SINGAPORE (Mar 12): "Cool! I know all these artists!” said billionaire Tom Hill as he examined a US$7,500 ($9,900) beer can by Martin Kippenberger and a US$95,000 pile of Play-Doh pills by Tom Friedman.

It was the night of Feb 27 at the gala preview of the Art Show, bringing 72 galleries to the Park Avenue Armory in New York with plenty of works for sale: from Kippenberger’s unopened 1979 beer can to Max Beckmann’s 1924 Portrait of Irma Simon, priced at US$12 million.

Organised for 30 years by the Art Dealers Association of America, the longest-running fair in the US offers a manageable way to peek inside a trade event before the much bigger Armory Show next week. Hill and his ilk navigate the fairs to glean intelligence, discover hot or forgotten artists and stay informed in an opaque market.

“It’s a one-stop shop where people can see a lot and meet the people they want to meet,” said art dealer James Cohan in his booth. “The amount of information a dealer will share with a person, who may or may not buy anything, is amazing.”

Dealers like Cohan are “the gatekeepers”, said Hill, who recently became chairman of Blackstone Alternative Asset Management after running the hedge fund unit at the private-equity firm for almost 20 years. “Attendance is all about furthering a relationship with them, not necessarily about a transaction relating to the art on display at the fair.”

On his way in, Hill ran into Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum and former director of Creative Time, who had already completed her circuit. She urged him to check out Cohan’s booth, devoted to Bill Viola.

Hill would make it there, but first he put his arm around dealer Rachel Lehmann to scan Catherine Opie’s photographs of Yosemite National Park and had a long chat with dealer Sean Kelly next to a Jose Davila riff on Pablo Picasso. Then, Hill stepped into the Cohan booth, its walls painted dark grey to display videos, priced from US$240,000 to US$375,000, that explore the interactions between man and nature.

Cohan pointed Hill to three screens depicting air, fire and water.

“I like the water,” Hill said.

Hill would learn that many of the works were studies for larger, immersive installations. “Study for Path”, for example, shows a procession of humans through a forest. It is a 70in version of a 70ft projection. One edition is held by the Guggenheim and another is owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault.

Cohan also revealed that Viola is having a yet-to-be-announced solo show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia next year.

“Whenever you talk to anybody who knows the artist, you learn something,” Hill said as he walked to his next stop, the Luhring Augustine booth, where he found the beer can, pills and a work by Christopher Wool, an artist he collects in depth.

On it went, to be repeated in hundreds of interactions until the fair closed on March 4. Hedgefund manager Barry Rosenstein lingered in front of glittery Lynda Benglis sculptures, but that may have been because his wife was chatting up another guest about the play Miss You Like Hell. Blackstone’s A J Agarwal and Steve Scherr of Goldman Sachs could have easily brushed past Woody Allen or Steve Martin near a placard labelled “Visual Irony” at Thomas Colville.

Don Marron’s son William studied works on paper by Nicole Eisenman and declared his favourite: “Saturnista,” with an asking price of US$26,000. Anton Kern had already sold it to the Morgan Library and Museum. “He’s got a good eye,” said Marron, after making lunch plans with Kern.

In the aisles, Agnes Gund, Lee Ainslie, Dan Brodsky and Ann Tenenbaum shared what they had seen. Alice Tisch praised the St Etienne booth, focused on women in German Expressionism and anchored by the US$12 million Beckmann. Peter and Jill Kraus said they liked Jackie Saccoccio’s abstract paintings at Van Doren Waxter, a tangle of lines and drips in yellow, blue and pink.

Laurie Tisch steered a friend to Michael Rosenfeld’s gallery. She was not art shopping, having just received a big delivery from her mother’s estate; she and other family members bought artworks they wanted at market value before sending the rest to Christie’s.

Shelley Fox Aarons, a trustee of the New Museum in New York, was drawn by the vibrant abstract canvases of Liam Everett, made with salt and alcohol and priced between US$25,000 and US$60,000. She found them at Altman Siegel Gallery, exhibiting for the first time.

Armed with cough drops so as not to lose their voices, dealers were eager to engage the passersby, who sometimes seemed more interested in the cocktails, brisket sliders, gravlax, dumplings and socialising. The gala preview was, after all, a fundraiser for Henry Street Settlement, with tickets ranging from US$175 to US$2,000. More than 2,000 people passed through.

Hill stuck to his mission. “Anything great here?” he quizzed gallery owner John Berggruen.

“Everything in our booth!” Berggruen said, standing next to a large painting by Kehinde Wiley of Obama presidential portrait fame. The work had sold for US$200,000 before the doors even opened. — Bloomberg LP