The best Abstract Art results this year



Finding museum quality paintings by the historical masters of abstract art such as Frantisek Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich is a major challenge. The best pieces are in museums or private collections from which they rarely depart.

The great Piet MONDRIAAN, for example, one of the most influential pioneers of Abstract painting, has only seen three results above $10m, two of which demolished their estimates following the enthusiasm aroused by the sale of the YSL/Pierre Bergé collection at the Grand Palace of Paris (Christie’s, 23 February 2009). Kasimir Sevrinovitch MALEVICH’s market is even rarer: only 10 of his paintings have been auctioned in the past 20 years. These highly valuable paintings fetch tens of millions of euros if they are from his Supremacist period (his current record is $53.50m for Suprematisch Composition (1919), which sold at Sotheby’s New York on 3 November 2008).
Works by the historical founder of Abstract Art, Wassily KANDINSKY, most frequently turn up at auctions in Germany (35% of his transactions in Germany, compared with 24% in the United States and 18% in the UK). However, the masterpieces are usually sold in London and particularly New York where Kandinsky’s two best-ever results have been hammered at over $10m. The first was recorded in May 1990, at the peak of the previous market bubble, and the second in November 2008, just as the art market toppled. Hence the German market sees plenty of his works, mostly oil paintings prior to the Abstract period and superb watercolors and lithographs, some affordable for less than $10,000, but very few of his masterpieces (one 7-figure result signed in Germany in the last twenty years).

Post-War Abstract Art…
Buyers are increasingly turning their attention to Post-War Abstract art and particularly American art, and the prices fetched this year by Mark ROTHKO, Clyfford STILL, Jackson POLLOCK and Barnett NEWMAN have reached (or exceeded) the best results generated by the “historical” Abstract artists. The best Abstract Art results over the past twelve months have all been signed in the West: 80% in New York and 20% in London.
One sale stands out particularly: Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art evening sale on 8 May 2012. The top results of this sale include 21 new world records and a new record for Mark Rothko whose colorfield Orange, Red, Yellow fetched $77.5m adding $12.5m to his previous record of $65m for White Center (Sotheby’s New York, 15 May 2007). The $20.5m that was hammered for Number 28 set a new record for Jackson Pollock on 8 May (Christie’s) followed minutes later by a new record for Barnett Newman when Onement V doubled its low estimate to reach $20m.

Gerhard Richter…
More recently, on 12 October 2012 to be exact, the success of Sotheby’s prestige London sale was essentially due to one name, that of Gerhard RICHTER, who generated half the sale’s proceeds with a single work: Abstraktes Bild (809-4). This large and vibrant abstract work with solar colours and deep blue outperformed by far its estimate. The result was spectacular: burying its low estimate by £10m, the bidding didn’t stop until £19m ($30.4m) excluding fees! Richter has never been so sought after. He had retrospective exhibitions in London, Berlin and Paris this year and the auction houses have kept him in the limelight since then with record after record over recent months. Now, the octogenarian German artist, dubbed the « Picasso of the twenty-first century » is the most expensive living artist in the world and his best works only started to sell for over £10m in the last year!
Demand is currently so ravenous for this signature that Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company offered no less than thirteen paintings by the master in just three days (between 10 and 13 October) generating a total revenue of £28m (approximately $45m). These results are impressive because not long ago it would have taken two full years of auction results to generate a similar volume of revenue (2004-2005). The Richter frenzy is also measured by an almost 400% increase in his price index over the past decade.

Pierre Soulages…
His independent and meditative work has become known worldwide. In 2001, he became the first living artist invited to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Today he is the most expensive living French artist at auction. Pierre SOULAGES painted his first abstract paintings in 1946. In 1979, focused on black, he left the monochrome behind him to enter a more interrogative space. His choice of black did not reflect morbidity; he used it as a matrix to capture and reflect light.
The artist is currently enjoying a substantial increase in demand: his price index has grown by 370% over the last decade. He signed his first 7-figure auction result on 6 July 2006 for a 1959 oil painting (162 x 130 cm) that fetched three times its estimate at Sotheby’s Paris (€1.06m). Twenty years earlier, a similar work of the same size and from the same year sold for less than €60,000 (DEM120,000 at Lempertz in Cologne). In 2007, a second historical work by Soulages fetched over a million, then a third in December 2008 (€1.31m at Perrin-Royère-Lajeunesse in Versailles, then €1.3m at Sotheby’s in Paris). In 2001, he crossed the €1m threshold three times, reaching €2m ($2.85m) for a powerful red and black canvas executed in 1956 and entitled ”Peinture 130 x 162 cm” at Sotheby’s Paris on 31 May 2011. His best result this year rewarded an old canvas (1953) in a medium-sized format (92 x 65 cm) which handsomely doubled its low estimate by fetching €650,000 (over $808,000) at Christie’s in Paris on 31 May 2012.

Other notable trends in the market for Abstract Art are the success of ZAO Wou-Ki and CHU Teh-Chun who, driven by the vitality of the Asian market, now both generate their best auction results in 7-figures (US dollars) in Hong Kong, while the artists of the School of Paris, having experienced a steep price increase in 1989/1990 followed by a long deflation, are now seeing their price indices moving back up again to the levels of their best days: sales of works by Serge POLIAKOFF, Hans HARTUNG, Serge CHARCHOUNE and many others should be followed closely.