Even among the most unassuming art collectors, trying to look like a gallery worker is generally not a goal.
But then again, this is mid-June in Basel, home of the world's biggest and best 20th-century art fair. Some collectors really want to get a jump on their rivals. So on Monday, 24 hours before Art Basel opened to invited collectors and 48 hours before it opened to the public today, the very well-connected dressed down, borrowed worker's passes from friendly dealers and slipped past security guards into the huge Messe Basel Exhibition Hall.
The dealers were still setting up their booths, but that did not stop determined collectors like Eileen Cohen, Jose Mugrabi and Michael Hort, all New Yorkers, and Dennis and Deborah Scholl of Miami, and curators like Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, from looking and buying.
There is a lot to see. With 260 dealers from around the world, Art Basel is daunting. It shines with masterworks by artists from Picasso and Polke to Johns and Richter as well as works by hundreds of newer artists like John Currin and Rosemarie Trockel, Germany's representative in this year's Venice Biennale.
"It's an art extravaganza," said Thea Westreich, a New York-based art adviser who settled in over the weekend with a staff of four to work with a half-dozen or so of her clients who are here. "It's a very full sampling of the market."
Indeed, dealers save their very best works to show here because the exhibition hall is awash in serious buyers. They are an international group -- mostly European, but with large contingents from the United States and others from Japan, Australia and Latin America. The fair also draws hundreds of museum curators. This year the Dallas Museum of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York are among those shepherding their patrons across the Atlantic.
Those who arrive late often regret it. Norman and Norah Stone of San Francisco arrived in Basel around 1 P.M. on Tuesday and went straight to the fair, two hours after several thousand invited collectors were admitted. They went straight to the booth of Thomas Amman Fine Art of Zurich to purchase an Andy Warhol hammer and sickle painting they had heard about. Their first choice, a red one, was long gone and so was the white one that was their second choice. "We found out our friends from San Francisco, Kent and Vicki Logan, beat us to the Warhol," Mrs. Stone said. "We will always come in on Mondays from now on."
Even some artists who normally shun the commerciality of art fairs come to Basel. Robert Rauschenberg, Daniel Buren, Rebecca Horn and Vanessa Beecroft are a few of those expected this week. Miss Trockel was here on Monday, as was Katharina Fritsch, a German artist who was setting up her own work at the booth of the New York dealer Matthew Marks. "She said that a lot of young artists come here to see art and she wanted it to look right," Mr. Schimmel said.
By the fair's end on Monday, the crowd is expected to exceed last year's total of 51,000, threatening to overwhelm Basel's 200,000 residents as they take over the town's streets, restaurants and 30 museums. No matter. This is Art Basel's 30th anniversary, and the town has been invited to some festivities. On Saturday night, several theaters, discos, museums and other cultural institutions in the town center will offer free special events and remain open until at least midnight in celebration.
Dealers have to compete for the 260 spots at Art Basel. This year, more than 800 galleries, including virtually all of last year's participants, applied, up from about 700 last year. "Four hundred to 500 of them are galleries that would have a place at any good international art fair without question," said Lorenzo A. Rudolf, the fair manager. "The problem," he added with a smile, "is the space we have available, and we will not enlarge it."
A committee of four dealers -- Pierre Hubert of Art & Public Gallery of Geneva; Victor Gisler of Mai 36 Galerie of Zurich, Gianfranco Verna of Galerie Verna of Zurich; and Wolfgang Gunther of Galerie Limmer of Cologne -- reviewed dealers' plans and selected the winners in a four-day session last fall.
Participants from previous years usually make the cut unless they failed to show high-quality art. New applicants work hard on their proposals to prove they should be chosen. In the past, Art Basel aimed to include about 25 new galleries each year. This time, it decided to admit 50 newcomers. "The public wants new stuff, and we have to remain fresh," Mr. Rudolf said.
Exhibiting at Basel is expensive -- total costs run to $60,000 or more, which is double or triple what it takes to show at other contemporary art shows. But dealers like Andrea Rosen, a Chelsea dealer who is now in her third year with a full-scale booth, say they have made a profit even in their first year.
"It's the only fair that I do," said Ms. Rosen. "At Basel, it's the best collectors in the world, the people you dream about selling to, the people who are really knowledgeable."
This year some well-established, highly respected New York galleries are in Basel for the first time -- like Barbara Gladstone, Mitchell-Innes and Nash, David Zwirner and Luhring Augustine.
"We've done other European fairs but they never had the international reach that Basel has," said Laurence Luhring, who started his gallery with Roland Augustine 15 years ago and was showing paintings by Christopher Wool, Martin Kippenberger and a new sculpture by Rachel White read. For collectors, Art Basel offers a rare opportunity to compare inventory and prices. "The key is to be able to assess the works that are new to the market that dealers save up for Basel," said Ms. Westreich.
Besides offering an array of works by modern masters, the Basel fair devotes an entire floor to cutting-edge dealers. And it includes a special section called "Art Statement" that presents one-person shows by young artists. There are areas set aside for photography, outsize sculptures and video and film art as well.
Curators and collectors can thus assess creative trends and identify the rising stars. With the number of artists represented here now well over 1,000, that is getting harder and harder. But curators were talking about the "new painting" trend of the 90's, a synthesis of 60's styles like Color Field abstraction, geometric abstraction and Op Art into something fresh -- painters like Kevin Appel, Monique Prieto and Laura Owens.
Indeed, Ms. Owens and Matthew Ritchie, both young American painters, were honored by the Baloise Insurance Group, a Swiss company, which this year inaugurated an annual award of $16,320 to two artists. In addition, the company will buy a work by each artist and donate them to a European museum.
As the week wears on, once collectors have wandered through all the exhibits and made their purchases, Basel becomes more and more social. Big dealers like Anthony D'Offay of London and New York hold dinner parties and visitors flood museums like the Beyeler Foundation, which this year is showing "Face to Face: Human Images from Cezanne to Cyberspace."
By Tuesday, this town on the Rhine will be cleared out and back to normal.