In this file photo, actress Pamela Anderson attends Art Basel Image Credit: AFP

Organisers of Art Basel, the centerpiece of the European art market calendar, have cancelled the show in Basel, Switzerland, in September because of ongoing health and safety concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 50th anniversary edition of the event, featuring more than 250 international galleries, had originally been scheduled to take place in June, but had been postponed to September 15-20.

The Swiss Federal Council had delayed its decision on whether the fair could go ahead until later this month. Uncertainty about the regulatory environment, together with concerns about the financial risks for exhibitors and partners, as well as “ongoing impediments to international travel,” had been additional factors in the decision to cancel, Art Basel said in a statement.

“We are acutely aware that our galleries are facing unprecedented challenges and economic difficulties, and we had fervently hoped to support the art market’s recovery with a successful fair in September,” said Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel. “Unfortunately, the uncertainties that we face remain too high.”

This is another major blow to Art Basel’s beleaguered Swiss parent company, MCH Group. Both the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Baselworld watch fair - traditionally the organiser’s biggest moneymaking event — were cancelled last month.

“To lose both these events is a significant blow to MCH and its shareholders,” said Todd Levin, an art adviser based in New York who is a regular visitor to Art Basel. “Is it a blow for the art world? Obviously, it’s a disappointment, but most people were expecting it,” Levin added. “It’s an art fair where you go to buy stuff. If you don’t go one year, you go another.”

Art Basel Hong Kong, scheduled for March 17-21, was scratched in February because of the pandemic and converted into an online fair.

On April 27, Art Basel wrote to concerned exhibitors saying that if the Swiss fair were cancelled it would refund prepaid fees. Organisers also said that 25 per cent of booth fees retained after the cancellation of the Hong Kong fair could be rolled over into fees for subsequent Art Basel fairs.

However, Claes Nordenhake, an Art Basel participant based in Berlin and Stockholm, and other dealers coordinated a letter of response from participating galleries, sent on May 30, that urged organisers to reconsider holding the fair. “Art Basel is the most important and powerful art fair in the world but even in the best possible scenario, an edition held this year would be a mere shadow of its established stature and imperil its reputation,” the letter said. Signed by more than 50 dealers, it concluded: “We believe that risks are simply too great and that regrettably 2020 is a lost year.”

“I really understand it was a difficult decision,” Nordenhake said, adding, “I’m very relieved. It would have been a major threat to our health and our finances. If you look at the demographic of the collectors at Art Basel, many of them are over 60. There would have been very few of them at the fair.”

The 2019 edition of Art Basel, held last June, attracted 93,000 visitors.

As was the case with Art Basel Hong Kong, collectors will now be able to view the fair online. A virtual version of the fair will go live from June 19-26, with preview days from June 17-19.