The French art market and its affordable works

[02 Jun 2015]


Over the last decade or so the top end of the art market has enjoyed an almost uninterrupted series of spectacular new records, largely fuelled by a growing population of international millionaires with strong appetites for trophy signatures. However, these highly publicized results only concern a tiny proportion of the global art market and, contrary to popular belief, the rest of the market is, on the whole, relatively affordable. Indeed, every year, the secondary market (via auctions all over the world) sells between 100,000 and 200,000 artworks by clearly recognized artists at prices under $10,000 and about 80% of all artworks are adjudicated for less than $5,000. Over 70% of Pablo Picasso’s works sell in this price range (under $5,000) and 60% of Zao Wou-Ki’s. The percentage is around 50% in the cases of Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Roy Lichtenstein and Alberto Giacometti. At these prices, you are essentially looking at prints. But we would be wrong to minimize the importance of these numbered and signed works, which often result from genuine technical experimentation and are a perfect vehicle for a safe investment with minimal deflation risk.

From a buyer’s perspective, the choice is vast, particularly in France, where works by dozens of “known” painters can be acquired without spending huge sums. In the under $10,000 bracket, these range from the major artists associated with the Barbizon School such as Camille Jean-Baptiste Corot and Théodore Rousseau and less frequently Jean François Millet, to the lesser-known “masters” – but nevertheless exhibited in prestigious museums – whose works enjoy stable prices and deserve the interest of collectors. Just a few examples: superb pastel drawings by the Impressionist painter Armand Guillaumin and small oil paintings by Albert Lebourg (often selling at auction for between USD 2,000 and 8,000; Cubist drawings by artists like Louis Marcoussis (pencil) and Albert Gleizes (colored); charming drawings by the master Academic William-Adolphe Bouguereau; assorted drawings by Maurice de Vlaminck; a fashionable Parisian depicted in an oil-on-canvas by Jean-Gabriel Domergue (for less than $ 5,000). And then – still in the same price range – all kinds of works by artists from the major movements of the 20th century like the French Free Figuration, Narrative Figuration and Support-Surface, such as acrylics on canvas by Ben, etc. These examples are from a long list which clearly proves that the market for Modern and Contemporary art is not prohibitively expensive, in fact, far from it. Moreover, the further back in time you go, the cheaper the market gets! This may sound paradoxical, but Modern and Contemporary art is currently more in demand than Old art. Numerous good quality 18th century paintings can now be acquired for under $10,000. These include works by “minor masters”, or works attributed to artists “from the school of” or “in the circle of”, as well as by artists who were celebrated as the most important of their time. For example, Jean-François DE TROY, a History painter and portraitist who worked in the palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau: his “under $10,000” market contains some superb drawings or even small oils in need of restoration.

Among the most currently sought-after artists on the French and international market, it is worth noting that certain works by Zao Wou-Ki and Pierre Soulages are also affordable. In the field of prints, the Franco-Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki and the French artist Pierre Soulages are interesting at several levels. First, because both of them used prints not just as a simple means of diffusion, but as a genuine medium of expression. Second, because Zao Wou-Ki is fervently supported by the Chinese market and Pierre Soulages by the Americans… in both cases under the influence of key market makers intent on upgrading their respective price ranges. Pierre SOULAGES took a special interest in his printmaking techniques, even using the process of corrosion for aesthetic purposes. His etchings thus represent a sort of genuine dialogue with the materials he used… like his works on canvas… but more affordable. Numerically, they represent 77% of his auction sales but less than 3% of his auction turnover. His Etching No. 9, dated 1957, recently fetched $8,000 ($10,000 including fees) in Chicago (edition 100, sold at Leslie Hindman, May 21, 2015). More interestingly, One plate, from: Sur le mur d’en face, a screenprint in color, numbered 18/75, fetched the equivalent of $4,470 including fees at Christie’s London saleroom in April of this year.
Certain works by ZAO Wou-Ki – who also approached printmaking as a genuine and demanding artistic medium – can be acquired in Switzerland (where the artist moved in 2012 until his recent death) at lower prices than in Hong Kong. Some prints – often dating a long way back – reach more than $10,000 at auction; but a large number of his sreenprints still change hands for less than $5,000.

In short, with $10,000 one can serenely acquire a work by a major artist who has withstood the test of time, and be confident about its financial value. The Contemporary art market – younger by definition and thus more risky by nature – seeks to attract the largest possible number of buyers by editing works in large series. Takashi MURAKAMI and Jeff KOONS have both understood the advantages of issuing works for all levels of the art market, hence the production of multiples in editions of more than 2,000 copies. Propelled by his auction records and a strong fashion-effect, Jeff Koons’ mini Balloon dog are now changing hands for between $12,000 and $17,000! Available in red or blue (2,300 copies in each color), the price of one of these objects has multiplied twenty fold in 15 years, despite the relatively limited rarity factor.