The Top Ten French Artists



Friday Top! Every alternate Friday Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week: the ten highest bids for the works of living French artists.

Although they generally perform less well than other Europeans such as the British or the Germans, French artists nonetheless have a firm footing in the high end art market. Their ratings continue to rise in France, highlighted by a number of million-plus bids in Paris during the past ten years, while certain artists like Pierre Soulages and Martial Raysse are increasingly sought after by foreign collectors. Based on their 2012 auction results, which living French artists are performing best at auction?

Top 10 : the ten highest bids for the works of living French artists.

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Pierre SOULAGES $1298800 Peinture 130 x 162 cm, 20 juin 1957 (1957) 12/03/2012 (Christie’s PARIS)
2 Pierre SOULAGES $1170000 Peinture 116 x 89 cm 22 mai 1958 (1958) 11/12/2012 (Bonhams NEW YORK NY)
3 Pierre SOULAGES $808665 Peinture 92 x 65 cm, 1er juin 1953 (1953) 05/31/2012 (Christie’s PARIS)
4 Martial RAYSSE $625680 La France Orange (1963) 12/04/2012 (Sotheby’s PARIS)
5 Pierre SOULAGES $562088 Peinture 130 x 97 cm, 4 mai (1960) 02/14/2012 (Christie’s LONDON)
6 Pierre SOULAGES $520000 Peinture 127 x 96.5 cm, 19 janvier (1962) 11/15/2012 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
7 Pierre SOULAGES $508365 “Peinture 102 X 165 Cm, 21 Avril 1991” (1991) 12/04/2012 (Sotheby’s PARIS)
8 Pierre SOULAGES $500160 Peinture 81 x 60 cm, 2 mai 1957 (1957) 06/09/2012 (Ketterer Kunst GmbH MÜNCHEN)
9 Hervé TELEMAQUE $426304 Portrait de famille (1962) 04/04/2012 (Millon & Associes SAS PARIS)
10 Pierre SOULAGES $312550 Peinture (2002) 06/07/2012 (Pierre Berge & Associes S.A.S PARIS)



Pierre Soulages : Paris / New York
Pierre SOULAGES, who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, overwhelmingly dominates the list of highest-ranking artists in this Top Ten with eight of the places, and is the only one to have garnered bids of over a million.
While prices have soared by 250% on average since 2000, his rating truly rocketed as from 2006 at a Paris Sotheby’s sale, where the master achieved a hammer price of $1.35 million (EUR1.06 million). According to Sotheby’s, no fewer than 17 bidders from three continents (Asia, Europe and the US) did battle for this painting, a lively work dating from 1959, a period when paintings by Soulages were already being exhibited by Washington’s Phillips Gallery, New York’s Guggenheim and Modern Art Museums, London’s Tate Gallery and the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, among others. In 2012, two other paintings from the late 50s also crossed the million-dollar threshold: one in Paris (Christie’s, 3 December), the other in New York (Bonham’s, 11 November). The high end market for Soulages is thus stirring in New York, which now represents less than 5% of his net sales compared with nearly 65% in France. At the end of the 80s, you could obtain sizeable painting for under $50,000 at a few New York public auctions – half the Paris prices. Since then, his rating has evened out on each side of the Atlantic. What would happen today if American collectors considered Pierre Soulages’ contribution on the same level as Franz KLINE? There would be a literal stampede for his work, whose record bid was $2.85 million with a 1957 painting (EUR2 million, 31 May 2011, Sotheby’s Paris) when the record achieved by Kline – whose work has pictorial resonances with that of Soulages – was $36 million for a work of the same year, 1957 (Untitled (1957), 200.7 cm x 280.39 cm, Christie’s New York on 14 November 2012).

Hervé Télémaque and Narrative Figuration
The year when Soulages’ and Kline’s paintings each achieved their records, Hervé Télémaque left Haiti for New York and enrolled to study with the Art Students’ League. He was influenced by American artists, particularly Abstract Expressionists, rubbed shoulders with Surrealism on his arrival in Paris in 1961, then developed his own pictorial language, focusing on daily objects. His popular subjects, clear-cut colours and simplified forms linked him with the “Narrative Figuration” approach.
He was thus part of one of the most significant contemporary art movements in France. As a result, virtually his entire market is situated in French sale rooms (97%), although a few buyers emerge from Belgium, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. His rating has exploded, and what a meteoric rise – albeit admittedly in the confined space of French auction rooms. Télémaque’s price index has posted an increase of nearly 500% since 2000. This spectacular surge is due to several factors: firstly, a large number of European collectors are once more taking an interest in Narrative Figuration ( which encompasses several artists like Ivan MESSAC, Gérard SCHLOSSER, Bernard RANCILLAC, Peter KLASEN, Jacques MONORY ou ERRO),a movement that was highly popular in the 80s but lost momentum in the 90s. Apart from its historic appeal, Narrative Figuration re-emerged when young collectors began to show keen interest in works reflecting popular culture. The current achievements of Street Art and comic strips are partial evidence of this success. In this context, Hervé Télémaque, one of the originators of Narrative Figuration, is naturally one of the highest-rated artists in the movement. The Narrative Figuration market regained impetus in 2006 with the sale of his painting One of 36000 marines, which set a world record in the genre when it fetched $333,100 (EUR250,000, Christie’s Paris, 5 December). The following year, Erro’s picture Comicscapeoared to dizzying heights at Christie’s Paris, attracting a bid of over a million dollars (EUR720,000), and doubling its estimates. In 2012, the two “founding fathers” of the genre achieved new records: Télémaque with Portrait de famille, a 1962 painting sold for the equivalent of $426,000 (EUR320,000, i.e. EUR15,000 more than its 2007 hammer price; Millon & Associés Paris, 4 April 2012) and Rancillac, with Melodie Sous Les Palmes, a 1965 painting that fetched $309,000 (EUR235,000, 16 December 2012 at Versailles Enchères).

Martial Raysse
Martial RAYSSEis one of the most sought-after French artists in Europe and the US. He breaks up the monotony of the Top Ten by slipping into fourth place, after three works by Pierre Soulages, and ahead of four others by the same artist.
In 2011, the year when he carried off three of the million-plus bids in his career, Raysse was expected to set a new record with L’année dernière à Capri (titre exotique), a superb picture from 1962 estimated at £1 million/£1.5 million. The exceptional high quality work was finally knocked down for £3.6 million, i.e. nearly $5.8 million: triple the predicted amount! This was in February 2011. Three months later in Paris, Sotheby’s sold a 1964 painting, Sans titre, for $2.1 million (EUR1.5 million), an auction record for his work in France. His best result for 2012 was posted with the sale of La France Orange, a work that fetched the equivalent of $625,000 on 4 December at Sotheby’s Paris (EUR480,000). This work is famous for being exhibited on a number of occasions, and for being bought by Georges Pompidou, the French President (1969-1974), a keen contemporary art lover. It was painted in 1963, at a time when the young Raysse, aged 27, was spending time with Andy Warhol. He thus discovered Pop Art in the US before joining the New Realist group in France in 1960, then striking out on a constantly evolving and highly personal path of his own.
London and Paris engage in bitter battles over his best paintings, which are also of interest to New York sales (New York now represents nearly 9% of his auction room takings). Like his compatriots, Raysse is linked with Narrative Figuration. He is a great artist whose following is still limited in global terms. As a result, contemporary art sales in France regularly put forward affordable works for less than $5,000… and not just lithographs, either! Gouaches, photomontages, Indian ink drawings and various assemblies are also on offer.