Do Italian futurists have a future at auction?



The masterpieces of this landmark movement in Italian modern art are locked up in Italy. While the Artprice Index shows that futurist price levels have risen sharply since 1997, few collectors can expect to profit from this.

Futurism was one of the key movements in modern art, ranking alongside cubism, expressionism and surrealism. It has been celebrated in numerous exhibitions including the one now running in Vienna until 29 June 2003. But buyers can find little of interest at auction. Most futurist, 80% of all lots, is sold locally in Italy. Even New York and London are short of pieces. The best remain in Italy, either in museums or private collections. And the reason is a law, passed in 1939 by a state anxious to protect its heritage, prohibiting the export of artworks more than 50 years old without governmental permission. Hardly any major canvases by the movement’s founders, Giacomo BALLA, Gino SEVERINI,Umberto BOCCIONI and Carlo CARRA, have been seen at auction outside Italy since the law was passed. Only 6 paintings by Umberto BOCCIONI have appeared at auction since 1991, all in Italy.
That said, some collections were built up abroad. One of the most significant was that of Lydia Winston Malbin, broken up on 16 May 1990 by Sotheby’s New York. The Malbin sale included masterpieces by Balla, Severini and Carra. La scala degli addii (salutando) (c.1908) by Giacomo Balla fetched USD 4 million, still the record for a futurist work at auction. It is extremely rare to find exceptional pieces outside Italy. And since bidders know they will not be allowed to take any work outside Italy competition at Italian auctions is thin. Buyers can often pick up the few interesting works that make it onto the market with little challenge from the auction floor.

Given these restrictions, it is unsurprising that appearances of futurist works at auction are few — less than a hundred lots sold in 2002 compared to 20 times as many cubist works — and declining. 1999 saw nearly twice as many pieces put up. And the work that is offered for sale seems to be declining in quality, going by a no sales ratio that has risen to 38.5% in 2002 compared to just 20% in 1999. Nonetheless, prices have risen by 40% over the last 6 years sustained almost entirely by Italian buyers. The rise could have been much more spectacular if the market was opened to foreign buyers.

Number of lots sold / weight by country(1999-2002)