Combas: spearhead of the Contemporary art market in France

[05 Nov 2013]


Despite its 4th position in the global ranking, the French market only represents a very small share of the world’s Contemporary art auction turnover: a little less than 2.8%, behind the United States and China standing shoulder to shoulder with 33.7% each and the United Kingdom with 21.1%.

The primary quality of the Contemporary art market in France is the density of its offer (over 5,500 lots were sold at auction between July 2012 and June 2013, almost as many as the 6,000 sold in the United States). Its second quality is that it consists of highly affordable works since French artists are substantially less expensive than their American, Chinese, English and German counterparts.
The Contemporary artists in the rankings provided by are all born after 1945, a birth date that excludes certain living artists like Pierre SOULAGES, born in 1919, whose work fetches substantially more than Combas’ on the secondary market. As a result, Robert COMBAS is the only French artist among the global top 100 Contemporary artists by auction turnover.

Robert Combas: the only French artist in the Global Top 100

Although 90% of his auction turnover is generated in France, Combas still commands good prices. He occasionally pops up in London sales, but demand for his work in the United States is too low to truly boost his prices. Nevertheless, he has now climbed to 81st place in the Global Top 100 Contemporary artists just behind market heavyweights like Antony Gormley (79th) and Vik Muniz (80th). Combas is a favourite of French collectors (and among collectors from neighbouring countries like Belgium and Switzerland) and demand, still strong, has inflated his price index more than 63% over the past decade. If we start the comparison at the beginning of the millennium, his works have proven extremely profitable investments as $100 invested in 1999 is worth an average of $375 in the autumn of 2013. His auction record is also fresh from this year with a large 1985 acrylic that fetched the equivalent of $166,000 at Cornette de Saint Cyr in Paris on 28 March 2013 (Louis XIV, 1985. 218cm x 165cm). However, this success has not made him unaffordable and 60% of his works are acquired at auction for under $5,000 (including prints which account for 17% of his auctions transactions).

Combas embodied the Figuration Libre movement in the 1980s and today looks like a free agent, independent of any artistic “movement”. He nourishes his labyrinthine and colour-rich canvases with various influences, references to popular culture, rock, pornography, comics, historical paintings, biblical myths and legends and art history. We find the same diversity in his choice of materials and techniques: canvas, clothing, sheets, brushes, ceramics, drawings unearthed at flea markets … everything can be used as a basis for creation and his creativity covers all types of artistic and non-artistic media. Even his worn paintbrushes are collected to form crucifixes that change hands for between $1,500 and $4,000 on average (10 years ago they fetched under $1,000).

Behind Combas, the French Contemporary art market lends strong support to Philippe PASQUA, Richard ORLINSKI, Bernard FRIZE, Flore SIGRIST, Jacques TARDI, Gérard GAROUSTE, Pierre BAYLE, Bertrand LAVIER andFabrice HYBER. Today these signatures represent the cream of Contemporary French art in terms of auction results … with annual turnover figures less than one thirtieth of the annual turnovers generated by America’s top 10 auction performers in the same segment.