The Top 10 of Ceramic Works

[23 Feb 2018]

It’s Top 10 Friday! Every other Friday, Artprice posts a theme-based auction ranking. This week, we have a look at the 10 best sales of ceramics on the auction market.

Made with clay, ceramics can therefore be compared to sculpture. The word ‘ceramics,’ which comes from the Greek ‘keramos’ meaning ‘clay,’ refers to a type of material considered of lesser quality than marble or bronze, the two materials traditionally used in Western sculpture. But the rules in the history of art were reinvented in the 20th century by the Avant-garde, blurring the boundaries between techniques. Nowadays, the distinction between minor arts (which include ceramics) and major arts seems increasingly obsolete, especially regarding contemporary art. Artists such as AI Weiwei and Thomas SCHUTTE often use clay and are no less valued than their peers. Ceramic works can indeed reach high prices at auction and this ranking only lists million-dollar sales for works ranging from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 Andrea BRIOSCO (1470-1532) 5 224 838 Bust of the Virgin and Child 10/12/2002 Sotheby’s Londres
2 Giovanni Lorenzo BERNINI (Attrib.) (1598-1680) 3 239 115 Il Moro 09/07/2002 Sotheby’s Londres
3 Pablo PICASSO (1881-1973) 2 407 500 $ Le hibou (rouge et blanc) 16/11/2016 Christie’s New York
4 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 2 064 820 Concetto spaziale, Natura 11/02/2014 Christie’s Londres
5 Pablo PICASSO (1881-1973) 1 904 457 $ La chouette 03/02/2015 Sotheby’s Londres
6 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 832 000 $ Concetto spaziale, natura 16/05/2007 Christie’s New York
7 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 818 500 $ Concetto spaziale, natura 13/05/2009 Christie’s New York
8 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 575 787 $ Caminetto 28/04/2015 Christie’s Milan
9 Pablo PICASSO (1881-1973) 1 535 797 Grand vase aux femmes voilées 19/06/2013 Christie’s Londres
10 Lucio FONTANA (1899-1968) 1 499 198 $ Il Guerriero (The Warrior) 06/10/2017 Christie’s Londres
copyright © 2017

Picasso beaten by two Italian artists

In this ranking, the Renaissance prevails over Modernity and is dominated by two Italian artists of the 16th and 17th centuries: Andrea BRIOSCO and Lorenzo BERNINI.

In 2002, a work by a major sculptor of the Italian Renaissance, Andrea BRIOSCO (1470-1532), a rare artist on the market, reached $5.2 million, the absolute record for a terracotta work. Sotheby’s, in charge of auctioning his Madonna and Child, described the work as one of the last Renaissance terracotta masterpieces still owned by a private collector. Created around 1520 for a church or convent in Padua, it was discovered in 1902 by a Venetian dealer who thought it was a work by Donatello. This masterpiece was attributed to Andrea Briosco in 1903 and has been exhibited on several occasions, notably at the Victorian & Albert Museum in London a few months before its sale, as part of the exhibition Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova.

The second highest price was for a less conventional work by Giovanni Lorenzo BERNINI (1598-1680) representing the gnarled body of a Moor evoking dynamic torsion and counter-torsion. Despite only being ‘attributed’ to the great artist, this typically Baroque tribute to movement greatly increased its high estimate in 2002, going through the roof at $3.2m. Il Moro, the only terracotta by Bernini ever sold at auction, is also the absolute record for the artist. This work was commissioned by Pope Innocent X to decorate the Moorish Fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome. Sotheby’s experts thought that this major sculpture was one of the last versions made by Bernini to present to the Pope in 1652, a few months before the final installation in Piazza Navona.

Picasso and ceramics

Picasso made his first attempt at ceramics at the Madoura pottery on 26 July 1946 after meeting Georges and Suzanne Ramié, the owners of the workshop. Fascinated by the malleability of clay, the artist started to experiment with this material, showing great enthusiasm and creating some 2,000 pieces in the first year he spent in Vallauris (1947-1948). Although his output reduced in the years that followed, Picasso created 4,000 ceramics in 20 years (up to 1971). He wanted these works, sold at more affordable prices, to be functional and used as part of daily life. The contract made with Madoura included producing several editions of certain pieces. Some 633 designs were produced in 25 to 500 copies each. Plates, wine jugs, vases… Picasso played with shapes, styles, tools and techniques, daring to try everything. He decorated countless dishes and plates with his favourite themes, notably bullfighting, women and birds, transforming the material and creating more personal shapes that are real sculptures with no practical purposes.

Picasso’s pottery is considered as a distinct niche market, to which Christie’s dedicates very popular annual sales. The absolute record is quite recent and was reached in November 2016 in New York with the superb red and white painted sculpture of an owl dating from 1953. This symbol of wisdom is a dominant motif in Picasso’s work, thus particularly popular with collectors. The work on sale at Christie’s was from the prestigious Rockefeller collection, a significant provenance that added spice to the auction. The Owl (red and white) finally sold for $2.4m, setting the absolute record for a Picasso ceramic work. This piece is unique but some rare editions by Picasso have also gone over the million-dollar mark, like Big vase with veiled woman, one of his most popular ceramic works. This piece, of which there are 25 copies, reached its record price ($1.5 million, including fees) in 2013. The Picasso ceramics market also offers collectors the opportunity to buy works for less than $3,000. The demand for both small and large pieces is global, but buyers are mostly Western, although Asian collectors also greatly appreciate these works that are part of the ceramic tradition deeply rooted in Asia.

Fontana takes over half of the Top 10

Happy to have ‘made a name for himself as a ceramicist’ during his lifetime, Fontana considered this technique as actual sculpture. Celebrating the material and using a wide range of enamel colours, Fontana’s ceramic art is lavish, uninhibited and extravagant. But Fontana’s ceramics have been recognized as a major part of his work only recently. His ceramics have long been considered second best, partly as this technique wasn’t in vogue at the time and also as, for 10 years, the artist had drawn his inspiration from religious iconography, using a style that was quite unusual for subjects such as the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion and the Stations of the Cross. After the Second World War, ceramics played a major role in the emergence of Spatialism, which led Fontana to produce his most popular and best-selling works. The highest price for a ceramic work in our ranking is Concetto spaziale, Natura, a roughly modelled clay sphere, a raw and powerful work that sold for more than $2m in 2014 in London.