“Ah, I hope I get my Anish Kapoor. I’m tussling with the gallery over the price,” a burly Brazilian collector named Rafael Raddi murmured to me. We’d just attended a talk on “The impact of the Arab Spring on local artists” at Art Basel, the world’s biggest art fair, held in mid-June. “Anish’s creative spirit is a foil to that of the Rio artist, Tunga. I’d like to have their works as counterpoints in my collection.”

I do not know whether Raddi acquired the work he was lusting for; I did not meet him again and my email to him went unanswered. But hundreds of other collectors reportedly did: Be it a Warhol drawing, a Richter abstract, or a Calder mobile. The global recession has quite evidently made no holes in their pockets. They swished around, looking not just at the Picassos, Klimts, Koons’s and Kapoors but also keenly at the less vaunted video-works and installations in the “Art Unlimited” section, making notes on their ipads, clicking pictures on their smart phones of the works of emerging African and Asian artists, striking solemn deals.

A universal draw was Alexander Calder’s wiry little “Cow” (just $2 million). The fair’s highlight for me was chatting with Calder’s grandson, Alexander Rower, president of the Calder Foundation in NY, who told me about his grandfather’s fascination for India, where he had once spent three weeks at the Sarabhai estate in Ahmedabad, “talking art, making art” (the ‘Calder in India’ exhibition is currently on in London), and his prowess as a dancer. “He swirled like his mobiles do, creating a tangible energy field,” Rower said smilingly.

Some seemed as allured as I was by Subodh Gupta’s “Vehicle for the Seven Seas” (sculpture of gilded bronze trolley and aluminium luggage) — I’d have bid for it if Peter Nagy of Nature Morte, Delhi, hadn’t priced it at $800,000 — and with Puerto Rico-based American artist Daisy Youngblood’s ethereal bronzes of “Sri Ramana Maharshi” (more affordable at $40,000).

Big buys

At the end of the five-day event Art Basel reported “strong sales”. The mega-rich are by all accounts looking at art as a safe bet in a climate of economic gloom, especially in the euro zone. As gallerist Andrew Fabricant put it, “art is portable, and liquid, and can be traded in different currencies.”

Their buys covered the gamut — in price and in geographical-cultural spread. An unidentified American collector bought the vivid-hued Richter abstract “A.B. Courbet” for roughly $20 million, while another bought London-based Kashmiri artist Raqib Shaw’s pair of delicate, jewel-coloured paintings on paper for $100,000 a piece. Young Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili’s paintings, priced between $4,500 and $17,000, sold out within an hour of the show opening, and Indian artist Mithu Sen’s work went within the day for $15,000. Chinese works “pulled a good price”.

Interest in Asian contemporary art, especially Chinese, is on the up-and-up. “Galleries and collectors are drawn to the energy that has emerged in the country since the Cultural Revolution,” said Sarah Goulet of Pace Gallery, NY, which sold the Richter and the Raqib Shaw paintings. A Swiss banker-art consultant told me that the rise of a millionaire and billionaire class in Asia has also hiked this interest in art and art investment. Big new investors such as Qatar and Dubai led the art market to climb, to $46.1 billion in 2011, according to a study by the European Fine Art Foundation, by buying top-notch works, including Asian ones, to fill upcoming museums. It has dropped since (no figures yet for 2012), but it’s still robust.

No wonder Art Basel is launching a Hong Kong edition in 2013. Asia has been on its “radar” for some time, but it took it a while to decide where to land. “It needed to be a pan-Asian city,” director Marc Spiegler said. “There are only three: Shanghai has tax and government issues; Singapore has censorship issues; Hong Kong has a long history of freedom of expression. So HK it was.”

According to his co-director, Annette Schoenholze, one of their aims is to teach the wider world about those “pockets of Asian art history” that remain relatively undiscovered by the west. That’s the sentiment that has also fired Lucerne-based collector Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China, to just donate 1,463 of his 2,200-strong Chinese contemporary art collection, a gift valued at $163 million, to Hong Kong’s up-and-coming M+ Museum. His collection includes seminal early examples by artists from mainland China whose works now sell for a fortune, notably Ai Wei Wei, who likes to “speak for those who are afraid”, Zeng Fanzhi, who is known for painting men in suits and grinning masks, and Zhang Xiaogang, famous for his haunting family portraits.

“There’s not much art historical documentation of contemporary art in China, the largest cultural space in the world. I hope my donation will change that,” Sigg said. “I began to collect works by China’s avant-garde three decades ago, when few other collectors or museums were paying much attention to it. And, I always knew that my collection would return one day to its original domain.”

Open future

Art Basel hasn’t considered coming to India. The directors didn’t say so, but India’s bureaucratic climate clearly holds little appeal. As Hong Kong-based collector Monique Burger, whose foundation has sponsored Nalini Malani’s video-work, “In Search of Vanished Blood”, at the on-going Documenta in Kassel, and Claire Hsu of the Asia Art Archive observed, in India government support to the arts is at best sporadic and museums are at best bureaucratic. But in the era of climate change, the future is wide open, they agreed.

“There’s hope in private institutions such as the Devi Art Foundation,” Hsu observed. So, now that’s Hong Kong is on the Art Basel map, perhaps Delhi’s not that far behind.