“Fifty thousand seems a little high.” This was an invitation to begin negotiating that hung awkwardly in the air, courtesy of the matronly looking woman standing inside the Spinello Projects booth at last month’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Anthony Spinello, the 30-year-old art dealer whose eponymous gallery was making its Art Basel debut—one of only two South Florida galleries to make that rarefied cut—responded with a tight smile and just a hint of annoyance: “Not really.”

As an advisor making purchases on behalf of her art-collector clients, this woman’s tone was all business. In her sights? Miami conceptualist Agustina Woodgate’s Time Atlas of the World, an oversize atlas whose pages had each been painstakingly sanded down by Woodgate over more than five months, leaving behind ghostly abstractions where landmasses had once stood. In her way? Spinello, who motioned to the $50,000 artwork in question, noting how many hours of work Woodgate had poured into transforming the atlas. It was a process, he explained, that offered a subtle commentary on the ephemeral nature of geopolitical boundaries and the often-overlooked visual pleasures of mapmaking.

To some, this may seem like a ridiculous exchange. Yet under the roof of Miami Beach’s Convention Center, operating within the Art Basel economy, it was one of hundreds of such conversations unfolding that day. In fact, seen through the Basel prism, Spinello’s asking price was a bargain. Just down the aisle, within the booth of New York’s pace-setting Andrea Rosen gallery, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1993 artwork, Untitled (Last Light), was selling for $550,000. An 11-foot-long string of 24 small light bulbs, Gonzalez-Torres’s piece was, depending upon your intellectual stance, either a poignant meditation on mortality and the AIDS-related death of the artist’s boyfriend, or simply a string of light bulbs with a six-figure price tag—one whose production required only a fraction of the labor involved in Woodgate’s handiwork.

Moreover, in 1998 Untitled (Last Light) sold at auction for $36,000, likely more than double what its owner had originally paid to the Andrea Rosen gallery five years earlier. This past May saw the same piece flipped at auction for $542,500—an impressive return on one’s investment, which may explain why art-collecting hedge-fund magnate Adam Sender and his wife, Lenore, snapped up two of Woodgate’s atlas-focused works from Spinello at the fair.

The often-surreal nature of these transactions isn’t lost on Spinello. But, sitting in a Morningside coffee shop shortly after Art Basel ended, he insists that faith in his exhibited artists comes first and market considerations second. “I’ve been representing Agustina for eight years, and up until last year I only sold about $500 worth of her work,” he says with a soft sigh. “Now everyone wants it! Being accepted into Art Basel is a huge sign that legitimizes someone’s career. But I always knew from the beginning—Agustina was the first artist I began working with.”

Of course, Spinello’s faith in himself would seem just as crucial. When he arrived in town in 2003, leaving behind classes at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, as well as a city he felt was still drenched in post-9/11 anxiety, he had little awareness of Miami’s burgeoning art scene. Focused on graphic design, he was aiming for a job in advertising. By chance, his first apartment was atop Wynwood’s then-influential (and now defunct) Rocket Projects gallery. “I didn’t even know I was living in an art district, until one Saturday I walked downstairs and there was such a ruckus!” he laughs. Still, he lost little time in diving into his new chosen field. “You learn by doing. Press releases? Consignment forms? I still remember walking over to Bernice Steinbaum’s gallery and asking her to show me how to write up a contract.”

These days, the exhibitions that Spinello initially staged in his own apartment (“I did a pretty good job of camouflaging things, unless you opened a closet and saw my entire life stuffed inside there”) are now at a two-story, 3,000-square-foot warehouse. And his shows have been attracting a who’s who of the Miami art world—from collecting couples such as the Mikesells and the Rubells to a cross-section of artists both veteran and emerging. However, Spinello himself sounds as hungrily ambitious as ever. He points to the recent example of several well-known Miami artists decamping to Los Angeles, a move that sparked anxious chatter over Miami’s long-term prospects as an art mecca. But not from Spinello. “I say, good for them! They should be going to LA. They’ve done everything they could here, and it opens up new space for people in Miami to be recognized and discovered.” Just don’t look for Spinello to join them out west: “I’m only getting started here.” A solo exhibition of artwork by Sinisa Kukec opens February 14 at Spinello Projects, 2930 NW Seventh Ave., Miami; spinelloprojects.com; e-mail: brett@oceandrive.com

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