Graffiti art- From the street to the museum

[23 May 2007]


Historically, graffiti was an underground movement, born to the Hip-Hop rhythm in the American ‘hoods of the 1970s. It is people’s art, rough and ephemeral. Rough because it was created illegally in public spaces. Ephemeral because its lifespan, subject to external constraints, is necessarily limited. The prohibitions which hit this urban art right from its beginnings in Europe could not stop its expansion during the 1980s. At the end of the decade it had become a veritable fashion phenomenon, in the press and on museum walls. Aside from urban buildings, street furniture and public transport, the graffiti artists created works on canvas, paper or street hoardings which are now prized by a growing number of collectors.

The pioneers

The unquestioned star of the genre is Jean-Michel BASQUIAT who is racking up million-ticket sales (more than forty). On 15 May last, a mixed-medium 1981 work smashed the artist’s record in crossing the 10 million dollar mark! Initially estimated at between 6 million and 8 million dollars, the hammer went down on the lot at 13 million dollars (more than 9.6 million euros, Sotheby’s NY). Warhol’s friend with the fleeting destiny (he died at 27 years) signed his first works in the street under the pseudonym Samo. Today a small pencil or graphite drawing changes hands for between 10,000 and 20,000 euros on average and you’ll need between 50,000 and 100,000 euros for a paper-based work in crayon. Prices are higher still for large formats in ink or oil pastel.
Another Warhol accolyte, Keith HARING, is also a key graffiti name. He doesn’t reach the heights of Basquiat but has shown steady growth over the last four years. On 8 February last, you’d have needed not less than £56,000 to secure a small 1984 acrylic (50×50 cm) at Sotheby’s London. The same day, Sotheby’s competitor set a new record of £440,000 for a 1983 canvas (Christie’s London).The more affordable FUTURA 2000 is one of the pioneers of urban painting which he created instinctively on the walls of Brooklyn as of the 1970s. Only 3 works from the graffiti artist have been put up for auction in ten years! The latest, an untitled acrylic and aerosol painting on a plank of wood, found a buyer for 4,000 euros in October at Artcurial who will auction a spray-painted graffiti canvas entitled Bar code (1983, 137 x 181 cm) for an estimate of between 4,000 and 5,000 euros.

Graffiti art becomes sought after in France

The auction house Artcurial will auction around twenty works by American and French graffiti artists on 6 June. The sale catalogue lists the works together in a section called ‘Graffiti and post-graffiti art’: never before has a French auction house given the genre so much credit! The sale’s headline piece is the large-scale Match Point, Ephemeral Hospital, 1993 (214.5 x 190 cm) by JONONE, aka Jonone estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 euros. Highly vibrant and colourful, this work takes liberties with the masters of abstract art such as Kandinsky, Pollock and de Kooning.With these twenty lots going for estimates averaging between 5,000 and 10,000 euros, the art lover can set his or her heart on the large canvases with cartoon references signed CRASH or ASH II. There is a wide choice of works for between 1,000 and 5,000 euros: a Jonone sized at close to a metre, the abstract graffitis by SHARP, DAZE, KOOR or a surreal graphic canvas by Alex/Mac-Crew. For less than 1,000 euros, one might hope to secure the spray-painted canvases by Sonic or Hondo and for a low-end estimate of 100 euros an untitled work combining several media on a plywood panel signed Thierry CHEVERNEY.In two years, graffiti artists have seen their prices double: is the street phenomenon moving to the auction room?