FIAC 2005: The French contemporary art market



From 6 to 10 October, Paris will celebrate the 32nd edition of the FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain). The giant Porte de Versailles exhibition complex will house 227 gallery stands, 99 of which are due to be French. In addition, a number of Parisian auctions houses have organised sales of excellent selections of contemporary art to coincide with the event. The day after the Fiac’s opening celebrations, Sotheby’s will be offering part of a collection belonging to the Durand-Dessert gallery. On 8 October, the auction house Cornette de Saint-Cyr will be selling 179 works, including an important selection from the Fondation Veranneman Collection.
The highlights of these sales are usually works by “New Realist” artists. This year, the star lot is expected to be Niki DE SAINT-PHALLE‘s The poet and his muse, a 3.4 metre sculpture in painted resin estimated at EUR 280,000–350,000. The artist’s current record was generated by her 1968 work La Danseuse Rose (Nahon collection), which sold for EUR 360,000 (vs. an estimate of EUR 200,000–300,000) in July 2004. However the most expensive New Realist work ever sold was by William KLEIN, whose finest monochromes regularly exceed the 1 million euro mark at auctions. In November 2000 at Christie’s New York, his RE1 sold for USD 6.1 million, a record for contemporary French art that has not been broken since. In fact, the New Realists tend to steal the limelight at Parisian auctions of contemporary art as well.

New Realism had its defining moment in 1960, in a manifesto drafted by the critic Pierre Restany and signed at the home of Yves Klein. The manifesto proposed an alternative view of reality involving the use of everyday materials to express new meaning. The New Realists sought to re-mold and re-form objects in a new perspective: while CÉSAR crushed, Fernandez ARMAN smashed, and Daniel SPOERRI sealed objects under glass, Jean TINGUELY linked his objects in moving sculptures, and Klein applied colour. Sculpture, a relatively expensive medium for artists to use, became the core means of expression of this particular “school”. However what distinguishes most of the artists in this group from other contemporary European artists is their exportability— which may well be related to their close relationships with the stars of the US pop-art generation—and in other cases to the support they received from major New York galleries at the time. The net result is that—supported by international demand—New Realists command prices that far exceed those of artists associated with movements like “Figuration Libre”,”Kinetic Art” or “Art Brut”. In fact, since the New Realists, very few contemporary French artists have succeeded in generating significant interest on the US or UK markets.

However, the contrast becomes even more apparent when we compare auction prices of the youngest generations of artists. In the United States, works by artists born after 1960 have an average selling price of EUR 58,607. In France, the average price for works by the new generation is only EUR 3,023! In total, only three French artists under the age of 45 have exceeded the EUR 15,000 mark at auctions in France over the last 12 months, whereas in the UK, over the same period, 19 artists breached that price hurdle. The most famous young British artist, Damien Hirst, even managed to sell one of his installations, The Fragile Truth, for GBP 1.1 million.

Of the rising generation, only a handful of French artists generate prices on a par with their international peers. Artists with a sufficiently established international reputation to command prices of more than EUR 15,000 include Bernard FRIZE, who, with the support of international galleries like Ikon Gallery, Monika Reitz, or the Frith Street Gallery, has managed to sell works at US and UK auctions. In one year, of the nine Frize works appearing at auction, only two were in France. The latest of his works sold in London, entitled Bruchure (2002), generated GBP 18,000 at Christie’s. The photographer Jean-Marc BUSTAMANTE is another French artist who makes regular appearances at international auctions. Having had far more international exposure than in France, the few works of Bustamante that find their way onto the French market are not always sold. Last June, for example, his Tableau (T52-81), an imposing colour photograph from 1981 estimated at EUR 12,000–15,000, ended up being bought in at Cornette de Saint-Cyr. Fabrice HYBER, who won the Lion d’Or at the Venice biennial in 1997, sold a work at public auction for the first time in 1999. Over recent months, auction houses have finally started to promote Hybert with 16 of his works being offered for sale in 6 months. However, while some of his major works go for over EUR 20,000, his price-power is actually declining. On 3 August last his Pof N°91 – Bloc éponge, a sculpture created in 2000 and estimated back then at around EUR 10,000, sold in Monte-Carlo for only EUR 2,600. In contrast, the young sculptor Philippe PERRIN, whose work focuses on crime and weapons, is enjoying a growing reputation at public auctions. Indeed, his price-power is rocketing. In July 2004, two of his monumental pieces from the Nahon collection, Couteau and Poing Américain each sold for EUR 19,000.

Nevertheless, even for these artists, there is still a long way to go before their prices reach the cost of a fragment of Yves Klein’s blue. On 8 October, one of Klein’s small sponges, less than 8 centimetres high, will appear at auction carrying an estimated price of EUR 20,000–30,000.