The Color of Money

Basel high rollers are jetting into town ready to blow big bucks

Touted as the most successful and prestigious event of its kind in the hemisphere, Art Basel Miami Beach will massage the egos of some of the wealthiest people on the planet.

"This is definitely the most significant contemporary art fair in the country, and we'll be seeing what one could easily call the who's who of international collectors coming here for the show," says Seth Dolfi, a Miami-based art and jewelry insurance specialist who's seen his business explode as a result of the prestigious art fair.

Most of the A-listers shopping through December 4 at the Miami Beach Convention Center will have access to chauffeured BMWs —the German auto company is an official event sponsor — to and from their swanky hotel suites, an exclusive VIP lounge in which to rest weary tootsies or knock back a flute of Crystal, and a coveted pass green-lighting them at dozens of star-studded bashes thrown morning, noon, and night during the four-day event.

"They are certainly treated as very important people, because they are," explains an Art Basel spokesperson. "We want to make them as comfortable as possible during their visit here."

Visiting and local art dealers alike are swooning over the possibility of catching the eyes of deep-pocketed collectors such as New Line Cinema's Michael Lynne or prefab housing mogul Eli Broad — noted for spending an average of $25 million on art each year.

Broad is famous for purchasing a Lichtenstein painting with his American Express card for $2.4 million at Sotheby's in 1994 and then donating the frequent-flyer miles to the California Institute of Arts for student travel.

NetJets, a company that might be described as a private air limo service, and another of Art Basel's official sponsors, flew in more of the well-heeled gentry to last year's fair than it did to Super Bowl XXXIII held in South Florida in 1999.

Art Basel organizers disdained the convention center's customary plastic-plate-and-cutlery service deployed for the thousands of other events it's carried out over the course of the past four decades, so they had on-premises dining facilities upgraded to feature starched linens, silverware, fine china, and glassware. Last year chirpy waiters served bubbly at the snap of a finger from pushcarts they navigated amid the hobnobbing Gucci-and-Prada set.

Specializing in glamorous art packages, New York-based Turon Travel — designated Art Basel's official travel agency — lists more than 40 local hotels that cater to carriage trade honchos, democratically citing the occasional bargain deal for lunch-bucket infiltrators.

The Lanai Room at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach runs a crisp $989 per night; a penthouse at the Delano during Art Basel weekend will set you back a staggering five grand a night — up a whopping $2000 from the rate the week prior; and a bungalow at The Shore Club runs $3500 per night with a four-day minimum stay — that adds up to a $14,000 minibreak.

Many hoteliers have engaged in a swift-footed waltz to lure visiting tycoons such as Donald Marron, former director of the New York Stock Exchange; television producer Douglas Cramer — best known for Mission: Impossible and The Odd Couple — and Henry Kravis, the notorious Eighties corporate raider of Barbarians at the Gate fame.

The hot-ticket hotel this year, however, is The Sagamore, which boasts oceanfront suites at a plebian-by-comparison $700 per night, and its ritzy clientele will be showered with swell swag during their stay. Forget about phoning-in last-minute reservations, though: The joint was sold-out weeks in advance. Owned by Miami collectors Marty and Cricket Taplin, the art- and design-friendly hotel features luscious, original artwork in every room and is inaugurating an eye-popping art video lounge during the fair. According to their diva publicist, Tara Solomon, the Taplins will be sending gifts on a daily basis to VIP guests, including a copy of Mr. Taplin's book Sand in Their Shoes, an art guide, notebook and pen, and an Andy Warhol magic cube to name a few.

Bernice Steinbaum, a Basel insider its first three installments, finds herself staggering this year after being put out from the convention center show like the Flintstones' cat. Just like others coveting a slice of the half-billion-dollar pie expected to be reaped by galleries stamped with the fair's seal of approval, the local dealer is scrambling for ways to duplicate the seven figures in sales she banked during the 2004 show from a captive audience of VIP collectors.

"I think Art Basel is wonderful," Steinbaum asserts. "It represents the link to our past, our vision of the present, and our gift of the future."

To make sure she still registers on the radar with visiting Baselites, the 25-year veteran of the business is sending out packages of basil seeds to the cognoscenti, urging them to "pick the best" while shopping this year. Known for wearing her trademark bathroom slippers at Basel since its inauguration in 2002, Steinbaum will hand out hundreds of pairs of slippers monogrammed with her initials to mark her presence at the Miami Beach Convention Center fair.

The gallerist expresses distress at not being included in the show this year, well aware the market is booming and that most Basel high rollers have parachuted into town ready to blow big bucks. "I don't understand the selection criteria; last year critics gave me an award for my booth. I can't tell you how pained I feel. I really hope to be back next year," she sniffs.

 
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