Robert Mapplethorpe in Paris



Retrospective exhibitions of the work of Robert MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) are relatively common nowadays, but each has its own special character. After the recent show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (23 October 2012 – 24 March 2013), the National Galleries of the Grand Palais has opened a major Mapplethorpe retrospective in Paris (26 March 2014 – 13 July 2014). This latest exhibition provides a unique opportunity to discover one of the 20th century’s most iconic photographers, an artist initially recognized for the erotic power of his images.

If Mapplethorpe had lived a century or two earlier he would have been a sculptor. His approach to photography was nothing short of sculptural, both in respect of the emphasis he accorded to volume and to the sensuality of his surfaces. Obsessed by a quest for aesthetic perfection, he started making Polaroid portraits in the 1970s using increasingly sophisticated development techniques and occasionally producing one-off and specially-framed prints. At auctions, it is often his flowers, especially poppies and arums, that fetch his best results as these are suggestive subjects with a refined and less aggressive aesthetic for collectors than his photos dedicated to sexual adoration of the male body. Mapplethorpe said that Photography and sexuality are comparable and his oeuvre expresses desire, whatever the subject: portraits, flowers, bodies (sometimes in almost “pornographic” poses).

Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Andy Warhol in a cruciform frame has been placed at the centre of the Grand Palais exhibition. This is the same portrait which generated his auction record. Taken in 1987, the picture fetched $560,000 (against a high estimate of $300,000) at Christie’s New York on 17 October 2006. This unique edition fetched 10 times the amount that his multiples of the same portrait fetch on the market. In fact, there is whole wall of Warhol-related pictures at the Grand Palais. On the auction market, collectors clearly express their preferences by paying the highest prices (between $100,000 and $120,000 excl. fees hammer) for pictures of Warhol and Patti Smith (his companion and muse), as well as for certain self-portraits.

Over the past 25 years, nearly 2,000 Mapplethorpe photographs have been sent to auction. Not all reach spectacular price levels: in fact 60% of his works fetch less than $10,000 and 30% go for less than $5,000. In these price ranges, it is still possible to acquire some of his key topics such as the sculptural Thomas: on May 15, 2013 the Swedish company, Stockholms Auktionsverk, sold a small Mapplethorpe silver print for the equivalent of $3,300 in Stockholm. The photograph (Thomas 1986) combines a classical tondo composition with homoerotic content, revealing a muscular body tensed with energy against the inside of a round opening. The composition is reminiscent of those found on ancient Greek vases. One can also acquire Portraits of William Burroughs and of the bodybuilding champion Lisa Lyon for less than $5,000 in silver print formats.

To acquire a Mapplethorpe work, the U.S. market offers the best selection and represents 66% of the artist’s overall secondary market transactions. However, nowadays Mapplethorpe’s market is truly international with 13% of his works selling in the UK, nearly 8% in France, 5.5% in Germany, 1.8% in Japan, and the occasional work being offered in Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium notably.