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On the Trail of the Sale at Art Basel Miami Beach

December 7, 2016

The Miami gallery owner Fredric Snitzer at his Art Basel booth in the Miami Beach Convention Center.


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?”


Mr. Snitzer, center, with, from left, the artist Rafael Domenech; Mr. Domenech’s fiancée, Anika Batista; and Dario Samada. 


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. Snitzer, left, and Mr. Domenech, whose sculptures hang behind. 


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 rampa