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Art, Money And The "Vida Loca" Mingle In Miami Beach

Art Week and the sumptuous events around its star show, Art Basel Miami Beach, was a perfect showcase not just for art, but also guiltless expenditure of vast amounts of cold hard cash.

Hank Willis Thomas, Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks' "Truth Booth" at Art Basel Miami Beach
Hank Willis Thomas, Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks' "Truth Booth" at Art Basel Miami Beach
Mercedes Perez Bergliaffa

-OpEd-

MIAMI — Some 1,000 private jets landed at Miami's Opa Locka Executive Airport in early December for Art Basel Miami Beach, Latin America's most important art fair, where more than art was on display.

There was abundant evidence of facial and other surgical procedures meant to embellish this less-than-proletarian, rather tanned crowd here — 73,000 art world "workers" alone — to celebrate the marriage of art and investment in one of 24 events surrounding the most glamorous of fairs.

The public can attend, of course, and have four days to visit Art Basel. But VIP guests have a week to visit the 267 Art Basel galleries, before visiting hundreds of others and attending meetings, parties and permanent sales where prices this year did not fall below hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pieces were sold within minutes, no haggling.

It was a common sight to see collectors walking around with their advisers — they don't deal directly with gallery owners and dealers — quickly selecting and reserving artworks. Overhead in Art Basel's VIP section (which I entered with a press card and my "collector's" tag), were comments like, "I don't know if I should buy two pieces for $100,000 or one for that price." And the response, "You've seen them already. Buy the two for a hundred, and you can just buy another one later."

That was merely peanuts compared to the $35 million said to have been paid to reserve Alexander Calder's Rouge Triomphant, shown by the Helly Nahmad Gallery, or a Basquiat painting that Van de Weghe Fine Art sold for $5.6 million. The Mnuchin Gallery sold an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao for $4.5 million, and the White Cube Gallery unloaded Damien Hirst'sLove Rememberedfor a cool $4 million.

Serious collectors and pop culture converge

A strange mix of artists, celebrities, art consultants and historians mingled at some of the fabulous parties thrown by companies and collectors, typically for some 400 people. Argentine businessman Alan Faena, who's opening an art center in Miami in 2015, brought 12 assistants from Argentina to organize his much-commented-on barbecues.

Guests at some of the lunches included Paris Hilton, Leonardo di Caprio, Kim Kardashian, tennis player Venus Williams and Ivanka Trump. There were also museum directors, tech and dotcom billionaires, and more "ordinary" billionaires such as Francois-Henri Pinault, the owner of Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

The jokes at these parties were about, well, art and money. One English billionaire hailed another of his kind, art dealer Ivor Braka, as the "richest man in the world." No, "You're the richest man in the world," Braka answered, laughing and giving me a little wink. Braka later told me his friend was rich, but shy. He "always goes around with a little camera taking pictures. It's his way of making contact with other people."

Faena, our Argentine host, described Braka as the "rock "n" roll" art dealer, perhaps because of his leather trousers and jacket. His business sense is anything but crazy, given that he sells works by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

Meanwhile, on continental Miami, the Pérez Art Museum was celebrating its first birthday with a musical party, DJs and all, and displays of "flying" dancers over Biscayne Bay in front of the museum. Art Basel night parties are intense, and breakfasts tend to be devoted to business.

One key daytime event was organized by Don and Mera Rubell. "To Have and to Hold: 50 Years of Marriage and Collecting Contemporary Art" was a celebration of the Rubells' marriage and their mutual passion for art. Besides displaying their collection in 20 rooms, the couple hosted a "performance" in which they spoon-fed their guests portions of 50 different cakes. Collectors like to be seen as original, and generous.

In another show of generous expenditure, "art lover" Craig Robbins had the Miami Design District's pedestrian street closed off so 400 guests could enjoy a dinner in honor of architect Peter Marino. Seventy waiters ensured no champagne glass was ever empty.

As art writer Sarah Thornton told me once, the art world is an exclusive club. In Miami, life itself seems to be a big raffle.

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