, Mr. Pérez had commissioned a nearly $400,000 artwork from Mr. Domenech, a sprawling installation that featured Saturn-like rings above the building’s entryway and its scrambling automobile valets. Mr. Snitzer was keen to show off the installation — and Mr. Pérez’s imprimatur.

“I want this kid to have a career for the rest of his life,” he said of his hopes for his artist, who had been his student at a Miami fine arts program after Mr. Domenech immigrated from Cuba in 2010.

The Domenech opening was a bit of a bust. Strong winds kept the desultory crowd out of the scenic pool area and clumped awkwardly in the lobby. Mr. Pérez continued the party at his penthouse in an adjoining high-rise, as more global Basel-goers arrived. His walls were filled with artwork, as well as a handy list to help visitors identify it, from the kitchen’s Sol LeWitt painting to a hallway’s Robert Motherwell tapestry. It should have been a perfect networking moment. But Mr. Snitzer was shortly heading for the door. “I hate schmoozing,” he admitted sheepishly, aware that this was a serious liability in a trade built on personal connections.

Tuesday morning found Mr. Snitzer in better spirits. Six paintings by Hernan Bas hung in his downtown Miami gallery — striking portraits of waifish young men in states of tropical repose — and the reaction was immediate from the invitation-only crowd. Within two hours, three works priced between $105,000 and $135,000 had sold, with Mr. Bas and Mr. Snitzer set to evenly split the proceeds.

Mr. Bas, who grew up in Miami and now divides his time between here and Detroit, began showing with Mr. Snitzer in 1998, as a 20-year-old, “when I couldn’t even drink the wine at my own openings.” Today he has an art star’s résumé full of museum exhibitions and representation by top-tier galleries in New York and London.

Yet these latest paintings went to Mr. Snitzer “out of loyalty,” Mr. Bas explained. “Sometimes artists go off to work with big names and they learn the hard way.”

Mr. Bas pointed to his experience with the buzz-laden New York gallerist Daniel Reich. After Mr. Reich committed suicide in 2013, The New York Times saluted him as among a group of innovative young dealers ‘‘tacking against the trend toward a more button-down, sleek, big-money business.” Mr. Reich had great success placing Mr. Bas’s paintings with marquee collectors. But Mr. Bas said that receiving payment was another matter: “He just stopped returning my calls and responding to my emails. When he died, he owed me $140,000.” Mr. Bas added that several of his artist friends had similarly struggled to collect on sales from well-known dealers. “It’s so much more rampant than anyone talks about.” By way of contrast, he concluded warmly, “Papa Snitzer has always been there for me.”

There was little time for a victory lap on Mr. Snitzer’s part. He paused to stare in disbelief at his opening’s catering bill of several thousand dollars. “They’re charging $250 to rent us flowers for two hours?” he asked. “We don’t even get to keep the flowers?” After a resigned shake of his head, he headed out to finish installing his Basel booth at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The setting there evoked an explosion in a Bubble Wrap factory as an army of installers swarmed about, unpacking, measuring and hammering. The painter Chuck Close sped through the debris in a motorized wheelchair, off to oversee the hanging of his artwork, followed by a forklift whose protruding blades passed ominously close to an Alex Katz painting. Mr. Domenech was right alongside Mr. Snitzer, hanging his own sculptures and choreographing an array of spotlights. At $65,000 for the booth’s 807 square feet, every rented inch was put to its most aesthetically enticing use. Add in setup costs, and the gallery owed $80,000 before Mr. Snitzer had sold a single piece. “I’m paying the same per square foot as Gagosian,” he explained, except that Mr. Gagosian needs to sell just one of his seven-figure artworks to cover expenses.

Mr. Snitzer’s strategy? To showcase his thriving midcareer artists like Mr. Bas, Enrique Martínez Celaya and Kenny Scharf — all of whom can attract fresh eyes to his younger artists and subsidize his display of their lower-priced work.

At Wednesday morning’s V.I.P. opening, the Basel crowd was noticeably thinner than in past years, though boldfaced names were still in evidence. The hip-hop impresario Sean Combs stopped at Snitzer’s booth, bringing his entourage of bored-looking assistants and children to a sudden halt. Mr. Combs zeroed in on a young woman gazing at abstract paintings by Eli Sudbrack — better known as Assume Vivid Astro Focus. When she displayed little enthusiasm for Mr. Combs’s repeated inquiries about her favorite art, or his invitation to an event of his that night, he and his pack moved on. “He was working it hard there,” Mr. Snitzer said with a sympathetic chuckle for a fellow pitchman.

Mr. Domenech’s two $10,000 sculptures were the first pieces to be snapped up. By early afternoon there were also two holds on Mr. Bas’s $120,000 painting — then Douglas Ray and Richard Segal arrived, executives from a New York real estate investment firm.

Calls were rapidly placed, both holds were released, and there was a sudden crackle of anticipation. As Mr. Ray, the buyer, explained later, this was his first major art purchase — “It just captured me” — and he was unsure of the mechanics for closing a sale. But after spying an already sold Bas artwork at the Lehmann Maupin booth, he wasn’t going to lose out twice. Mr. Segal, a Basel veteran, jumped in to finalize the price.

“What can you do for my friend?” Mr. Segal asked, reminding Mr. Snitzer that he was also a trustee at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mr. Snitzer offered the 10 percent standard industry discount — a sum almost always built into the asking price. Mr. Ray started hedging, asking about other Bas works, and Mr. Snitzer began to pull up some images on an iPad. Mr. Segal wryly chided the dealer, “Never lose a sale.”

Mr. Snitzer picked up his cue and quickly assured Mr. Ray that his painting was the best available. “O.K., done,” Mr. Segal thundered, with an outstretched handshake. An invoice would be sent and the painting shipped upon payment. The entire $108,000 transaction lasted barely five minutes.

By 8 p.m. and the close of the fair’s first day, other dealers had uncorked Champagne, but Mr. Snitzer simply sat for a moment. “I’m 66 years old,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I’m finally in the best position I’ve ever been in.”

So what was on tonight’s agenda? Mr. Snitzer turned incredulous: “Can’t I take a nap now?”