The prophets of modernism



The group of artists known as the Nabis, or prophets, came together in 1888. The best known Nabi artists are Pierre BONNARD, Édouard VUILLARD, Maurice DENIS, Paul SÉRUSIER, Félix VALLOTTON, but the group also includes lesser known artists such as, Henri Gabriel IBELS, Jan VERKADE, Georges LACOMBE, Paul Élie RANSON and Ker Xavier ROUSSEL. To date, however, there has been no auction house sale devoted entirely to the Nabis, even though their works are as popular in the US as they are in Europe. French auction houses dominate the market in volume terms. They handled 36% of Nabi sales by volume in the first season 2000, but only 20% by value. US and UK houses remain the market leaders in terms of turnover.

Édouard VUILLARD commands the highest prices of all the Nabi artists. In 1998, at the time of the retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, Vuillard’s work, Conversation (le pot de grès), fetched USD4.3 million at auction at Christie’s, New-York, a record for the artist. Works by Vuillard auctioned by Christie’s in May this year also attracted high prices, with his La soirée familiale, a canvas painted during the Nabi period in 1894-1895, selling for USD2.4 million. Lesser known artists of the group can also command good prices. For example, Jan Verkade’s 1893 work, Reminiscence, was sold by Christie’s, Amsterdam, on 4 December 2001 for EUR220,000. It seems, then, that a canvas by a Nabi is appreciated for its intrinsic value, regardless of the signature it bears.


Prices doubled between 1997 and 2000, the price paid in successive auctions for Pierre BONNARD‘s canvas, La tonnelle, painted in 1890, providing a good illustration of the rising trend. The canvas was sold for FRF70,000 by Piasa, Paris, on 9 December 1998, for FRF75,000 by Pillon, in Calais, on 12 December 1999, then for FRF166,000 by Tajan, in Monte Carlo, on 2 August 2000.

However, after stabilising in 2001, the price index is now going into reverse and the price of works by most Nabi artists actually declined in 2001-2002. An exception to the rule is Paul Sérusier, whose works continue to attract rising prices (up 7% since the start of 2002). His 1899 canvas, La Moisson du Blé Noir recently set a new record for the artist, selling for EUR540,000 at auction by Me Thierry (an auction house specialising in the Nabis) in Brest.