MIAMI BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - As art aficionados and collectors descend on Miami Beach this week for one of the world's top contemporary art fairs, galleries are counting on the rising affluence of Latin American buyers.
Latin America's millionaires and billionaires, many newly minted thanks to booming commodity prices and investments from Asia, are making a splash in the global art market, spending record amounts on works by artists from their region and buying pricier works by Impressionists and Old Masters.
"In the art business, Mexico has grown exponentially in the last three to four years," said Axel Stein, head of the Latin American Art Department for Sotheby's in New York. "Our business in Brazil has grown incredibly and that reflects growth in the economies of those countries. Mexico, Brazil and Chile are going to be making headlines in the next few years."
That new clout will be on full display at Art Basel Miami Beach, which was launched in 2002 as a satellite of Art Basel Switzerland and has since become the largest, most important contemporary art fair in the western hemisphere. It's also a must-attend for Latin American collectors looking to expand their portfolios.
"Miami is in their own backyard," said Michael Plummer, principal of ArtVest Partners LLC, a New York investment advisory firm for art collectors. "I have a good friend who lives in Rio (de Janeiro) who makes a point of coming to the fair in Miami, but he would never go to the one in Switzerland, it's a different mindset."
This year's fair, which takes place December 6 to 9, comes on the heels of record sales of Latin American art in New York auction houses. Colombian artist Fernando Botero's "Horse" sculpture was the highlight of a mid-November Christie's auction, selling for a record $938,500.
Globally Latin American art is perceived as undervalued, creating high-demand for works as long-term investments.
"A Latin American buy is not going to be flipped for $1 million or $2 million more, it's a safe bet, prices are still undervalued," said Heather Russell, senior specialist in contemporary Latin American art for ArtNet, a New York City-based online auction house.
Despite works from Latin American artists selling for far less than an Andy Warhol or British sculptor Henry Moore, whose works can fetch up to $30 million, the value of Latin American art continues to climb.
"In 10 years we have more than doubled our numbers in sales," said Stein. For a 250-lot auction, split into two session, total sales used to be between $10 million and $13 million "and now they're bringing in $20 ... $25 million," he added.
Russell said Brazilian artist Vik Muniz was the second-most searched artist on ArtNet's website in October, between Warhol, who ranked number one, and Pablo Picasso, who ranked number three.
A November 19 auction at Sotheby's in New York earned close to the high estimate of about $20 million, according to ArtVest Partners.
The high regard for Latin American contemporary art has made it "as much sought after as any other category of artists from any other geography," said Francisco Arevalo, director of Miami-based Arevalo Gallery, which specializes in works by Latin American artists.
Although the number of Latin American galleries at Art Basel Miami Beach is relatively small, making up barely 10 percent of the show, each year new galleries from the region are being added, said fair director, Marc Spiegler.
"The Latin American market has evolved and is becoming much more internationalized," he said. "A Latin America collector 15 years ago would have been much more likely to collect from their region, yet younger collectors are now buying German artists, Los Angeles artists, Middle Eastern artists."
(Editing by David Adams and Patricia Reaney)