This market history is available to AMMpro subscribers. Parts of it were published in The Art Newspaper in 2012. This is an expanded version published here in that year (republished Feb 28, 2017). Sign up for AMMpro here.
When ArtPrice published its top 50 European Contemporary artists earlier the Spring oof 2012, it was not surprising to see Damien Hirst ranked first but it was something of a wake-up call to see Spanish painter Miquel Barceló sitting in the second spot. Barceló, who had an extraordinary year on the auction market in 2011, had sold €12.8m (more than $20m.) That was slightly more than Anselm Kiefer and substantially more than Peter Doig, Urs Fischer, Andreas Gursky and Maurizio Cattelan—all of whom receive far more press attention.
Barceló’s moment in the market sun did not come after a steady rise in prices and growing number of works on offer—but in a rush of record-setting sales. The painter’s 2011 auction turnover was twenty times the prior year’s sales and double his prior peak year in 2007.
Although a record setting $1.4 million was paid at Christie’s in London during an earlier market rush in 2002—and similar prices were achieved at Christie’s sale in Madrid in 2006 and a Phillips London sale in June of 2007—it was not until 2011 that Barceló’s market set up to run from $2 million to a peak of $6 million last June followed by strong sales that confirmed these new prices were no fluke.
“I think the most important European collectors,” observes Beatriz Ordovas, the Christie’s specialist who played an important role in this growth, “they want to have a major Barceló painting in their collection and they’re going for the best.”
The 2011 awakening was partly a function of Barceló’s age and personal history. Still in the middle of his career at 60 years old, he came to prominence in 1982 when his work was chosen for Documenta. Then he was seen as a Neo-Expressionist painter partly because of his proximity artists like David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Over the course of the decade Barceló gradually stripped his work of content, culminating in a group of white paintings that drove Barceló beyond Europe in search of inspiration. Traveling in Malí, he created a series of images of boats.
“Once you’ve seen a piece,” Catherine Lampert, who curated a show of Barceló’s work that was seen by 500,000 people in Madrid and Barcelona in 2010, “you tend to remember it.”
There are many different ways to explain the remarkable dynamics of Barceló’s market, especially the long gap between 2007 and 2011 when public sales dwindled. His dealer Bruno Bischofberger has exerted nearly exclusive control over his output. Meanwhile, there were prominent exhibitions like the 2009 Spanish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. During the same period in 2007 and 2008, Barceló also completed two important public projects. One was the dome in the Palma Cathedral and the other was a ceiling work at the Palace of the United Nations in Geneva.
Barceló too might have benefitted from a turn of the critical wheel. “It’s a bit more difficult for artists who came out in the 80s,” says Galerie Bischofberger’s Tobias Mueller. “Some of them have had a difficult time as they’re not historical yet and they’re not cutting edge any more. Has art history—the critics and the museums and the collectors—looked back favorably on their work?”
The auction houses clearly had. Christie’s Contemporary department in London set its sights on painting a from the bullfight series five years before the first sale of 2011. “I used to look at the book Bischofberger produced for the bullfight show. Even at that stage it became was clear to me that if a very great bullfight came to auction it would make a great price.”
Curators, like Lampert, don’t esteem the bullfights nearly as much. But collectors do. Bischofberger had done a very good job of placing the 36 works from the original bullfight show with very solid Spanish, Swiss and other European buyers who were highly unlikely to let go. However, the Christie’s team did manage to get a bullfight from an Italian collector who had bought Tres Equis, in 2003, for £532,000.
Even with the prized image in hand, the team at Christie’s remained divided on their auction strategy: “I can remember that we were all huddled around a table,” Outred says, “a team of about 7 or 8 of us having a huge argument over the estimate.”
The estimate was eventually set at £400-600,000. But they need not have worried. Christie’s made £1.27 million from the sale.
Since making markets is what auction houses do, teams at both firms secured bigger, more impressive bullfight paintings to sell that June.
Outred had been enthralled by one painting. His team found the owner and convinced him to entertain their pitch. “It was a trip into the mountains in Switzerland,” Outred says, “to an alpine skiing resort where we found a Barceló masterpiece on the wall.”
Both works were estimated at £1.5-2m, based upon the new reference point of Tres Equis. Christie’s sale set a dramatic new record price when it made nearly twice the high estimate at £3.9m or $6.3m. Even with one major buyer taken out of the market, Sotheby’s was still able to sell its own bullfight the next night above the high estimate at £2.33m or $3.75m.
Sotheby’s was hardly left out in the cold. In October, they brought Pluja Contracorrent, one of the Malian fishing boat works, to auction. The exceedingly tall and hard to hang work sold for a very solid £1.7m. This time Christie’s would benefit from the other house’s sale with their own much smaller Contracorrent making £1.49m in February 2012.
“I think it is just a reassertion of the confidence in the Barcelo market,” says Sotheby’s Oliver Barker. “The interest still seems to be in the same three series that we saw in the late 1990s and the early noughties. People really like the white paintings, the Malian fishing boats and the bullfight pictures.”
Tobias Mueller, who says private sales have never slackened, is wary. Last year’s spike in prices brings as much trepidation as joy. “I try to urge my friends at the auction houses,” he says, “to also take responsibility for the artist. There are only so many collectors at one given point that are looking for one thing.”
Even the auction houses don’t see Barceló’s market taking off from here. He has what one specialist calls a “very, very selective market.” For one thing, the scale of his works makes it difficult for all but the absolute best pictures to sell well. And there’s nothing to prevent Barceló’s market from going cold again as it has twice before.
Catherine Lampert also worries that the rising cost of these works will deter Northern European museums where Barceló remains underrepresented. “There’s always that tendency,” Lampert says, “for museums to say that an artist’s work is out of our range.”
On the positive side, Barceló’s collecting base could easily jump past the UK, Germany and even the United States. Although all the major buyers in the last spree have been Europeans (including a Russian buyer who previously only bought Impressionist works) there’s growing pressure from other continents.
“You’ve got a huge amount of demand for his work,” says Ben Brown who worked with Bischofberger to hold an exhibition of Barceló’s work in Hong Kong last Summer just as his auction prices were peaking. “I sold 2 works to America and the rest evenly spread between Europe and Asia. It was more widespread than I thought it would be. I was expecting to sell pretty well but I didn’t realize I would sell quite as well as I did.”
Update: Since this story was published, a final bullfight painting was sold during October 2012’s Frieze sales in London. Areneros y Muleros from 1990 made slightlyer more than £2m or nearly $3.3m using the exchange rate on the day.
With supply being one of the constraints on Barcelo’s market, the sales shut off almost as sharply as they had begun. But that didn’t mean Barcelo’s market was over.
Running parallel to the bullfights are works in the boat series from 1991 that established themselves among his top prices. We covered the first two above but it is worth repeating the sequencing. In 2011, Pluja Contracorrent sold for a well-estimated £1.7m ($2.7m); at the next opportunity, Contracorrent made a statement against a £500-800k estimate with a £1.5m ($2.37m) sale. It took two years to source another boat picture, a smaller one, but in February 2014 Llaüt made £566k ($942k) against a £400k high estimate. That was followed by another two year famine broken by June 2016’s Pinassi that made £1.7m ($2.3m) which was just about at the high estimate.
The three larger boat works are numbers 4, 5 and 6 on the list of the artist’s top prices.
June to February in the London auction calendar is a quick turnaround. So we should not be surprised to see three Barcelos on the market in early March of 2016. The biggest is Phillips bringing back Muleteros which was bought for $3.7m at Sotheby’s in 2011. The estimate starts at $3.1m but that may just reveal a very confident seller.
The other two houses have smaller works that will also provide a good sense of Barcelo’s market.