This analysis of Rene Magritte’s market come from Art Media Agency‘s regular weekly newsletter about the art market. You can subscribe to that newsletter here.
René François Ghislain Magritte was born in Lessen on 21 November 1898. The Belgian artist, who is a painter, illustrator, engraver, sculptor, photographer and filmmaker, was born to a merchant businessman father and a mother who was a milliner. She committed suicide in 1912, leaving her children to the care of governesses.
In 1915 Magritte moved to Brussels, and produced his first impressionist works. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels from 1916 to 1918, where he discovered the Cubism, Futurism, and Avant-Garde of Antwerp. His paintings are characterised by influences which evolved into a form of Purism. Familiar with the Belgian Dadaists and a keen lover of surrealist poetry, in 1926 he painted what he considered to be his first important surrealist work, The lost jockey. From then on, his art would attempt to demonstrate that – if we separate ourselves from our logical habits and routines – the only thing that we can take from reality is its mysteries. His works often play with differences between an object and the way in which it is represented. In the space of four years, having worked between Brussels and Paris, all of the different elements which constitute Magritte’s work were in place: his games of perception, the tension between academic representation and a disrupted view of reality, and an examination of the difference between an object and its designation. In August 1927, Magritte left Belgium to live near Paris until July 1930. He met several surrealists (André Breton, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí), and began taking part in their activity, as well as exhibiting in a show at Goemans gallery. Within the bizarre setting of some of his works, the artist began to add a wide variety of familiar objects. After the first period of his career, which had been influenced by Cubism, the artist moved towards Surrealism. When he was working as a graphic designer in a wallpaper factory. His first solo exhibition in the United States was held at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1936. Between 1943 and 1945, Magritte used impressionist techniques during his period of “surréalisme en plein soleil”, also known as the “Renoir” period. In March 1948, he entered into his “vache” period. In six weeks he painted nearly forty paintings and watercolours in garish colours, with the aim of causing a scandal and baffling Parisian art dealers. Upon returning to Belgium, he became a leading figure among Belgian surrealists. Between 1951 and 1953, he decorated the Knokke-le-Zoute casino with an enormous fresco. In 1960, Magritte received the Prix du couronnement de carrière pour la peinture. From December 1960 to March 1961, retrospectives of his work were held in Dallas and Houston in the United States. In December 1965 the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) dedicated an important retrospective to the artist. The exhibition was then presented in Waltham, Chicago, Pasadena and Berkeley in 1966.
Magritte died in Brussels on 15 August 1967, at the age of 69, having produced more than 1000 canvases, as well as watercolours and collages. His wife bequeathed his work to various public collections across Belgium.
The United States is the country which has presented the greatest number of exhibitions of the artist’s work, ahead of Germany, France and Japan. The venues which have most frequently displayed the work of Magritte include the MoMA (United States), Brusberg gallery (Germany), Ferdinand van Dieten – d’Eendt gallery (The Netherlands), and the Menil Collection (United States). The artist has been most often exhibited alongside artists Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Joàn Miró and Man Ray.
Magritte’s artworks have primarily been presented in museum institutions, as part of collective exhibitions.
At auction, his works have totalled nearly $500 million, at an average cost of nearly $290,000.
The record sale for a Magritte work was achieved in May 2002 at Christie’s New York for the oil painting L’empire des lumières (1952), which sold for $11.5 million, hammer price, while another painting, Les jours gigantesques (1928) fetched $10.04 million, hammer price, Christie’s London in June 2012. Meanwhile, in February 2007, the painting Le prêtre marié (1961) sold for $9.2 million, hammer price, also at Christie’s London.
If we look at the differences between mediums, it is clear that the average price of $290,000 hides some important disparities. While the artist’s multiples represent more than a third (39%) of the lots offered at auction, they only make up a tiny share of the total turnover with an average price of just under $2,700 for the 710 multiples which have been sold at auction. The 285 of the artist’s paintings which have been bought at auction (representing 75% of his total sales) have fetched an average in excess of $1.2 million.
As for the rest of his works, Magritte has sold nearly 640 drawings for an average of $170,000 (18 of which reached sums in excess of $1 million), which make up 23% of his total auction revenue; 22 sculptures which have fetched more than $360,000; and over 70 photographs which have been sold for an average of just under $1,000.
It is important to note that the number of lots by the artist which are offered at auction per year has been steadily increasing since the 1990s, reaching an annual figure of close to 150 lots in recent years. Since 2003, the artist has outperformed the S&P 500, realising gains of over 280%. The artist has already seen a strong presence for the 2013 auction season, with the artist’s ten highest-selling works having achieved over US$36m
Regarding the places that have held these sales, Magritte’s work has been auctioned in a wide variety of places, with the majority having been sold in the United Kingdom, Belgium and the United States. But it is in the United Kingdom that the majority of the revenue has been achieved (56%), followed by the United States, where more than a third (38%) of the total sales figure has been realised. The distribution of sales between the different auction houses that have held these sales is another important aspect. While many different houses have held sales of the artist’s work, the high cost of his pieces means that sellers often choose Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the two main Anglophone auction houses. The two together have totalled 97% of the artist’s total auction sales figure.
The unsold rate for works by Magritte which are offered at auction, is 21%, a fairly low proportion.
A chronological analysis of the artist’s success at auction reveals that since the mid-1990s his unsold rate has remained relatively stable. In terms of valuing his work based on year of production, it is clear that all of the artist’s creative periods are valuable, although works produced in the 1950s have realised a greater proportion of his total revenue, due to a higher level of production by the artist at this time as well as a greater average cost for these works.