Contemporary sculpture in excellent shape



In the contemporary art field, sculpture, and particularly the offshoot known as ‘installations’, is currently enjoying a high level of market interest. At the top end, collectors are now paying tens of millions of dollars for monumental works by the likes of Koons, Hirst and Murakami. Artprice takes a look at this high profile segment of the market occupied by young artists, all born after 1945.
In less than a year, the number of 7-figure (sometimes 8 …) auction sales involving three dimensional works has substantially increased. In 2007, 14 works sold for over a million dollars; in the first six months of 2008, we are already at 18…

Today, the type of sculpture that sells for millions is a far cry from the classical conception of 20th century art expressed by the “moderns” like Constantin Brancusi, Artistide Maillol or Alberto Giacometti. In times gone by, the verb to sculpt meant hewing, carving, chipping away or scratching, in other words, removing mass to reveal an image. Today’s well-known artists conceive their works and then, to build them, they mobilize an entire workshop in which a wide variety of techniques, materials and dimensions are exploited. Certain works are also conceived as genuine scientific and technical challenges. The monumental – if not ‘architectural’ – compositions in steel by Richard SERRA are the perfect expression of the expansion of this artistic medium which is today flirting with a new conception of space and which often requires considerable technical skill to accomplish.

In this industrial age, the multiple, reproduced in large numbers, also has an important position in the market as it allows art enthusiasts to acquire some symbolic pieces for just a few thousand euros. In fact, while Jeff KOONS, Damien HIRST and Takashi MURAKAMI are adept at selling works for millions of euros, they have also created reproductions that reach the market at affordable prices for their fans! In effect, they satisfy the consumer art market with regular three-dimensional mass productions. However, even these “mass” produced works are increasingly sought after. The Ballon Dog in metalicised porcelain, produced by Jeff Koons in a series of 2,300, changed hands in 2002 for between 1,200 and 1,800 euros. Today one would expect to pay between 3,000 and 5,000 euros. His Puppies, small white porcelain vases, 45cm high, produced in 3,000 examples, sell in the same price range.

Today, Jeff Koons is the most expensive of the young bloods with a record $21 million for his Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold) on 14 November 2007 at Sotheby’s. When it sold, this 3-metre red heart was so fresh off the Koons production line that its owner, Adam Lindemann, had it sent to auction directly from the warehouse without ever having exposed the work. In the 1980s, Jeff Koons made art out of common consumer objects like vacuum cleaners, basket balls and various other decorative objects. However, unlike Duchamp, who with his “ready-mades” was not seeking aesthetic pleasure from the exhibiting trivial objects, Koons glorifies mass consumer products within a Pop mindset. By opting to work with the vocabulary of popular culture, Koons hoped to reach a mass audience. His choice has paid handsome dividends! The first collectors of Jeff Koons’ work must be very pleased with their acquisitions. For example, the highest bidder for Two ball 50/50 tank that sold on 7 May 1992 at Sotheby´s NY acquired the installation for 65,000 dollars. This work, from the Equilibrium series, contains two basket balls half submerged in an aquarium and was conceived with the assistance of Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize laureate for Physics. In 2000, the work sold for 220,000 dollars at Phillips NY, and in 2005 a larger scale version with three basket balls fetched nearly double that price (420,000 dollars, Christie’s NY).

Damien Hirst, the figurehead of Young British Artists, is the second most expensive contemporary artist with a record auction sale of £8.6 million (more than $17 million) in June 2007 for his Lullaby Spring, a large metallic pillbox containing 6,136 individually painted pills. Rumour has it that the White Cube Gallery in London privately sold Hirst’s For The Love Of God, a platinum skull encrusted with 8,601diamonds, for $100 million. If so, that is by far the highest price paid for a work by a living artist. For Damien Hirst, winner of the 1995 Turner Prize, 2007 was a good year as his price index gained 270% over 12 months… However, the increase did not begin in 2007. In 1992, his installation entitled God, was bought in for £4,000 in London. Six years later, it fetched £170,000. Today, the smallest souvenir from the Pharmacy restaurant identifiable as having been created or conceived by Hirst sells as an icon on the market. Even a simple assembly of bottles of wine, with menus and cards from the famous restaurant sold for 420 euros in March 2007.

The third most expensive contemporary artist comes from the Land of the Rising Sun. Last May, Takashi Murakami saw one of his spectacular manga sculptures go under the hammer at $13.5 million in New York. The work, My lonesome cowboy, a sculpture representing the triumphant ejaculation of a manga-styled satyr was estimated at $3 to 4 million. At the same time, Murakami fans can buy small plastic or plush figurines at prices ranging from under 100 euros to several hundreds of euros, depending on the model and the number produced. For example, Superfalt museum a set of 10 small figurines in PVC sold for €350 last May at Pandolfini Casa d’Aste (Florence).

Just behind the top three discussed above, there is the highly controversial Maurizio CATTELAN, with a record auction price of $2.7 million in 2004 for La Nona Ora. This provocative installation, representing the Pope crushed by a meteorite, had shocked visitors to the Royal Academy of Arts London and the Venice Biennial several years earlier. Another artist above the million dollar line is Robert GOBER. On 15 May last, one of his installations with a leg (+ trouser and shoe) poking through a wall, sold for $3.2 million. The Indian artist Anish KAPOOR is now in sixth position in the ranking of ‘most expensive contemporary sculptors’ after a large sculpture in alabaster (1.5 metres) sold for $2.5 million in December 2007. But unlike the top three (Koons, Hirst and Murakami), niether Cattelan, nor Gober nor Kapoor have developed an alternative market destined for a wider public. Indeed, in volume terms, their annual auction turnover only represents about 10 pieces each.