Manhattan has its problems - but that doesn't stop a major art show

An art exhibition in Manhattan draws large, enthusiastic crowds and some big-spenders and the excitement it generates is contagious.

The streets of Manhattan may be filled with potholes and talk of recession still rife, but art was being bought at the Armory Show on two piers in the Hudson River at rates reminiscent of the glory days of the art market before 2008.

This year's Amory Show drew more than 65,000, up 5,000 from last year. And Armory frenzy was contagious, with other fairs reporting intense buying. The shopping was not limited to contemporary art. Modernist work dating from 1950 sold briskly. So did Old Master prints.

It was an atmosphere that shook with vitality - especially on a staircase connecting the two Armory Show piers that teetered and squeaked as visitors went up and down like figures in an MC Escher painting's maze.

Yet one of the most discussed works in the fair couldn't have been farther from the upbeat mood.

It was a sculpture by the Belgian artist Berlinde van Bruyckere of a dead young horse at the booth of Gallery Continua of San Gimignano (Italy), sprawled on its side, on what looked like a table that could have been used by a field veterinarian. The buyer, who was expected to donate it to a museum, paid almost $400,000 (Dh1.47million) for the elegiac work that was always swarmed by onlookers.

Leading the way among acquisitions at a higher level was a painting on the last wall of the last booth on Pier 92, one of the two structures housing the show. The work was Untitled, an abstract painting from 1957-58 by Joan Mitchell (1925-92), one of the few women to achieve prominence in the men's club of Abstract Expressionism that included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The work was "on reserve," at $4.6 million, said Jill Weinberg Adams of Lennon Weinberg, Inc, who noted that she expected to complete the sale this week. Lennon Weinberg also has an exhibition in its Chelsea Gallery devoted to Mitchell's paintings from the 1950s.

"There are a lot of people in their thirties and forties who are making substantial amounts of money. Some of them may want to collect Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney. Some may be interested in collecting Abstract Expressionism," she said. "Relative to her position in art history, Joan Mitchell is an artist whose paintings are affordable." Mitchell's auction records are higher than $7 million.

"The art world generally follows the economy," said Bruce Helander, the editor of The Art Economist, a new publication which put out its third issue as the New York fairs opened. "Christie's did $5 billion in sales in 2010, the highest amount in the auction house's history," he said. "If the auction houses are breaking records, that sets everything in the art world in a forward position."

Helander's optimism was reflected by the New York dealer Paul Judelson, whose gallery, I-20, sold everything in its booth the day the fair opened. The contemporary gallery was also selling history in the paintings of Sylvia Sleigh, a British-born artist who painted her New York friends in the 1960s counter-culture. Sleigh slipped into obscurity for years, until I-20 revived her reputation with gallery exhibitions. She died at 94 last October. Her largest painting at the Armory Show sold at I- 20 for $85,000.

Politics played far less of a role at the fair than in previous years, which may explain why the Middle East was barely visible in the booths.

Yet there was still interest in the region and its art. All seats were taken at a panel on Pier 92 where the Saudi artist, Ahmed Mater, spoke of a new book of his drawings and discussed strategies for showing art in his country.

Beyond the Armory Show, an exhibition of paintings by Ali Banisadr, was bought up by eager collectors at Leslie Tonkonow Projects. His largest paintings ranged from $50,000 to $60,000. Banisadr, who left Iran at the age of 12, is the grand-nephew of Abolhassan Banisadr, the former prime minister of Iran, who fled the country in disguise in 1981 after a year in office. Banisadr's paintings blend the influence of Persian miniatures with those of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel.

One of the rare images that pointed to the economic depression still felt by many in the United States came all the way from Vienna. In Dorothea Lange "Destitute Peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children", 2009, Lisa Ruyter took an iconic American photograph of a migrant worker that Dorothea Lange took in 1936, and colourised it in the stylish hues of Andy Warhol after blowing it up to mammoth scale. The picture's $60,000 price at the booth of the Viennese dealer, Georg Kargl, was still far below Warhol levels.

At the booth of Pierogi, a Brooklyn gallery, Jonathan Schipper was showing his just-finished work, To Dust, a group of suspended white figures tied together, which smashed into one another as an elaborate system of pulleys tugged at them. On the opening day of the fair, pieces of the figures were already on the floor. "It helps if you see the work as a collection of ruins," said Schipper. "There's always something left, though," he noted, trying to reassure potential buyers.

Pierogi also presented the life-sized figure in a space-suit, Finding My Way Home (Exploded Astronaut) by Tavares Strachan, which hovered over a bar just inside the entrance to Pier 94. Yet the fair's quirkiest project was a simple white neon picket by the Chilean artist Ivan Navarro, which demarcated the booth of the dealer Paul Kasmin. The fence, which was electrified at the Armory Show, is being sold in seven-foot sections, each of which went for $40,000. The jokes about Kasmin protecting market share with the fence were inevitable.

Nearby, the booth of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts would have received the show's Green Award, if one existed. Behind reflective silver sheets, New Edens, by Sam van Aken, was an orchard of fruit trees, each of which had been genetically altered to enable it to simultaneously grow five different fruits. Trees that stood in huge blocks of dirt were $2,000. Seedlings, at $25 each, were the least expensive "works" in the show.

The fervour that crowded visitors into the enclosed space of New Edens fuelled the fairs throughout the city. At the Art Show, organised annually by the Art Dealers Association of America at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, dealers were upbeat. The Armory Show had brought crowds to the city, and the crowds were buying more than contemporary art.

David Tunick of David Tunick, Inc, which specialises in works on paper, reported selling an orange Andy Warhol Marilyn at the opening party for a price "in the low six figures" - a steal, given that a Warhol Marilyn painting has sold for $80 million. (The dealer Richard Feigen, better known for Old Masters, sold eight Warhol soup cans on the same night at the ADAA Fair.)

Tunick noted that the surge in the contemporary market was bringing him not just buyers, but inventory. Sitting under an 18th century engraving by Lorenzo Tiepolo, he pointed at two 1930s prints by Pablo Picasso from the Vollard Suite and a 1927 orientalist odalisque by Henri Matisse. The pictures were brought to him by clients who had shifted their collections to contemporary art, and wanted to sell the earlier masterpieces. Tunick sold the Matisse, and the Picassos were on reserve to buyers.

Collectors of "cutting edge" contemporary art had bought a Pre-Raphaelite watercolor by Dante Gabriel Rosetti at Tunick's booth (which entered his inventory when a visitor to his gallery pulled it out of a shopping bag).

"It was a great week for us," the dealer said.