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Art Basel: The Art World’s Back, Baby!

As the Art Basel Miami art-fair bacchanalia heads into the weekend, there are some big buys — and even bigger buyers. One or two dozen of the Forbes 400 are here, plus their friends, relatives, art advisers, and seemingly every 20-year-old New Yorker who thinks porkpie hats are still in fashion. Val Kilmer’s buying art — specifically, a huge piece you may remember from the roof of the Met — Sylvester Stallone’s selling it, and the U.S. Federal Marshals stopped by to seize some paintings from a Zurich gallery’s booth in a legal dispute.

Confetti aside, this is all about selling art, and never has the scene been so competitive. The dozen or so concurrent rival fairs, once gentlemanly, are scheduling events head-to- head and as far away from each other as possible. Art Basel’s black VIP card, formerly giving Über-access across town, is spurned as events stop accepting each other’s credentials, slowing the lemminglike migration from party to party. There are perhaps a record number of events and dinners from sponsors like Sotheby’s, Swarovski Crystals, Vanity Fair, Audi, Cartier, and UBS — all those simultaneous — but they’re, by and large, smaller than in previous years. (Overheard, often: “You don’t have a plus one!”)

Amid all the chaos, the art this year, for a change, is actually far better than the parties. Roxy Paine, whose twisting stainless-steel garden, “Maelstrom,” took over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rooftop last summer, is the main fair’s art star. Actor Val Kilmer, a relatively new art collector, is here in Miami and has arranged to purchase the huge sculpture that the Met had on display, people familiar with the matter say. James Cohan Gallery, which represents Paine, won’t confirm this, but Jane Cohan notes that Kilmer “recently met the artist and is really excited by his work.” As for Kilmer, chatting tableside at the W Hotel with John McEnroe last night, he didn’t comment on the purchase but did say “I’m building the world’s biggest sculpture garden at my ranch in New Mexico.” The price was undisclosed, but Eli Broad, the collector who has his own building at the L.A. County Museum of Art, bought a smaller Roxy Paine from the gallery, this one for about $500,000.

Sculpture is hot in general, along with Indian art and classic twentieth-century contemporary pieces, which are now at more “realistic” prices, says Larry Warsh, head of AW Asia and probably America’s biggest collector of Chinese contemporary art. (He swore he wouldn’t buy more this year, but is eying a Subodh Gupta.) Simon de Pury, chairman of Phillips de Pury, is usually selling art, but here bought a “fantastic installation” by conceptualists Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker from Greene Naftali Gallery — and added that Miami pied-piper collector and socialite Rose de la Cruz already had one in her private museum.

The scene is hushed but moneyed: Steve Wynn went fair shopping with a Sotheby’s vice-chair, stopping to chat with Stallone, who was offering his own paintings (three sold). Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, and several designers and architects have also been spotted in fair booths, along with CEO types (or their kids) from Toys-R-Us, Berkshire Hathaway, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Real-estate developer Aby Rosen, whose partnership owns Lever House, went shopping at an art show of Bruce High Quality Foundation artworks curated by Vito Schnabel and bought one. "Is the art world back?" we asked him. “Yes — but, you know, it was never really gone.”

Photo: Patrick McMullan