Gerhard Richter v. The Art Market

Gerhard Richter expressed his antipathy toward the art market to a reporter from Reuters the other day causing a cascade of references to his comments that it is “just as absurd as the banking crisis.”

It’s not entirely clear what the octogenarian painter means by absurd. The banking crisis is the out come of series of decisions made by greedy banks and greedier populations. Though deeply unpleasant, Europe’s potential for bank failures is the result of remorseless logic, not absurdity.

By coincidence, the Economist ran a breakdown of the Richter market—timed to coincide with the latest retrospective of his work about to open in London and the presence of a candle painting in the London auctions—that also expresses a fair bit of hostility to the art market, or, at least, toward “speculators looking for more blatantly commercial painting.”

The Economist says $76.9m worth of Richter’s art was sold in 2010. As auction performances go, that’s strong. Richter was the top living artist in 2010 according to Artprice.net (though that firm has a slightly lower number than The Economist at $67m in 2010 up from $15.9m the year before with only a 50% rise in lots sold.) On Artprice’s list, Richter sits below Klimt and above Rothko (esteemed company) but far from Giacometti who sold $213m worth of art or Andy Warhol whose market in 2010 was $313m.

Warhol is important because the Economist goes out of its way to contrast Richter’s market with Warhol’s calling the former transparent and unencumbered by manipulative dealers. Like Warhol, the Economist notes, Richter is rapidly becoming a global artist with an international collector base unconnected to Richter’s own shared experience of German history:

In recent auctions the biggest buyers have been Russian and Chinese. Before the 2007 subprime crisis, it was Americans and South Koreans. The Swiss and Belgians have always been in the game. Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s European chairman of contemporary art, says Mr Richter’s paintings have been flowing steadily out of Germany since the mid-1990s even as certain important German collectors—Frieder Burda, Josef Fröhlich, Georg Böckmann and Ulrich Ströher—have held on to theirs. In addition to the auction houses, Paul Schönewald, a Düsseldorf dealer, and Anthony Meier from San Francisco have teamed up to export a lot of Mr Richter’s earlier works.

Demand for Mr Richter’s painting is similar to that for Andy Warhol. But the market is more transparent. It is driven by collectors rather than dealers, who stockpile or underbid simply to push up prices. Mr Richter’s complex body of work also has a “learning curve”, Mr Meier says [….]

The Economist goes on to limn the Richter market for those who want to climb the “learning curve.”

Three kinds of Richters command the highest auction prices. In the top spot are his candle paintings (pictured above). One sold for almost £8m ($15.8m) in February 2008. Mr Richter has made only 27 of these coolly composed still lives. When Max Hetzler showed the candles in Stuttgart in late 1982, not a single one sold even though the asking price was just 15,000 Deutschmarks (then $5,800). […] The second most coveted works are the handsome “Abstrakte Bilder” particularly those made after 1988[….] The artist has made hundreds of these painterly explorations, and they have become his branded stock in trade. […]

Finally, Mr Richter’s “capitalist realism” pictures from the 1960s also do well, although buyers tend to pay more for the cheerier works. “Tante Marianne”, a picture depicting Mr Richter’s aunt, who was sterilised and then starved to death by the Nazis, sold in June 2006 for the relatively modest price of £2.1m to Pierre Chen’s Yageo Foundation in Taiwan, whereas “Zwei Liebespaare”, a sexy painting depicting two pairs of lovers, was acquired by Stephan Schmidheiny’s Daros Collection in Switzerland for over three times that price, £7.3m, in February 2008.

Prized Painter Calls Art Market ‘Daft’ (Reuters)

The Bold Standard (Economist)