Top Tens in Europe. Chapter 1: Italy

[12 Sep 2014]


Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week: the Top Ten Italian bids

Italy lies in seventh place in the global market for art work sales at auction ($68 million worth of works sold in the first half of 2014). The European cradle of art chiefly appreciates Old Masters and modern art, without getting carried away over trendy contemporary names. With an entry ticket of $1.6 million for the Top Ten Italian hammer prices and a record of $3.2 million, Italy is shielded from speculative price surges, including for the greatest names in the history of art.

Top 10 : the Top Ten Italian bids

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 TIZIANO VECELLIO $3282060 Santa Maria Maddalena penitente 11/09/2003 FineArte – Semenzato Casa D’aste S.P.A., Venice VE
2 Arturo MARTINI $2542372 Donna che nuota sott’acqua (1941-1942) 05/24/2005 Christie’s, Milan MI
3 Mariotto DI NARDO $2317920 Madonna col Bambino in trono e angeli 11/06/2007 Sotheby’s, Florence FI
4 Umberto BOCCIONI $2300510 Studio per foot-baller (1913) 11/27/2007 Christie’s, Milan MI
5 Claude MONET $2149200 Leicester square, la nuit (1900-1901) 03/13/1990 Nuova Brerarte, Milan MI
6 Lucio FONTANA $1861245 Concetto spaziale, Attese (1964/65) 04/02/2014 Christie’s, Milan MI
7 Jean-Baptiste MARTIN DES BATAILLES $1856400 Le conquiste di Luigi Il Grande 02/22/1998 FineArte – Semenzato Casa D’aste S.P.A., Venice VE
8 Ippolito CAFFI $1819408 Veduta di Piazza Navona, Roma (1853) 06/12/2007 Sotheby’s, Milan MI
9 Lucio FONTANA $1813320 Concetto spaziale (1955) 05/27/2008 Sotheby’s, Milan MI
10 Giorgio MORANDI $1699125 Natura morta (1940) 05/20/2009 Sotheby’s, Milan MI


Two Old Masters
24 paintings in a quarter of a century: this is the global market for the great 16th century Venetian master Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian in English. Prices for this rare commodity are not excessive, particularly in comparison with the prices now achieved by contemporary works. Although it is hard to obtain a painting for less than $500,000, Titian’s record stands at $15 million, while many contemporary artists have already crossed this price threshold with ease. The absolute record for a bid was obtained not in Italy, but in New York, the stronghold of the high-end global market (Sacra Conversazione: the Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria, sold for $15 million, or $16.8 million including buyer’s premium, 27 January 2011 at Sotheby’s). The best bid posted in Italy is a fifth of that, and goes back more than ten years, when Penitent Magdalene fetched the equivalent of $3.2 million ($3.8 million including buyer’s premium, Santa Maria Maddalena penitente, on 9 November 2003, Finarte). His works are so rare that some confirmed as authentic obtain six-figure results; the hope of finding a new treasure acts as a powerful stimulus to dealers and collectors.

The other Old Master in the Top Ten is the Florentine Mariotto Di Nardo (c. 1394-1424), active in the 15th century. Despite an extremely short career, Di Nardo produced a huge body of work, including numerous small paintings and some impressive altarpieces. The latter fetch the best prices at auction. One of them, a spectacular 3-metre high Madonna and Child in Majesty with Angels on a gold background, holds the Italian record at $2.3 million ($2.6 million including buyer’s premium, Sotheby’s Milan, 6 November 2007). Portable altarpieces, certainly intended for private devotion, are a great deal more accessible in Italy, the UK and France. It is possible to acquire one for less than $50,000, but opportunities are few and far between.

Two Fontanas
Born in 1899 in Argentina to an Italian father, Lucio Fontana trained as a sculptor and spent most of his life in Milan. Fontana slashed his material with a lyrical gesture evoking an infinite void. While celebrated for his radical trademark, the artist did not restrict himself to it. His huge body of work, lying somewhere between metaphysical impulse, kitsch and incarnation, was recently the focus of a retrospective going far beyond the Concetti spaziale at the Musée d’ Art Moderne de Paris (25 April – 24 August 2014). However, collectors prefer his sliced canvases, as witness his two record bids, which both top $18 million. Fontana’s two records in Italy drop a zero (two bids at $1.8 million each). His global significance and a weak high-end market in Italy mean that his major works are mainly sold in London and New York. This is where the millions flow and the records accumulate. Italy has sold $111 millions’ worth of works by Fontana since 2000, while the UK has garnered $424 million over the same period. The same applies to other key artists of the 20th century, such as Giorgio and Morandi, whose best works go off to auction in London, and Piero Manzoni, who performs better in New York (Manzoni’s record in Italy is $1.2 million, but $12.5 million in New York).

Two French artists
Two French artists well-established in history have made it to this Top Ten. The first is the Impressionist leader Claude Monet, whose record in Italy goes back to a period of rocketing prices, the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the art market reached a peak before calming down over the following years. During this time of affluence, collectors and investors rushed to buy big Impressionist and modern names, French artists first and foremost. Monet’s Italian record was obtained in 1990 with Leicester Square, la nuit, a painting bordering on abstraction, which fetched $2.1 million in Milan. But in this price range, collectors largely prefer his 1880s landscapes to this dark painting of 1901. Fifteen years after the Italian sale of Leicester square, la nuit, the picture fell 67% in value (resold for $700,000 on 4 May 2005 at Christie’s New York).

The other French artist was acclaimed in Italy with a new bid. This was Jean-Baptiste Martin des Batailles (b. 1659 in Paris; d. 1735), a specialist in battle scenes active during the reign of Louis XIV. Like his work, his market is French, with very few exceptions. One is a Gobelins tapestry depicting an episode in the conquests of Louis XIV: a work reflecting history and tradition, which the Italians pushed up to $1.8 million in 1998 (Finarte, Venice).

Italy’s market lacks thrust because works circulate less there than elsewhere. The great Italian collections are crammed with ancient and modern treasures, but these are not intended for the auction market, and the few masterpieces that emerge are sent to more dynamic marketplaces like London and New York. Exceptions are rare; they include the records of Jean-Baptiste Martin des Batailles, Cavaliere Ippoloto Caffi and the sculptor Arturo Martini.