The prophets of modern art



The group of artists known as the Nabis (“prophets”) came together in 1888. The big names include Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, along with other lesser known artists such as Félix Vallotton, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Jan Verkade, Georges Lacombe, Paul Élie Ranson and Ker Xavier Roussel. To date, however, there has been no auction devoted entirely to “Nabi” art despite the fact that the Nabi group is recognized both in Europe and in the USA. French auction houses account for more than one-third of transactions and dominate the market for Nabi works in volume terms. Nevertheless, Anglo-Saxon countries account for the lion’s share of auction revenue.

Édouard Vuillard commands the highest prices of all the Nabi artists: in November 1989 his painting La table de toilette (1895) fetched USD 7 million at Christie’s, thereby setting a new record. Shortly afterwards, his price index started to fall, first by 15% in 1990 and then by 54% in the space of six years. However, Vuillard’s index climbed again in 1998: at the time of the retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, his work Conversation (le pot de grès) generated USD 4.3 million at Christie’s (New York) on 18 November 1998. Vuillard’s work also attracted high bidding last May at Christie’s with La Table, la fin du déjeuner chez Madame Vuillard, a painting from the Nabi era (circa. 1895)which was knocked down for USD 2.2 million.
After collapsing in the early 1990s, prices for the Nabis’ work more than doubled in 1997-2005. The successive auctions of La tonnelle (1890), an oil on cardboard by Pierre Bonnard, illustrate the upward price trend for Nabi art. The work was sold at Piasa (Paris) on 9 December 1998 for FRF 70,000 (EUR 10,600); at Pillon (Calais) for FRF 75,000 on 12 December 1999; at Tajan (Monte Carlo) for FRF 166,000 on 2 August 2000 and most recently at Tajan (Paris) for EUR 34,000 on 18 December 2003.
In 2005, the price index of some of the artists exploded, such as that of Maurice Denis which has jumped 97% over the past twelve months. This upward trend gave rise to a new record for the artist with Après-midi dans les bois (1900) which was knocked down for EUR 580,000 at Christie’s on 2 November. A work by a lesser known artist, Jan Verkade, Nature Morte aux Pommes (1891) sold for EUR 171,000 at Piasa (Paris) on 8 December 2004 vs. an estimate of EUR 30,000 – 40,000. This suggests that a typical Nabi work is appreciated for its own intrinsic value, regardless of the signature it bears.

Aside from these big sales, enthusiasts can still find paintings for less than EUR 10,000 apiece. These are usually smaller format works produced after the group’s schism in 1899. For example at Kaczorowski (Nantes) on 10 December, oil paintings by Xavier Ker Roussel were going for only EUR 4,100 apiece and oil paintings on cardboard by Maurice Denis dating from 1937 were going for only 400 euros more. For less than EUR 5,000, collectors can find essentially drawings, as 58% of the segment falls into this price range. For example a small format landscape in charcoal, by Pierre Bonnard fetched EUR 1,500 at Piasa (Paris) on 14 December 2005. Another drawing entitled Tête symboliste (circa. 1888) by Paul Serusier sold for EUR 1,600 at Martin-Chausselat (Versailles) in March 2005.