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One of the biggest surprises of the November, 2016 marquee auctions in New York is the presence of seven large abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter in the three evening sales. Richter's abstracts had been a staple—in fact a driver—of the post-credit crisis art market. Over a seven year period, the works went from being merely valuable to becoming extraordinarily valuable. When the market seemed to have finally have burned itself out in February of 2015 when Chicago collector Kenneth Griffin topped the market with an extraordinary $46m purchase of Abstraktes Bild (599.)
In the nearly two years since, the Richter abstract market had shifted to smaller paintings or works on paper. The abstracts still commanded million-dollar prices. The taste for the biggest pictures, the ones with intimidating presence that elicited prices commensurate with their size, seemed to have petered out. Of the more than 6o sales of large abstract Richters that took place in the last 15 years, only three eight-figure sales were recorded after Griffin's buy.
In June of 2016, a consignor withdrew an abstract with a big league estimate rather than face the potential for a burnt picture. Buyers, or their representatives, all considered the market a no-fly zone. Which was one of the reasons that Sotheby's decision to guarantee the Ames collection with its three Richter abstracts alone carrying nearly $50m of the low estimate seemed like a incautious gesture.
If Sotheby's was taking a risk by bringing three works to a quiet market, Christie's was doing something riskier by assembling its own raft of Richter abstract paintings led by the third of Eric Clapton's brilliantly bought triptych of Abstraktes Bild 809-1, 809-2 and 809-4. The legendary bluesman had made what will remain a legendary art trade no matter what happens with Christie's picture because he turned a $3.4m investment in November of 2001, sales that took place in the context of a city still smoldering with the wreckage of the World Trade Center attacks, into $54m so far and still counting. Even if Christie's painting sells below the low estimate, Clapton will have made 20-times his money on the trade.
The Richter Market Hits a Wall
This isn't the first time it seemed like there were too many big Richter abstract paintings on the market in one single week. We'll get to that story further below. In the meantime, the artist's market has been experiencing a retrenchment. Drawing on a database of the top 10,000 works sold publicly, Athena Art Finance provided these numbers that illustrate Richter's recent market momentum from 2010 to the first half of 2016. These chart above does only covers the most valuable Richters sold, it is not a comprehensive tally of every Richter traded publicly. Nonetheless, we can see that after five years of steady growth in the average price of a top Richter work, the market has paused.
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