The contemporary drawing market

[08 Mar 2007]


Paris traditionally welcomes the Drawings Fair in March. This year, for the 19th event, 31 galleries presented more than 1000 papers from the Renaissance up to the 1970s in the Palais de la Bourse; there was a notable absence of more recent work because, for the first time, the Contemporary Drawings Fair took place March 22-26: forty or so French and foreign galleries took over a six-storey building on Avenue d’Iena for a show entirely dedicated to contemporary drawings.

The market for contemporary papers is rarely showcased. Auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Tajan, Piasa, or Thierry de Maigret are organising sales dedicated to old papers during the week of the Drawings Fair (March 20-26 2007) but no auction of contemporary drawings has yet been staged. And yet, contemporary drawing, at the crossroads of the current art market and its most innovatory features (photographic art, performance and video installations etc) and the more established and classical medium which mixes small preparatory and spontaneous sketches with large format finished works, clearly has its followers and reveals a market with its own particular features.

Drawings like prints are often considered by collectors with modest spending power as one way into the art market. But this market still suffers today from limited supply. The market for drawings is full of works from modern and 19th century artists, and even much earlier periods, but does not host much contemporary work. Only 13.6% of the 61 000 drawings sold throughout the world in 2006 were from artists still working. Yet, all media combined, contemporary art represents 19% of transactions. As far as contemporary art is concerned, it must be pointed out that preparatory work for works on canvas or installations/sculptures are often left in the workshop. So, unlike output from ancient masters or those of the 19th century, few sketches for contemporary art are offered on the market. The vast majority of current pieces offered for sale are finished works whereas previous production floods its market with sketches and preparatory pieces from the workshop sale. Obviously, this difference in quality has an impact on price. For the market in drawings of dead artists, all periods combined, works sold for less than EUR 2 000 euros represent 73% of sales, compared to 51% for output from living artists……

From a purely financial point of view, drawings are a growth sector (+74.7% over ten years and +4.5% in 2006), but less so than a prestigious medium like painting (+168.7% over ten years and +6.2% in 2006) or a fashionable medium like photography (+170% over ten years and +1% in 2006). This is first of all due to a trend observed on the market: the more expensive a work, the higher the chances of making a profit at resale. This is because when the market appreciates, the upmarket segment is more speculative (with less supply and demand) and so price rises are naturally more pronounced as quality pieces are rarer and more sought after. In addition, unlike older output, supply of contemporary art is not fixed. Consequently, the drying up and shortage that encourages higher prices when an artist dies does not apply in the contemporary art field. Between 2005 and 2007, when the global going rate for drawings from contemporary artists rose by 27%, the works of artists who died in 2005 sometimes dwarfed this rise in under two years after their death:Fernandez ARMAN (+39%), Raymond HAINS (+275%), Zoran Antonio MUSIC (+66%), Pol BURY (+70%).

Some speculative choices
However, for a number of young international artists whose popularity is literally taking off, drawings are still a good way of gaining access to the work of a market star for a reasonable price while hoping to make a sizeable profit at resale. The following price variations for the same piece auctioned twice are a particularly good illustration. For example Damien HIRST, whose paintings and sculptures have beaten the million mark nine times since 2005, regularly presents drawings in sale rooms. One of them, Beautiful obliterating accelerating psychotic Drawing was bought for USD 8 000 in 2000, or slightly more than EUR 9 000 (Christie’s Beverly-Hills CA, 5 December). The same work was again put up for auction in 2004 and went for GBP 18 000, or more than EUR 26 000 (Christie’s London, 5 February). The contemporary Asian scene is extremely speculative and has produced significant capital gains, notably for the work of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo NARA: his drawing Miss Mountain was snubbed in 2000 for a low estimate of USD 2 500. Three years later, a buyer paid USD 3 500 (slightly more than EUR 3 000) at Phillips, De Pury & Luxembourg in New-York (May 16 2003). In May 2005 Miss Mountain was sold with another drawing of the same size titled Three Heads for You: bidding went to USD 22 000 for this lot, or nearly EUR 17 500 at Sotheby’s New-York! Here is another example of market fever: « The Passion », a gouache drawn in 1994 by Marlene DUMAS, was bought for GBP 65 000 in 2004 and fetched 3 times more in February 2007. Also noteworthy is the 80% rise over two years of «Small Foot», a drawing by Jim DINE that went for EUR 18 000 € in April 2006 after being acquired for EUR 10 000 in October 2004. Finally, «Boadicea attacking Westminster», a large GILBERT & GEORGE collage, sold for the equivalent of EUR 11 705 on November 17 2006 at Phillips, de Pury & Company, 3 times more than its purchase price in 1992. Robert Combas, the heavy weight of France’s contemporary art market is enjoying strong price rises too. Overall, the price index for his drawings has risen by 90% since 2001. And a 1983 drawing signed Robert Combas, that fetched EUR 380 in 2002 at Cornette de Saint-Cyr went for EUR 1 100 at Mathias-Millon-Robert in Paris three years later.