There’s a joke we like to tell in France, one you could imagine inspiring one of his ‘Joke painting’ by American artist Richard Prince.
A man driven to suicide jumps off the top of a skyscraper. On the way down, he says the same thing each floor he passes: ‘So far, so good.’ And again…Until he gets to the ground floor, that is…
Could we use the same allegory for the modern and contemporary art market? As Brett Gorvy, the head of contemporary art at Christie’s says, quite rightly, journalists seem to prefer forecasting a crash than saying that nothing out of the ordinary is happening in the art market.
This week, globally, the two auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s have played it safe and have been proven right. They reduced the volume of works on offer (see last Monday’s report). The percentage of lots sold confirms their predictions (on average around 90 percent at the evening auctions, with the exception of 66 percent for Sotheby’s modern art sale).
So far, so good.
Here is a selection of works that illustrate the trends in the modern and contemporary market from 8 May to 12 May 2016.
#Maurizio Cattelan, ‘Him’ (2001) – $17.1 million. Artist record price.
The Italian star of the 2000s announced in 2011 that he was abandoning the contemporary art world as an artist. But in 2016 he’s created the ultra-kitsch gold toilets titled ‘America’ which should soon be installed in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. His work ‘Him’, a sculpture executed in 2001, shows a little boy in a kneeling position. As the viewer gets nearer, he’s confronted with a shocking revelation: the boy has the face of Adolf Hitler. Cattelan here touches on history, guilt, illusory appearances, and the atrocities of the Second World War. This record price reflects his highly mediatised and provocative previous output, but how will this hold up in the future?
#Auguste Rodin, ‘Eternal Springtime’. Carved in 1901-1903. Conceived in 1884. $20.4 million. Artist record price.
The market is slowly but surely rediscovering the work of this French sculptor from the late 19th, early 20th century. He is the key link to modernism in sculpture. Last February one of those mythical bronzes, ‘Iris, messenger of the Gods’ sold for 15.2 million euros. The work used mythology as a pretext while expressing the artist’s particular obsession: a woman with her legs spread open. This time around the work which sets a new record price for the sculpture is a innocuous affair: a languorous kiss captured in a frenetic whirl, giving the illusion of movement. There are ten examples of this marble sculptures made under the artist’s watchful eye.
#Jean Michel Basquiat, ‘Untitled’ (1982) – $57.2 million. Artist record price.
In the contemporary art world, this was the most eagerly anticipated sale of the season. This spectacular five-metre-wide canvas was executed during what is widely regarded as Basquiat’s finest period, 1982, and features a central subject that makes it very ‘readable’ and therefore highly commercial. It was acquired by the Japanese collector Yusaka Maesawa, owner of the online fashion retailer Zozotown. He bought at Christie’s the same night for $81 million of art: Richard Prince ‘Runaway ($9,6 million a record for the artist) Jeff Koons ‘Lobster’ ($6,8 million), Alexander Calder ‘Sumac 17’ ($5,7 million)( see below) and Bruce Nauman ‘Eat War’ ($1,6 million). The following day at Sotheby’s he also bought a Christopher Wool work ($13.9 million) and another by the Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie ($2.5 million).
In an ironic twist, the very private New York dealer Alejandro Carosso found this same painting in Japan in 1996, which he then sold for $180,000.
It’s an exceptional return on investment over 20 years for an artist who started out as a street artist. It was the biggest sale of the season.
#Robert Ryman, ‘Venue’ (2002) – $9.3 million.
In 2011, the heirs of the French filmmaker Claude Berri were poised to donate to the Pompidou Centre an extraordinary collection of contemporary works (Ryman, Fontana, Serra etc.) valued at 30 milllion euros as a ‘payment in kind’ called dation in exchange for a substantial tax break. At the very last minute Berri’s son, Thomas Langmann, himself a film producer, changed his mind and accepted a higher offer from a mysterious buyer rumoured to be the state of Qatar or a private collector from Qatar. It was a big scandal in France. This emblematic work by Robert Ryman is a relic of that collection, and was put on the market by Berri’s son.
#Alexander Calder, ‘Sumac 17’ (1955) – $5.7 million
The evening contemporary art sale at Christie’s had no less than 11 works by this artist who was close to the surrealists. Brett Gorvy from Christie’s explains: ‘Art lovers want reassurance about artists’ values. With Alexander Calder the prices are continually rising but they are still relatively low. Right now, below $5 million, the global potential demand is high. We estimate it in the region of 2,000 people.’ Ten of the 11 were sold but the lot with the highest estimate ($6-9 million) was left without a buyer. Yusaka Maesawa bought ‘Sumac 17’ (see above). The question remains why is Calder not included in the modern instead of the contemporary sale?
#Cy Twombly, ‘Untitled (New York City)’ (1968) – $36.7 million
The American who lived out his last years in Rome is held in particularly high regard among collectors. There’s a very limited availability of his ‘historic’ piece, and the market is especially fond of works like this one which has not gone under the hammer since it was first acquired in 1968.
#Frida Kahlo, ‘Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma)’ (1939) – $8 million. Artist record price.
It’s a painting that takes the form of a dream, representing perhaps the two faces of Frida Kahlo. Its surrealist imagery, its references to native vegetation, and the omnipresence of plant roots give it a strange power. All the Frida Kahlo canvases that have sold for significant prices in the past have been offered as part of Latin American auction art catalogues. But for this artist who in the eyes of the world has become a Mexican myth of freedom love and suffering, an introduction to the international art market was long overdue. It was a winning strategy. In 1989 the same painting sold for a hammer price of $423,000.