The salesroom suddenly went quiet at Christie’s, New York, in November 2015. The battle was getting tense and serious. At the center of attention was an egg-shaped, multiple-punctured lemon-yellow painting from 1964 by Lucio Fontana, making its auction debut. It had an unpublished estimate, though most of the players knew that it was in the region of $25 million and was guaranteed.
Bidding started at $20 million. Xin Li , the deputy head of Christie’s Asia who is known for her links with wealthy Asian clients, was speaking on the telephone and came in at $25 million. This was countered by a bid from the Nahmad family of collectors. From that point, the two contenders went bid-for-bid, right up to Xin Li’s winning offer. This was $25.9 million at hammer price, or $29.17 million when including the premium. The work was one of the finest “Concetto Spaziale,” or “Spatial Concepts,” by the artist, further titled “La fine di Dio” or “The End of God.” It was described in the catalogue as “the apex of abstract spacialism.”
Readers may know the bones of this story because the price underlined the market for 20th-century Italian art, which remains its peak point. Only weeks before, another oval-shaped Fontana, “Concetto Spaziale, Attese” (1963–64) fetched £15.9 million ($24.7 million) at Sotheby’s, alongside an estimate of £15 million to £20 million. As a sign of the growth of the market, the previous record was £13.1 million ($20.9 million at the time). A decade before, the Fontana record stood at just $2.3 million. (Many Italian works sell in London, hence the number of pound prices in this article.)
While the word “iconic” is one to be avoided in most art writing — whatever does it mean? — it is probably applicable to Fontana’s output. The simplicity of the artist’s best-known canvases are often said to be iconic. The monochrome minimalism gets mixed reactions: to some it is hardly art, at its most basic a plain frame with a single vertical slash sliced in seconds through the center. To others this is a definition of perfection, something never attempted before, an art revolution.
The admirers significantly outweigh the detractors in the auction world, with Fontana (1899-1968) going into 2018 not just as a leading Arte Povera artist, but a top Italian artist and a rising star. (We can leave on one side the fact that Fontana was born in Argentina and represented that country at the Venice Biennale in 1966.) “Arte Povera” literally means “poor art,” and while this description relates to its exponents’ use of found materials such as soil, twigs and rags, it also refers to the breaking of traditional boundaries by Fontana and his contemporaries.
“Overall, the Fontana market is quite strong,” says Francesco Bonami, an independent curator and consultant who works with Phillips. “Collectors look at the provenance, color, size, number of the cuts, the cleanness of the cuts and condition.”
Giacomo Balsamo, the Bonhams Senior Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art, says: “The main name is Fontana — but rarity matters too. At Bonhams, we hold the record for a work from 1952. It was in a private Spanish collection for 40 years, fresh to the market and one of the first that he did with holes.” This early red “Concetto Spaziale,” from the “Buchi” (Holes) series, sold in 2014 for £770,500 including premium, beating the hammer-price estimate of £250,000 to £350,000.
The cooling of prices is all relative, with striking and sometimes inexplicable differences between lots. At Sotheby’s this October, a classic-red work, “Concetto Spaziale, Attese,” from 1968 still brought £1.58 million in its first appearance at auction (the estimate was £1.5 million to £2 million), while an earlier “Concetto Spaziale” from 1960 saw quick-fire bidding from three collectors, doubling its estimate to sell for £1.35 million.
Figures from the Blouin Art Sales Index conclusively show how far Fontana is ahead of his Arte Povera peers. In the five years to 2017, all Fontana works sold for a total of $596.87 million at auction, with the artist’s nearest rivals all fetching about a sixth of that figure — Albert Burri about $140 million, and Alighiero Boetti, Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellan all about $100 million. Michelangelo Pistoletto was trailing, with about $80 million worth of art sold in that time.
There is general agreement among auction house specialists that the market for postwar Italian artists has waned a little since its 2015 peak, with its near “irrational exuberance” and especially for some of the hottest names.
The overall Arte Povera market was a little more than $100 million a year in 2012. It surged to its $350 million peak two years ago, bolstered especially by the record Fontanas. It has since fallen back to closer to $100 million, but this is partly explained by fewer works coming onto the market.
Auction houses have always been careful with Italian sales, trying them as a standalone event immediately before the main evening auctions. Now these are getting watered down to the likes of “Italian Art in Context” (Sotheby’s) or “Thinking Italian” (Christie’s) so better-selling artists from Germany and elsewhere can be added to the mix of lots.
Prices fall away quickly after the top names. In the five-year period, some 3,600 Arte Provera works were sold, according to the Blouin Art Sales Index. Only 11 exceeded $10 million. A further 284 broke the $1 million barrier. Thousands more sold for less than $10,000.
“The market has eased a little,” says Giacomo Balsamo of Bonhams. “But while the benchmark for Italian art has cooled down a tiny bit since 2014, one artist who is definitely going against the trend is Burri. Interest has been growing steadily.” Burri (1915-1995) was helped by his “The Trauma of Painting” retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2015-2016.
Burri used tars, molds and plastic scorched with a blowtorch. Most recently his monumental 1963 work “Nero Plastica” sold at Sotheby’s in New York on November 16 for $10.9 million against an estimate in excess of $10 million. It was previously shown at the Guggenheim Museum of Art and was making its auction debut.
Burri’s “Sacco e rosso,” also from the retrospective, sold for £9.1 million ($13.2 million) at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London in February 2016.
It was last sold at auction in 2007 for £1.9 million and then nearly doubled the previous auction record for the artist (£4.7 million set in February 2014). Five years before, Burri’s record was just £1.9 million.
Many auction houses are now also mixing works by the biggest names in Italian art with some not so well known. Balsamo at Bonhams mentions Piero Dorazio as a favorite. This abstract painter was one of the founders of the Forma I group in 1947 (a movement of abstract Italian artists) and later taught painting at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design from 1960 until 1969. His oil-on-canvas work “Individuato” from 1968 sold for £82,500 including premium at Bonhams this June, beating an estimate of £45,000-£65,000.
Another artist to watch is Salvatore Scarpitta , an Italian American and true Arte Povera exponent, whose work uses the strangest of found objects. One example, using mixed media on bandages, is “Untitled” from 1959, which doubled its estimate in 2014 at Bonhams to fetch £290,500. Similarly, Giulio Paolini prices are rising, with works consisting of plaster casts and wooden plinths exceeding $100,000.
Bonami, the independent curator, names two artists especially known for their sculptures — the minimalist Fausto Melotti and Marisa Merz, who gained fresh attention after the show “The Sky Is a Great Space” at Met Breuer in New York this last year.
The other postwar Italian names to watch that come up most frequently among auction houses and gallerists are: Franco Angeli, Agostino Bonalumim, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Marino Marini, Fabio Mauri, Giuseppe Penone, Paolo Scheggi and Turi Simeti.
There is some agreement that the buyers are growing more international — moving outside Italy to Germany, France and now the Americas, with Chinese collectors taking notice.
“The dialogue and understanding of Post-War and Italian Art grows year on year,” says Mariolina Bassetti, Chairman of Italy and Head of Southern Europe Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s. She said the auction house was even introducing an education conference dedicated to Italian art.
Despite the literal meaning of Arte Povera, this is far from “poor art.” It may well become a rich seam of investment again. This trend may be seen with the well-known names and especially with some of the newer artists likely to break through. Whoever thought that so much could be done with a slashed canvas, some twigs, burned plastic and old bandages?
Published in the December issue of “Art + Auction.” Click on the slideshow for more works and further analysis using BASI data.