The most popular Frenchies



With the exception of the Impressionist and Modern masters, there are few French artists at the high-end of the international auction market. Nonetheless, bearing in mind Yves Klein’s rocketing auction prices over recent years, takes a look at the market’s chosen few among the 150 best auctions results recorded for French artists born after 1900.

Klein and the others

Apart from the overwhelming dominance of the most metaphysical of the New Realist group (Yves KLEIN accounts for 38.6% of the 150 best auction results for French artists and half of the top 50), the most prized signatures in the “Top 50” are those of Louise BOURGEOIS (8 results), Jean DUBUFFET (7 results), BALTHUS (4 results), Pierre SOULAGES (the only living artist in the Top, 3 results), François-Xavier LALANNE (2 results) and Martial RAYSSE (1 result).
This coterie of six artists remains unchanged until the 97th position in the Top 150 where we find Georges MATHIEU (whose 1958 work The Abduction of Henri IV by Archbishop Anno of Cologne, sold at Sotheby’s Paris on 26 May 2008) ahead of the last New Realist in the ranking, CÉSAR (Baldaccini), in 102nd place with Pouce (20 October 2007, Cornette de Saint-Cyr, Paris) and Roman OPALKA (150th with Opalka 1965-1-infini detail-4875812-4894230/Opalka 1955-1-infini…, 14 October 2010, Christie’s London).

With a price index up by more than 500% in ten years (since January 2003), an annual auction turnover that has risen from $2.4 million in 2002 to $109.8 million in 2012, and an auction of $19.5 million at the recent sales in June 2013 (Sculpture Éponge Bleue Sans Titre, Se 168, 1959, 14 May 2013, Sotheby’s New York), Yves Klein is one of the favourite artists of European and American collectors. If the artist sells just as well in the United States (which accounts for over 45% of his auction turnover) it is because American collectors became familiar with his work at an early stage. In 1961, his work was exhibited by Leo Castelli – a giant in the gallery history – who discovered, among others, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol and generally managed to make New York the world capital of art.

Such influential support so early in his career allowed Klein to establish a weighty price level, despite its brevity (1954-1962). His first 7-figure results came in 1989-1990 in both London and New York. Twenty years later, his market is galloping: on 14 May 2008, MG9 (Monogold with gold leaf) tripled its estimate when it fetched $21 million at Sotheby’s New York… but the ascent was by no means complete. Last year Klein signed two results each over $32 million (over $36 million including buyer’s premium) becoming one of the few French nationals to compete with the most expensive American artists and one of the most profitable artists for the auction houses (his annual turnover added $107.4 million between 2002 and 2012)

An opening to the U.S. market is once again essential for the auction standing of French artists (and European artists in general). If we look at just the top 50 in this auction ranking, we find that 64% of them were hammered in New York, 30% in London and only 6% in Paris. Only Louise Bourgeois and Pierre Soulages have sufficiently stimulated Parisian buyers to generate results equivalent to $4 million and $2.8 million: Louise Bourgeois’ Spider sculpture (2003) fetched EUR2.55 million at Christie’s Paris on 25 May 2008 and a Pierre Soulages Painting (130 cm x 162 cm, 1956), fetched EUR2 million at Sotheby’s Paris on 31 May 2011.

While French artists need to internationalize their demand to establish a high secondary market value, the Parisian market really needs to start selling major works by French artists. Indeed, the international influence and standing of French art depends on it. Unfortunately, the French market is again advancing with heavy steps, recently handicapped by the announcement of a VAT rate increase on the import of works, which could rise to 10% instead of the current 7%.