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Mel Bochner's "Event Horizon" at the Peter Freeman Gallery. (Christian Flierl for The New York Times)

At Art Basel, competition heats up the market

BASEL, Switzerland: 'Is there anything left?," asked a bemused Anne Mosseri Marlio, as she was surveying the red dots beside many of the paintings in Paula Cooper's booth.

The doors to Art Basel, the annual contemporary art fair here, opened promptly at 11 a.m. and 10 minutes later Marlio, a collector from Basel, looked visibly distraught. Works by artists like Kelley Walker, Sherrie Levine and Rudolph Stingel had already been sold.

Steven Henry, director of the New York-based Paula Cooper Gallery, seemed just as surprised. "People literally ran and were here by 11:01," he said.

There's nothing like competition. In this overheated market, the collectors who lined up to be first in the door at this invitation-only opening day on Tuesday morning knew that if they spotted something they liked, there was no time to dillydally or someone else would snap it up.

In the lexicon of modern and contemporary art fairs, collectors know that Art Basel is the biggest and the best. By the time the fair ends on Sunday, about 60,000 visitors will have flocked to this city to see an international array of about 300 galleries showing more than 2,000 artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. Many will have also perused a variety of exhibitions in nearby institutions and smaller art fairs that feature more cutting-edge art.

Coming here is not just about shopping. It's also about a lifestyle that includes a month of nonstop traveling. Many of the collectors, museums curators and dealers here had begun their travels in Venice for last week's preview of the Biennale. Some will then head to Germany: first to Kassel, to see Documenta, another art event, and then to the Sculpture Project in Münster. From there, it's on to London for the Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions and to see a bevy of museum and gallery exhibitions.

Along the way there are endless parties and many trips on private planes. Officials at NetJets, the aviation company, said they will have flown more than 200 planes to the Basel airport alone by the time the fair ends on Sunday. Some collectors have also booked planes to stop in Kassel, Münster and London.

People-watching is half the fun. Spotted perusing booths were the financier Henry Kravis and his wife Marie Josée, who is president of the Museum of Modern Art; the newsprint magnate Peter Brant; the Baroness Marion Lambert and her husband Philippe, a member of the Belgian banking family; and Jennifer Stockman, president of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Museum directors were on hand too, including Norman Rosenthal from the Royal Academy of Art in London and Glenn Lowry from the Museum of Modern Art. Even artists, including Lucian Freud and Takashi Murakami, couldn't resist coming here to look, too.

But everything is not as rosy as it seems. Dealers are complaining how difficult it has become to get great works to sell. Collectors are grumbling about the scarcity of top quality art too. "There are some good things but not as many as there used to be here," said Donald Bryant, a New York collector and trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. "The market is so hot and the demand is so great it's getting harder to find great art."

Irving Blum, a seasoned dealer and collector from Los Angeles who has sold several paintings at auction recently, said, "If you're a collector and you have something to sell, your first impulse is to go to the auction houses not the dealers because the prices they're getting are unimaginable. It makes it difficult for the dealers. They can hardly get to smell the material."

"But," he added, "even though the fair is fairly thin this year you can still find the odd thing."

Noticeable here are works by some of the same artists featured in the Venice Biennale. Andrea Rosen, a New York dealer, represents David Altmejd, whose work occupied the entire Canadian pavilion in Venice. Taking center stage at her booth is "Wood Clock," one of the artist's fantastical sculptures that includes a giant log, mirrors, a white plaster waterfall and moss as well as an array of animals like owls and a peacock.

Donald Young, the Chicago dealer, was also taking advantage of the visibility of one of his artists whose work is in the Biennale. Joshua Mosley, the Philadelphia-based multimedia artist, had a large installation in the Italian pavilion at the Biennale. Knowing that, Young said he purposely brought "A Vue," a video work from 2004 about the interchange between a park ranger named Henry and a woman named Susan.

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