​Gerhard Richter, the “Picasso of the 21st century”…

[23 Jan 2018]

Dubbed the “Picasso of the 21st century” Gerhard Richter is one of the most coveted and sought-after artists of our times. We take a look back over his career and the milestones of his auction market.

Based in Cologne, Gerhard RICHTER (1932) has witnessed the spectacular rise in his auction prices with a degree of genuine astonishment. Considered by many the greatest painter of our time, the last ten years have seen his market gripped by almost feverish demand, with nearly fifty of his works fetching above $10 million at public sales. The leading light of Contemporary German painting is himself surprised. He thinks the price levels are disconnected from reality; but the market has chosen him… The European market, but also the US market, which has been highly appreciative of his meditative color fields that perhaps suggest an affiliation with America’s first great art movement, Abstract Expressionism, whose leading figures were none other than Jackson POLLOCK (1912-1956) and Mark ROTHKO (1903-1970).

Painting that questions painting…

Gerhard Richter’s first iconic works date back to 1962. He was 30 at the time and reproduced on canvas photographs of landscapes, still lifes (including the famous Kerze /candles) and domestic scenes with his first wife Emma and her sister Renate. Simultaneously a photographer and a painter, Richter satisfied his artistic thirst at various sources, taking lots of pictures himself, but also collecting lots of press photos and amateur photographs which he archived in his Atlas. An ironic reflection on the status of painting in an era of photography prompted Richter to launch ‘Capitalist Realism‘, transforming his photographs into pictorial objects. His canvases, looking like slightly blurred photographs, were rapidly noticed on the international art scene and his career took off in 1972 when he represented Germany at the 36th Venice Biennale with 48 portraits based on a series of photographs of famous men. Following these painting/photographs, his work took a distinctly abstract path with a series of paintings invariably titled, Abstraktes bild (abstract painting). These colorful and immersive works offered a vibrating surface using a special technique, described as ‘scraping‘ or ‘wiping‘.

In 2002 the gifted painter was recognised and indeed consecrated by Robert Storr who curated a traveling retrospective that opened at the MoMA in New York in 2002. Entitled Forty Years of Painting, the show received universal acclaim and triggered a massive inflation of his auction market prices. Ten years later, another major traveling retrospective – this time starting at the Tate Modern in London and stopping at Berlin’s Staatliche Museum and Paris’s Centre Pompidou – provided a further major boost to his prices. Covering five decades of work, the show not only enhanced Richter’s status throughout Europe, but also substantially boosted an already very healthy demand for his works.

One of the keys to Richter’s success appears to be his productivity. Another is his capacity to capture the essential and not worry about detail. Like Andy Warhol, Richter ‘mechanized’ his work. The technique of wiping and the creation of paintings from ‘readymade’ images (magazine photographs among others) were at the root of his high productivity and allowed the relatively easy propagation of his dense and varied production. Although 46% of his works sell in Germany, the United States generates 53% of his auction revenue from just 20% of his lots.

The most expensive painter…

Richter’s market has a feverish quality to it. Indeed, “Richter madness” has seemed to be driving his auctions since the early 2000s. Already in 2001, his work attracted massive attention in New York’s auction houses: on 15 May 2001 Sotheby’s sold his Drei Kerzen (an oil on canvas from 1982) for $4.9 million, the best price ever paid for a living artist.

The following year (2002), after his retrospective at the MoMA, Richter emerged as the world’s 10th most sought-after artist (all periods combined) as ranked by annual auction turnover. Thereafter, his prices continued climbing at a staggering pace, and on 10 February 2015, a large abstract painting from 1986 (Abstraktes bild 300.5 x 250.5 cm) generated his all-time auction record at $46.3 million at Sotheby’s in London. In 1999 the painting was worth $607,500 (Sotheby’s auction of 18 May 1999) and therefore gained no less than $45.6 million in fifteen years.

Last year (2016), Richter moved even higher in the global ranking, taking 4th position with an annual auction turnover of $189.5 million. “Richter madness” once again made him the world’s top-ranked living artist. He moreover confirmed his status as the Picasso of the 21st century, by becoming the second European artist in the global ranking, behind the iconic Pablo Picasso.

In 2017, his market was less intense. Richter ranked 14th in the annual Top 500, with 340 works fetching a total of $120.4 million. However, two of his paintings still crossed the $10 million threshold. Indeed, with nearly 50 works having fetched 8-digit auction results, the phenomenon has become almost ‘banale’… and Richter himself considers the prices “excessive, indeed extravagant”.