The Italian Top 10

[15 Sep 2017]

It’s Top 10 Friday! Every other Friday, Artprice posts a theme-based auction ranking. This week, we take a look at the best sales of the year in Italy.

In Italy as well as in the art market as a whole, the top-end segment is based on 20th century works of art, especially the Post-War period. Our Top 10 also reveals that the million-dollar sales of 2017 are from paintings by Fontana and Castellani, with the exception of a work by Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, The Search for the Absolute (1948), which has obtained the highest price ever paid for a Magritte in Italy.

A period both rather “recent” in time and considered by the market as a sure bet, Italian Post-War art raises considerable interest. Its recognition and value are not only strong on the Italian domestic market, but also on the whole of the Western market, and even worldwide, as artists in our top 10 are collected all over the world, including Asia, with Giorgio Morandi posting two million-dollar results in China in the last two years.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 715 067 Concetto Spaziale, [Attese] 27/04/2017 Christie’s Milan
2 Enrico CASTELLANI (1930) 1 214 261 undefined 27/04/2017 Christie’s Milan
3 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 112 074 Concetto spaziale, attese 04/05/2017 Sotheby’s Milan
4 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 029 753 Concetto spaziale, Attese 27/04/2017 Christie’s Milan
5 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 020 086 Concetto spaziale, attesa 04/05/2017 Sotheby’s Milan
6 René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) 1 003 604 La recherche de l’absolu 27/05/2017 Farsetti Prato
7 Giorgio MORANDI (1890-1964) 882 364 Natura morta 27/05/2017 Farsetti Prato
8 Josef ALBERS (1888-1976) 770 403 Natura morta 04/05/2017 Sotheby’s Milan
9 Josef ALBERS (1888-1976) 691 556 Study for Homage to the Square: sel.: E. B. 1 04/05/2017 Sotheby’s Milan
10 Alberto BURRI (1915-1995) 665 273 Study for Homage to the Square: sel.: E. B. 1 04/05/2017 Sotheby’s Milan
copyright © 2017

The sixth largest market in the world behind France and Germany ($176m in 2016), Italy weighed in with sales of $95m in the first half of 2017 and nearly 12,000 works of art sold in six months. This figure has doubled since the early 2000s, compared with $24 million obtained by Belgium (see our previous article on the Belgium Top 10). The Italian result is certainly commendable but it does not fully exploit the high value of its best national artists. The highest sale of the year was for a work by Lucio Fontana sold for $1.7m, which indeed seems a little low, considering four works by the artist have sold for a higher price in London since the beginning of the year, and a red Concetto Spaziale went for $3 million in New York last May.

Over the past four years, there has been a great deal of interest in Post-War Italian artists such as Fontana, Castellani and Burri, mostly in London, where Sotheby’s and Christie’s organise sales dedicated to Italian art during the Frieze Art Fair, a major artistic and commercial event. In 2015, Sotheby’s and Christie’s’s “Italian Sales” (15 and 16 October 2015) recorded a real surge in prices, with the two auction houses selling over $62m each, setting impressive records. The highlight of the two-day sale was at Sotheby’s, who created a new $24.4 million record for Lucio Fontana, while a record-breaking $29.1 million was set the following month at Christie’s in New York.

This rush on Italian artists is partly due to a 1939 Italian export law, requiring export licenses for Italian works created more than 50 years ago in order to limit the flow of artworks out of the country. This governmental regulation has led to a real race against the clock and prices have soared due to urgency, as evidenced by the phenomenal increase in Enrico Castellani‘s price index: +1,038% since 2000. The best Castellani prices were obtained in London and then Milan. A friend of Piero Manzoni and founder of the Azimuth magazine, Castellani set an absolute record of $6m including fees in October 2014 in London, with Superficie Bianca, sold at Sotheby’s.

For those who acquired works by Fontana many years ago, the potential capital gains are in millions of dollars: 10 works by the artist have been sold for over $10 million each in recent years, the most expensive coming from his La Fine di dio series (four selling for more than $20m). The success of Fontana is certainly important for Italy, which has sold $150m worth of the artist’s works since 2000, but it is even more so for the United Kingdom, which has sold more than $572m worth of his works over the same period.

While the interest in the major Italian artists has died down slightly in auction rooms since 2015, London’s next specialised sales will give a clearer idea of the trend this year: Sotheby’s Italian sale is scheduled for 5 October and Thinking Italian at Christie’s will be held the next day.