Can the most expensive artists be affordable?



While the auction world feeds on ever more spectacular records, the high-end of the art market only represents a tiny part of global supply. Today, 80% of the transactions on the global auction art market involve prices under $5,000. Contrary to received ideas, this colossal segment does not just consist of second-rate artworks or very peripheral markets or anonymous pieces (excluded from the statistics). The most sought-after signatures in the world also change hands at affordable prices; it’s all a question of medium, condition and rarity…
To illustrate this notion, we look at the five most expensive artists in the world, namely Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Gustav Klimt and Mark Rothko (see Top 10: the world’s most expensive artworks), an analysis of market data clearly reveals that all of them also change hands for less than $ 5000 transactions.

Edvard Munch

Edvard MUNCH is currently the world’s most expensive artist ever sold at auction, all mediums and all periods combined and his market is particularly dense with 22% of his auction revenue generated by prints (etchings), which account for 91% of the artist’s transactions. However, as the market is very thin for his paintings and drawings, his etchings have rocketed in price, stimulated not just by the rarity factor, but also by the fact that the artist considered prints just as important as paintings. In fact Munch has more million-plus result to his name in the prints medium than Picasso (14 compared with for Picasso’s 10) with an auction record of $2.79m ($3.22m incl. fees) for a 1896 etching entitled Young Woman on the Beach (Christie’s London, 20 March 2013). More recently, another of his etchings, admittedly unsigned but in good condition, changed hands for $1,000 at Christiania Auktionsforretning in Oslo (Norsk Landskap, 10.5cm x 14.8cm, 26 September 2013).

Pablo Picasso

Half of Picasso’s works sell for less than $5,000! Pablo PICASSO is not only one of the most expensive artists in the world, he was also one of the most prolific, especially in prints. In fact, in terms of transactions, the heart of his market consists more than 60% of prints and 27% of ceramics, while his works on canvas represent only 2% of his total transactions (and 76% of his auction turnover). Every now and again one of his prints fetches a price commensurate with those commanded by his paintings and on 1 November 2011 his La Femme qui pleure 1 (1938) fetched a record (for a print) at $4.5m ($5,122,500 incl. fees) at Christie’s New York) … but there are numerous prints on offer at affordable prices such as the aquatint Bacchanale, signed and numbered in a limited edition of 250, which sold for the equivalent of $6,366 last October in Fribourg (Peege Frank, 12 October 2013). Less valuable than the latter, an unsigned etching, Profil et Tête de Femme, did not even reach its low estimate on 5 October 2013 in London … The work made its new owner very happy for the equivalent of $322 (Rosebery’s in London).

Alberto Giacometti

Despite his price index having risen by more than 230% over the past decade, Alberto GIACOMETTI’s market still consists for more than 40% of works that sell for less than $5,000 … and, at this price level, it is still possible to come across an original drawing such as the work in pencil Homme sur table which fetched the equivalent of $4,300 (SF 4,000) on 13 June 2013 at Kornfeld, Bern, Switzerland, or the ink drawing of two male heads, Deux têtes, on an envelope that went under the hammer at Christie’s in Paris for €2,600 ($3,400 and $4,232 incl. fees) on 13 December 2012. Indeed, the provenance of this little treasure was a significant selling point as it had belonged to the bookseller Pierre Berès who was a friend of Picasso, Eluard, Queneau and Brassaï.

Gustav Klimt

It is more difficult to find an original work by Gustav KLIMT for less than $5,000 … not because they are so rare (about sixty drawings fuelled the market during 2012) but because you need a more generous budget. Some drawings in pencil do change hands, and some of these are available for less than $15,000. At these prices, it is better to monitor sales in Austria and Germany than in London or New York as the prices are often lower. For example, on 30 November 2012, the auction house Villa Grisebach in Berlin sold a red pencil drawing of a standing woman for €10,000 ($13,000) against an estimated price range of $19,000 to $26,000 (Stehender weiblicher Akt [circa 1903], 45 x 30cm).

Mark Rothko

Among the elite of the world’s most expensive artists, the most difficult to find cheaply is the only American in the Top 5 artists, namely Mark ROTHKO, whose price index has risen nearly 225% over the past decade and whose personal auction record stands at $77.5 million (Orange, Red, Yellow [1961], on 8 May 2012 at Christie’s New York). Rothko was primarily a painter. He did few drawings and produced few prints. The rarity effect of his lithographs has not really done much for their value and amateur collectors can hope to pick up a signed and numbered colorfield screen print from a limited edition of 30 for less than $2,000, as was the case at Fabiani Arte in December 2012 (Senza Titolo N° 10, 100 x 70cm) …. However, to do so, you would have to be very attentive to this kind of extremely rare market opportunity; with the exception of lithographed exhibition posters, only three Rothko screen prints have gone to auction in the past 20 years.