Why Are Collectors Frothing at the Mouth for Adrian Ghenie? We Analyzed the Auction Data to Find Out
We look into what's driving the meteoric rise of the Romanian painter.
Adrian Ghenie’s Francis Bacon-esque compositions that draw from historical reference points first caught the attention of collectors in 2011, after an exhibition at François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Interest in the Romanian painter exploded from there, and the froth for his work at auction drove prices up to an all-time auction high of $9 million in 2016.
A few relatively lean auction years followed that peak, but in 2021 prices once again began to approach his previous heights. Last week, Christie’s announced it would offer a work by the market darling in Hong Kong that could crack Ghenie’s record. Pie Fight Interior 12 (2014) will be offered at the house’s 20th and 21st century art evening sale on May 26 with an estimate of HK$68 million–HK$98 million ($8.8 million–$13 million).
Inspired by the 1941 slapstick comedy film In the Sweet Pie and Pie, the work depicts a woman clawing pie from her face in front of a desolate landscape, and is one of the largest works by the artist to come to auction. The sale will be held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong.
Enough of a prompt for us to dig into Artnet’s price database to try and figure out what’s driving interest in the market phenom.
Auction Record: $9 million, achieved at Christie’s London in October 2016
Ghenie’s Performance in 2021
Lots sold: 25
Bought in: 2
Sell-through rate: 92.6 percent
Average sale price: $1.6 million
Mean estimate: $1.4 million
Total sales: $39.6 million
Top painting price: $8.5 million
Lowest painting price: $27,699
Lowest overall price: $3,451 for a printed paper collage and acrylic study for the installation “Rudolfs Flight” from 2011
- Early Work. Ghenie’s early work is his most sought after. In 2016, Christie’s London broke the artist’s world auction record with the $9 million sale of Nickelodeon (2008). In 2021, Ghenie’s Collector I (2008) sold for $8.5 million, his second-highest result, approaching the record set in 2016.
- Supply crunch. Ghenie works slowly, producing only a dozen or so works a year, and the low output drives up the competition and prices for the work. That said, there’s no dearth of possibilities to buy as the froth means that many owners simply cannot resist the allure of the flip: Ghenie’s work has come to auction 213 times since it first appeared on the block in 2011.
- Pandemic proof. Ghenie’s total sales dipped after 2016, tumbling down 71.4 percent over two years to $9.1 million in 2018. Counterintuitively, they bounced back during the pandemic, to $21.7 million in 2020.
- Banner year. In 2021, Adrian Ghenie took up four of the top 10 best-selling works in the ultra-contemporary category, encompassing artists born after 1974. Sales totaled $39.6 million, making it his best year to date.
- A collector’s artist. While Ghenie has yet to notch a major solo museum show in the U.S. or U.K., he has a strong collecting following from early investors, including established collectors like François Pinault. Recently, he has become particularly popular with a crop of wealthy young millennial buyers in Asia, who bid actively at auction. Some 1,559 users searched Artnet’s price database for Ghenie in the past 12 months.
Following an astonishing auction rise, prices for Ghenie came down for a few years, but now the artist’s market is experiencing a bit of a comeback.
The $8.5 million sale of Collector I last year indicates that prices are ready once again to approach the 2016 record, so it’s entirely possible that Christie’s will make good on its promise of a new record for the artist. Driven by intense demand for the works in Asia, particularly among collectors who feel they missed out on the early opportunities to acquire his work, it also makes sense that the house is offering the work in Hong Kong.
That said, following the top price there remains the risk of a market shakeout—if too many owners put their works up for sale in response to the good news, there is a danger of over-supplying the market and driving prices back down.
Ghenie first created his “Pie Fight” works in 2008 and 2009, and the series starred in his debut U.S. museum show in Denver. While his early work is his most coveted, this example is from after he came back to the series in 2012. The subject matter is the same, but this one is a little different as it depicts a woman rather than a man, and is much larger that the earlier portrait-sized works, amid the fervor for anything Ghenie it is unclear if these differences will matter to buyers. Whatever happens, the Christie’s event will be interesting sale to watch, and may foretell what’s in the tea leaves for the artist’s market.
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