The most sought-after abstract works in Paris

[08 Jun 2021]

On 3 June Christie’s Paris hosted a sale Post-War & Contemporary art sale with 120 lots, including works by César, Kosuth, Dubuffet and Richter. The sale was diverse in terms of style and with a large number of artists represented, but the clear winner was abstract art.

Paris has a long history with abstraction. In the post-war years, the French capital was a dynamic and fertile artistic center attracting artists of all nationalities. The confluence of a diverse population of foreign artists with France’s local creators, themselves searching for a new form of abstraction, led to what is known nowadays as the “Paris School”.

Among them, Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Maria Vieira da Silva, Serge Poliakoff, Alfred Manessier, André Lanskoy and even Chu Teh-Chun. Each one of them managed to invent a poetic abstraction… a new painting of the invisible. As Alfred Manessier himself expressed it, By genuinely artistic means, they revealed the spiritual equivalences in the outer world of a more inner world.

In modern-day market terms, however, the artists from this ‘Paris School’ have no price proximity whatsoever. Whereas collectors have been willing to pay over $10 million for a work by Pierre Soulages (his record set in New York), André Lanskoy’s auction record is just $321,000.


Paris School auction records (in France and elsewhere)

Pierre SOULAGES > $10.6 million

Peinture, 23 December 1959

Christie’s, NY (11/15/2018)


CHU Teh-Chun > $29.5 million

Winter Harmony, 1986

Sotheby’s, HK (18 April 2021)


Hans HARTUNG > $3.2 million

T1956-13, 1956

Sotheby’s, Paris (6 December 2017)


Maria Elena VIEIRA DA SILVA > $2.8 million

L’Incendie I, 1944

Christie’s, London (6 March 2018)


Serge POLIAKOFF > $1.2 million

Composition, 1954

Ferri & Associés, Paris (10 June 2011)


Alfred MANESSIER > $592,000

Turris Davidica, 1952

Cornette de Saint-Cyr, Paris (15 October 2007)


André LANSKOY > $321,000

Untitled (c. 1967)

Christie’s, Paris (5 June 2019)


The seven abstract artists listed above were all represented in Christie’s latest sale of Post-War & Contemporary Art in Paris on 3 June. The sale also contained works by the proponents of a more constructed form of abstraction like Victor Vasarely, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Daniel Buren, the latter’s prices having risen considerably in New York in recent years, reaching $2 million (Peinture aux formes indéfinies).

The sale did not generate any 7-digit results (in USD) and totaled just $9.9 million, an amount that a single major work by Pierre Soulages could exceed today (as we saw at Tajan in Paris in 2019 and at Christie’s in New York in 2018). Nevertheless, certain works were hotly disputed to beyond their announced estimates, showing a clear trend within current demand on the Parisian market place.

Estimates doubled (or more)

The best result of the sale was hammered for an oil-on-canvas by the Sino-French artist Chu teh Chun, which doubled its low estimate to reach €620,000 ($751,000). This result is clearly in line with the recent effervescence on Chu’s market. In fact, inflation on paintings by Chu has been even more spectacular than the value accretion on works by ZAO Wou-Ki: +330% for Chu since 2010 versus +285% for Zao, whose prices were initially substantially higher.

Evolution of price indices  for paintings by : Chu Teh Chun (in yellow) and by Zao Wou Ki (turquoise)

The second most contested lot was a work in walnut stain (Brou de noix, 65 x 50 cm, 1958) by Pierre Soulages that doubled its estimate to reach €500,000 (just over $600,000). Again… not surprising given the strong market demand for works by the great French artist who is now a hundred years old. Indeed, Soulages’ auction prices have risen by +200% in the last five years.

A painting by Georges MATHIEU, Voie d’astres (1985), sold beyond the announced estimate at €125,000 ($151,000). Considered one of the fathers of Lyrical Abstraction and the dripping technique developed by Jackson Pollock, Georges Mathieu’s prices have been rising since a resounding record of $2.2 million on 2 December 2020 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for his Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche, an oil-on-canvas measuring six meters long.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning a less well-known artist, Beauford DELANEY (1901-1979), whose small 1963 canvas poetically titled Embrun (Ocean Spray) easily tripled its mid-range estimate to reach at $39,000. Larger works by this African-American painter (originally from Knoxville in Tennessee and who died in Paris in 1979) usually fetch over $500,000, both in France and in the United States. Exhibited for the first time in Paris in the Galerie Prismes with the Nuagisme group, he was very close to the French avant-garde but was subsequently overlooked. His work was rediscovered at the end of the 1980s thanks to the work of French gallery owner Philippe Briet who organized three exhibitions of his work in his New York gallery.

Beauford DELANEY: price index at auction. Copyright

The abstract works by Chu Teh-Chun, Pierre Soulages, Josef Albers, Hans Hartung and Vieira Da Silva fetched the best results on 3 June, together generating $2 million (20% of the sale’s total turnover). One of the advantages of the Parisian market today is its supply depth for works by these artists, demand for which (and the prices) is constantly growing in France and abroad.