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After a Lockdown and New Ownership, Where Does Art Basel Go From Here?

For MCH Group, it was a summer of dread. In spring 2020, the Swiss holding company had postponed indefinitely what had once been its cash cow: the struggling Baselworld watch and jewelry fair. Meanwhile, Art Basel, the world’s most important modern and contemporary art fair and MCH’s crown jewel, was on lockdown, able to offer only online viewing rooms to art dealers who would normally pay upward of $100,000 for physical booths. In June, the Swiss press was reporting that capital was urgently needed at MCH, and that it looked like a private investor was the company’s only hope. Slowly it emerged that executives were in talks with one: news broke in September that James Murdoch, heir to a controversial media fortune, had swept in, and would get a controlling stake in MCH Group, its Swiss convention center, its live-marketing firm, and a world-famous art fair.

For the first half of 2020, MCH Group reported losses of $26.5 million, a 55 percent drop from the same period a year prior. The financial slump caused by the Covid pandemic was canceling out the company’s efforts to remain solvent, including the possible sale of its live-event marketing firm, which one Swiss publication in 2019 estimated could go for nearly $100 million, just two years after MCH acquired the business. Outrage against the abandoned plan to sell that firm exposed divisions among board members, with one minority shareholder, financier Erhard Lee, calling the plan to sell it “stupid.” Instead, he advocated the full or partial sale of Art Basel.

Separated from the Swiss convention center, Art Basel has potential to be a much more valuable brand than simply an art fair, even if it is the world’s most famous one. But MCH has been unwilling to part with Art Basel, especially after the unraveling of Baselworld last year.

“There are questions about the sustainability of MCH Group,” said Natasha Degen, chair of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Their management structure has remained largely intact, and executives are drawing salaries even while the online viewing rooms they set up during the coronavirus pandemic are generating a fraction of normal revenue.” Echoing her concerns was the local Basel press, which reported in March 2020 that, despite the turmoil, members of the board of directors were being paid CHF 513,000 ($533,000), up CHF 55,000 ($57,000) from the previous year.

Well before Covid-19 hit, a growing number of art dealers were feeling fair fatigue and for the last five years or so, mid-tier and emerging galleries have been squeezed by the events’ high costs. At the 2019 edition of Art Basel Miami, the last pre-Covid, in-person iteration of the three annual Basel fairs, the least expensive booth in the Galleries sector was $31,000, and earlier that year, in the 2019 Hong Kong edition, it was $34,000; if the fair doesn’t change, many galleries say they will stop attending, and spend their money with competitors or eschew the business model altogether and divert funds to their own brick-and-mortar shops.

“The only way to rebuild and survive is to innovate,” says Patrick Foret, who worked at Art Basel for a decade, starting as head of sponsorship, and in 2016 leading the Art Basel Cities program. During his tenure there, he says, he grew partnership revenue by 600 percent and, through the launch of new business initiatives, secured more than $150 million in revenue between 2010 and 2020. “There are real leadership issues at the MCH and Art Basel levels with regard to being the leader that the world needs,” he said. “They need to innovate. They need to be the light at the end of the tunnel. They need to be entrepreneurial. They need to take risks.”

View of MCH's convention center's oculus.

A $470 million renovation of MCH’s convention center in Basel, completed by architects Herzog and de Meuron in 2013, includes a dramatic oculus.

ARTnews spoke with more than a dozen galleries, collectors, artists, and advisers about their desire to see substantial change in the Art Basel business model. Many of them were unwilling to speak on the record, or to be identified—such is the influence that Art Basel still exerts on the industry. Some of those who did speak felt that Art Basel, having been so powerful for so long, has developed a certain arrogance.

“It’s not been geared toward the exhibitors, who pay for everything,” one major dealer at a gallery with locations around the world complained. Citing a lack of amenities like espresso machines, sufficient free water, and a comfortable lounge, this dealer said, “They basically just rip you off for everything, whereas other fairs like TEFAF go out of their way to make the exhibitors feel wanted. Basel has never done that. We’re way down on the totem pole in terms of their priorities.”

“With the management it’s had,” the dealer continued, referring to Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, “it’s only been geared toward the VIPs.” The dealer argued that the fair has focused too much on assembling and controlling its list of VIP attendees, a change in policy the fair made in 2013, which required galleries to provide contact details for collectors to whom they wanted the fair to send personalized cards. Those names were centralized in a database, giving the fair control over one of the most valuable assets of the fair system: the clientele. Galleries have glowered at Art Basel’s VIP program because it eliminates some of the personalized connection between gallery and collectors. (Spiegler said that the VIP system was created to solve problems with VIP invite distribution.) “The fair should be going out of its way to make the dealers happy,” said art adviser Sandy Heller, whose clients include mega-collector Steve Cohen.

Certain galleries have focused their criticism on the Art Basel vetting process that determines which dealers attend, which artists they exhibit, and where in the venue they are sited. Selection committees comprise a handful of gallery executives selected by the fair director who stay for five years or more and oversee the vetting process with the goal of producing the best possible events. After being rejected, gallerist Gerd Harry Lybke suggested to the New York Times that the committee be composed not of dealers but of museum directors and curators. Fellow gallerist Marianne Boesky said that the committee telling her which artists she can and can’t display hurts business.

“This potentially hurts gallery-artist relationships,” said Boesky. “It delays certain artists’ visibility and stifles their growth in the marketplace.” Boesky said she was unlikely to continue participating in the fair if Art Basel administrators prevented her from accurately reflecting her gallery’s program in her presentations there. Restricting what galleries are permitted to bring, she said, “also basically caps the gallery’s profit potential during the run of the fair.”

Other dealers see the rules as bureaucratic and unnecessarily confusing. Last year, New York–based photography dealer Yancey Richardson was told by a fair official about a regulation concerning classical photography, which stipulated that original works produced in multiple editions must account for no more than 20 percent of an exhibit’s display. But she felt the application of the rule was fuzzy, leaving dealers of contemporary photography scratching their heads because it wasn’t clear if they’d have to abide by it.

“I wish there was a section devoted to contemporary photography,” said Richardson. “It can still be vetted but the current conditions don’t make sense to me.”

In previous iterations, Art Basel has had a sector dedicated to photography but did away with the division as more artists started working with the medium. A spokeswoman for the fair also said that it has a separate application for galleries working with vintage photography.

How the rules governing Art Basel might change under new ownership has become the preoccupation of an art world that paradoxically feels that it cannot live with or without the current system.

According to some gallerists, changing the structure of the selection committees would be a step in the right direction. Dealers would like to see more transparency from Art Basel and a stronger dedication to racial equality. Historically, the selection committees have been staffed almost entirely by white gallerists, and very few Black dealers have ever shown at the fair.

Spiegler points out that certain changes have already been implemented, including a better rate for younger galleries participating in the fair and a sliding scale based on booth size. However, he said that the current system will largely prevail. That includes selection committees.

“The committees will make specific requirements depending on what they feel a gallery’s strength is,” Spiegler said. “Committees want to make galleries as strong as possible.”

Skyline of Hong Kong during the Art Basel fair there.

Art Basel Hong Kong launched in 2014, following the MCH Group’s acquisition
of the fair Art HK, founded in 2008.

Meanwhile, many dealers say that the high costs of attending Art Basel have forced on them a cruel calculus. Only certain types of artists are capable of bringing in prices sufficient to cover the large down payments on booths, flights, and hotels. That fact has the power to change the quality of exhibitions and the sense of excitement that make art fairs worth visiting.

“People outside of the business have no idea how much it costs,” said Richardson, adding that shipping framed photographs alone can cost nearly $12,000. “That expense puts a lot of pressure on certain galleries, and it affects what you are able to present. If you have an emerging artist and they aren’t that expensive, then it’s really hard to justify [showing] them because you can’t afford the real estate.”

Some dealers may have had a tough time affording the real estate, but the payoff of a prime location made it worth the expense. Online viewing rooms are a different story, and some dealers have been frustrated with fairs’ seeming inability to create exciting digital experiences, saying that results have been mixed in Basel’s attempts. The OVRs created an occasion to reconnect with existing clients, dealers said, but they made few to no new connections. Art advisers likewise felt the online experience was dramatically less useful than the real deal.

“The online viewing rooms created a sense of urgency,” explained art adviser Lisa Schiff, saying she “used digital editions of fairs like Art Basel Miami” as a means to sell “things from private dealers and auctions to my collectors.” She said she wasn’t placing artworks from the OVRs.

In April 2020, after the virtual edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, dealer Dominique Lévy, in an interview with CNN Money Switzerland, said it was “a very interesting experiment. What it showed us is that it doesn’t work.” Even as she emphasized that she has never missed a physical edition of the fair in Switzerland and claimed her “allegiance to Art Basel is unconditional,” she called the online version “the 180-degree opposite of what an art fair is about.” Art Basel has priced its virtual fairs accordingly: at around $6,000 for a booth, they are a fraction the cost of an IRL presentation.

Perhaps more important, what cannot be re-created virtually are the social connections that constitute one of the key engines driving art market activity. You can’t re-create the serendipitous encounter, argues Magnus Renfrew, longtime director and owner of various art fairs. “The serendipitous contacts you make whereby you happen to be standing next to somebody who knows somebody who knows you—you can’t replicate that in an OVR,” he said.

During the pandemic, in addition to presenting OVRs at the times when fairs would have taken place, Art Basel has organized other similar online programs. The third one, called “Pioneers,” opens with a VIP day on March 24. While he’s the first to say “obviously the OVR doesn’t replace the [physical] fair,” Spiegler says Art Basel had nearly 150 applications for the 100-booth limit they have imposed, for 1,000 artworks in total. He said some galleries have “learned how to play” the OVRs, using them as a “great way to get material, or to have a reason to call some of their collectors,” and that, according to feedback he received from galleries, the Miami edition of the fair-timed OVR had a smoother interface than previous editions.

Many dealers say they will do fewer fairs when Covid is over. As galleries continue to optimize for the online world, it will become more difficult for dealers to justify the expense and environmental cost of jetting to art fairs year-round. In 2019, dealers spent an estimated $4.6 billion to attend art fairs—more than a quarter of their total estimated sales, according to Art Basel’s own report on the industry. But those same dealers say they are looking forward to getting back to those in-person experiences. In the meantime, however, they are keen to see more innovative thinking, rather than a focus on just returning to normal. And to an extent, this has happened: In February, Frieze, which runs art fairs in London, New York, and Los Angeles, and is Art Basel’s closest competitor, announced that it would use a building it acquired on Cork Street, in London, as a site for a year-round model, renting space out to galleries for pop-up exhibitions and holding regular talks and events. The fair described it as “a flexible and collaborative environment.” Last November, Art Basel made its own IRL effort in the form of Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel, a 22-gallery in-person mini-fair in Hong Kong, reportedly drawing local collectors like Henry Tang.

“If I were MCH,” said a different dealer with locations around the world, after Art Basel delayed its Swiss edition earlier this year from June to September 2021, “rather than trying to promise a fair that they can’t do that is scheduled for the same time as 20 other fairs that take place in the fall, I would have said, for ten days around that time, let’s open exhibitions in great locations around the world. You wouldn’t need to travel. The collectors in those regions could come and follow all the health protocols. You would have them going to see art and buy art in a different way. And you’d revolutionize a new model of fairs.”

Exterior view of Basel Convention Center during Baselworld.

MCH Group’s annual
watch and jewelry fair, Baselworld, lost 75 percent of its exhibitors between 2009 and 2019, and has been put to rest.

As a wholly owned subsidiary within MCH, Art Basel has, over the past three years, become the company’s only profitable entity. For 50 years, Baselworld, MCH’s annual watch and jewelry fair, was the group’s breadwinner, considered essential to the watch industry. But then the industry began to change. Between 2009 and 2019, the fair lost 75 percent of its exhibitors, including Swatch, which, including sponsorship, had been paying them $50 million. By some accounts, Baselworld’s problems began in 2013, the year MCH completed a $470 million renovation of the convention center; looking back in 2018, Forbes reported that this was when “watch soothsayers” started “forecasting doom” on Baselworld: post-renovation, they’d upped exhibitor fees “to the extent that many of the smaller brands had to move out of the fair.”

The trouble at Baselworld and the attendant loss of revenue for MCH had a profound effect on the company’s efforts in the art sector. It resulted in financial retrenchment, and a laser focus on core art fairs in Basel, Miami, and Hong Kong. In 2016, MCH launched an initiative to invest in regional fairs, acquiring stakes in fairs in Germany and India, and conceiving a brand-new one in Singapore. In 2018, after the abrupt resignation of longtime CEO René Kamm, that initiative was largely abandoned, and the stakes in the existing fairs were sold, as was the stake in Singapore, which hadn’t even launched. A car fair planned for Miami’s convention center, called Grand Basel, was also canceled.

After a final, ill-fated edition of Baselworld in March 2019, MCH’s interim CEO at the time, Michel Loris-Melikoff, went on a listening tour about the watch and jewelry fair. He interviewed more than 800 stakeholders and found communication issues to be the primary culprit in the fair’s demise. “During most of the meetings,” he told the New York Times, “this word ‘arrogance’ was always mentioned.”

After MCH decided to sell its majority stake in the India Art Fair, Sandy Angus, a principal with the company that had helped run the fair since 2011, told the Art Newspaper, “MCH is an investment group and it doesn’t speak to Art Basel at all—one of the real problems was that there was absolutely no input of any sort from Art Basel, with whom we have a good relationship.” Angus, who ended up buying MCH’s shares himself, told ARTnews this past February, “if there was any future involvement, I would look not for an MCH involvement, but an Art Basel involvement.”

The same cost-cutting that led to dropping the regional fairs led to lost opportunities in the digital realm for MCH, says Moenen Erbuer, the company’s former head of design and user experience. Erbuer was onboarded in 2016, when MCH acquired a Pinterest-like website called Curiator that he had cofounded four years earlier. As part of the deal, he was charged with developing digital tools like PRNCPL, a Shazam-like app, for the regional fairs. He was also developing a new source of revenue for MCH: white-label software that would have been available for licensing by any fair to manage data and VIP systems. Then MCH decided to prioritize strengthening Art Basel’s three shows and Art Basel’s own digital initiatives, Erbuer’s operation was shut down in fall 2019. Curiator was quietly closed last August. Erbuer believes these cuts in digital were a shortsighted decision about a line item on a budget made in the fog of management changes. “They were not a very digital-forward company,” he said, “and my team was really pushing the limit. Through my boss, Stephan Peyer, I had a direct line to the CEO.” Kamm left in 2018; Peyer, MCH’s chief development officer, left seven months later. “After they replaced Kamm, no one knew what my team was doing. MCH missed out. If you are trying to become a digital company, you shouldn’t throw out your digital people.”

There were other hiccups in the months leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic. In fall 2019, Art Basel announced and later canceled, a 3-day, $15,000 per attendee conference in Abu Dhabi. By December 2019, the Swiss press and the New York Post were reporting rumors that Art Basel was for sale. MCH denied it; a month earlier, they’d put Art Basel director Marc Spiegler on the MCH executive board.

Then the pandemic hit. Baselworld was postponed to 2021, then LVMH joined other brands in pulling out, all of them leaving for a rival fair in Geneva, and the 2021 edition of Baselworld was canceled. Meanwhile, Art Basel, MCH’s only remaining moneymaker, postponed, then canceled, the Hong Kong edition, moved the Swiss edition from June to September, and introduced a series of online viewing rooms. MCH was carrying some $200 million in debt, with little hope of further loans from the local government. A private investor was the best hope.

Art Basel's Miami Beach fair.

Art Basel’s Miami Beach fair.

“James Murdoch’s involvement in MCH Group unites two trends that we have seen in the art world,” said Degen, the market analyst. “One was the convergence between the arts and entertainment. The other is a trend toward these art fairs diversifying what they do through their brand recognition.”

Shortly before his proposed investment in MCH was announced, James Murdoch publicly split from his father, Rupert Murdoch’s, controversial media company, Fox News. James Murdoch’s investment firm, Lupa Systems, will now drive MCH’s future direction, even as a growing number of galleries are looking to change the rules of the game amid an unpredictable pandemic. And while representatives for the investor have declined to discuss the details of its plan, an image of MCH’s future is emerging.

When the Lupa Systems deal was ratified in late November, shareholders of MCH Group voted almost unanimously to accept a deal with Murdoch, providing his firm with a maximum stake of 49 percent in the events production company. A capital increase of $114 million followed that rejiggered the balance of power so that Lupa Systems holds nearly a third of all shares, splitting control with minority shareholders and public-sector entities.

“We will do our utmost to justify the confidence placed in us as a new anchor investor and as members of the board of directors, and to contribute to the company’s successful turnaround and strategic progress,” Murdoch said in a statement when the $80 million deal was completed.

For its investment in MCH Group, Lupa Systems has gained three seats on the seven-member board of directors. Those positions went to Murdoch and two executives, Eleni Lionaki and Jeffrey Palker, who previously served under the media scion when he was chief executive officer of 21st Century Fox. The decision to add professionals from the entertainment industry to the MCH boardroom is just the latest of Murdoch’s mergers between the art world and Hollywood. A year before, Lupa Systems led a group that bought control of the Tribeca Film Festival; the investment firm has also purchased a $5 million stake in the comic book publishing startup, Artists Writers & Artisans.

Other corporations appear to have provided a precedent for Murdoch’s strategy. In 2015, United Talent Agency—one of the most powerful players in entertainment—opened a fine arts division and began representing artists like Ai Weiwei, Rashid Johnson, and Judy Chicago. Only a year later, another talent agency, Endeavor, acquired a 70 percent stake in the Frieze art fair’s parent company, Denmark Street Limited, as part of a larger deal totaling almost $90 million.

“Being content providers is the essential key for the future of all exhibitions,” said Angus, the fair organizer. “Because we’ve got to offer collectors and visitors much more than we have. So I see both [the Endeavor and Lupa Systems] investments as being very sensible, and a natural extension of what is going to evolve over the coming years.”

The Murdoch strategy could also see MCH try to kill two birds with one stone, solving its Baselworld problems by merging its luxury offerings with Art Basel’s fine arts. After all, when media mogul Patrick Drahi took over Sotheby’s (where Murdoch once served on the board) in 2019, he led a major restructuring effort that resulted in what Drahi called two “equally important” global divisions: one for fine art and another for luxury items like jewelry and watches identified as “key growth areas.” According to the art market research company Pi-eX, the company’s investment in the luxury market has not yet returned substantial revenues, which were up just 4 percent last year, at $339 million, compared to sales in 2019. However, Sotheby’s has argued that luxury is not an end in itself, but a gateway to an appreciation for fine arts.

“Luxury is a great entry point,” Josh Pullan, managing director of Sotheby’s global luxury division, told the New York Times last year. He claimed that buyers were “opening their minds to a broader range of collecting categories.”

“The Murdoch investment will come with substantive change,” said gallerist Tim Blum, who has served on the selection committee for Art Basel Miami and says he has previously conducted business with James Murdoch. “Obviously things could work better. I know for a fact that the people behind the fair are aware,” he said, referring to complaints that galleries have leveled.

But if there are changes, they seem unlikely to occur from inside the company’s current management team. “We don’t see a fundamental shift in Art Basel with the involvement of Lupa Systems,” said Spiegler. “We don’t see a fundamental shift in the value of international art fairs. James Murdoch and his team, with whom I’ve had extensive discussions over the course of the last year, fundamentally believe in the basic strategy of Art Basel, which is to continue to do the best art fairs in the world while looking at other ways in which we can serve galleries, including the digital.”

Spiegler continued, “That being said, his team has a very broad international knowledge and a great network. So when it comes to what we can do with content, for example, it’s great to have the direct business link with someone who has such long experience in media and extensive holdings in media as well.”

“I hope they’re thinking about additional revenues because there is huge potential,” said Magnus Resch, an art market economist, of MCH’s future strategy. “They have one of the few globally recognized brands but have not monetized it at all.”

There are already indications from inside MCH that change is trickling down. In January, CEO Bernd Stadlwieser announced that he would be leaving after almost two years with the company, citing a difference of opinion with some board directors. At the same time, Murdoch has replaced the company’s chairman with television executive and longtime confidant Andrea Zappia. Foret, the former head of sponsorship, thinks the next CEO should be “creative, entrepreneurial. MCH is immersed in the trade show industry that is going to have to be creative in adapting to the new world we are facing. At the Art Basel level it’s the same issues. Art Basel and MCH need to go back to a start-up mindset. And that needs to come from the top.”

“The idea with Murdoch is for sure to expand the [Art Basel] brand into new regions,” said Lee, the minority shareholder who last year was critical of MCH’s direction.

Longtime attendees are not sure expansion is the answer. “I don’t think the Basel brand needs to expand,” said Blum, the gallerist. “On the contrary, everything comes down to quality, and the art fair system, not just Basel, has become a very bad system where art has taken a back seat.”

And for his part, Spiegler has resisted going big on branding. “I think there is always a delicate balance between monetizing your brand and destroying it,” he said. “Is it something that an endless number of friends, peers, and consultants have brought up? Absolutely. But I don’t see an Art Basel hotel chain anytime soon.”

The adviser Abigail Asher has followed the shifts at Art Basel since attending her first edition nearly 20 years ago. “There is a dilemma between this sense of expansion and wanting to hold on to the core values of the fair,” she said, while admitting that Basel remains fixed on her collectors’ calendars. “If you are a passionate collector, it is incredibly hard to keep up on everything. The fair allows a focused environment over a few days to experience as much as possible.”

Inside the aisles of the 2019 edition of Art Basel in Switzerland

Inside the aisles of the 2019 edition of Art Basel in Switzerland.

Not every dealer is complaining. Or, if they are, they like to think of it as constructive criticism, and are looking forward to participating in necessary changes. Stefan von Bartha, proprietor of a Basel gallery founded by his father that has participated in Art Basel for more than 40 years, says there is a real need for in-person fairs like Basel because it is so difficult to get a full experience of art in a virtual setting. But he feels that Basel needs to introduce new features in order to make the fair a special experience for attendees. He would like to see more efforts like “14 Rooms,” a one-off curated section in the 2014 edition. “I think it’s important for them to have new ideas, new concepts and innovations and not just rely on the fact that they are a very big brand.”

As for that centralized VIP system, von Bartha says when the fair first instituted it, he was upset. But he eventually came to understand the reasoning: collectors in the region who are receiving upward of five VIP cards from different galleries were passing them on to people who were not collectors, clogging up the aisles on VIP preview day. As for the amenities, von Bartha says, “every fair in the world needs to improve” in that area. “If you stand at the booth with eight people and you get two bottles of water and a power bar, you’re a bit lost.”

Von Bartha chalks up a lot of dealer complaints to “egos and attitudes clashing. I think now is a time to calm down a little bit. Of course Art Basel is going to change. It has to change. But this should be a result of teamwork.” The key to moving forward is the fair and its dealer clients “having a conversation.” In his experience, this is something Art Basel is open to, even with a gallery of a modest size like his. In fact, he says, “the good thing about the collapse of the watch and jewelry fair and also about the long phase of not knowing what’s going to happen with the fair, is going to make fairs listen better to their clients.”

In von Bartha’s view, Art Basel doesn’t display toward its exhibitors the notorious arrogance Baselworld did. “Their leadership and team are very aware of how sensitive the situation is right now [for galleries].” As for complaints about the selection committee, von Bartha adds that he sees it as a huge advantage right now to have dealers in those positions, “because if there is something to complain about, they are going to address it.  [They] are all aware of what MCH is going through and what Art Basel as a brand needs to do for the future.” A “committee of only art historians and museums” would not be able to advocate effectively for the needs of galleries.

“It’s an interesting time to own an art fair—it’s also a scary time,” said Marc Glimcher, president of Pace, a mega-gallery with locations around the world. Glimcher said Pace will continue to participate in fairs, Art Basel foremost among them, but not as many.

“The challenge to the art fair construct has been mega-galleries” like his own, Glimcher said. For roughly the same price he would spend on a Basel booth, he was able to rent a gallery in East Hampton and make a better return on investment.

Other mega-galleries are making their own encroachments on the art fair model. Last spring, David Zwirner gave 49 galleries access to Platform, his online viewing room network. A year before that, he gave the dealers in New York’s Volta fair one of his own gallery spaces in which to set up shop when the event suddenly lost its venue to the Armory Show.

As long as fairs like Basel continue to be gathering places for the world’s collectors and, crucially, places where you meet new clients, Glimcher said he believes they will remain musts for galleries. But the art world is in flux, and it isn’t just the fairs that are thinking about change.

A version of this article appears in the April/May issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Fair is Moving On.”

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