Phillips’s Star Lot in November May Set a Record for Alberto Burri, an Artist Who Took Up Painting in Prison

The work must surpass $13.1 million to set a new record.

Alberto Burri Grande Legno e Rosso (1957-59). Photo: courtesy of Phillips.

Phillips is poised to set a new auction record for a work by Italian artist Alberto Burri when his large-scale Grande Legno e Rosso (1957–59) goes under the hammer in November. Estimated at $10 million to $15 million, the headline lot of the house’s 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale in New York is expected to surpass the artist’s current record of $13.1 million, set in 2016 for a similar but smaller work from the same period.

Owned by the same family for more than 50 years, the painting was bought from Rome’s Galleria La Tartaruga shortly after it was first shown there and has only been displayed publicly once since, at the Guggenheim’s 2015 Burri retrospective in New York. Phillips’s upcoming evening sale is the first time it will be offered at auction. It does not carry a guarantee, according to the house.

The market for Modern Italian art has leveled off after peaking around five years ago; Sotheby’s recently canceled its dedicated London sale after a spate of disappointing results. But big-ticket Burri works have performed reasonably well at auction, particularly since his retrospective. Seven of his top 10 auction results have been set in the past three years, according to the artnet Price Database.

The work bound for Phillips bears a resemblance to Burri’s formative and most famous works on burlap, which he began creating while serving as a prisoner of war in Texas in the 1940s. The artist, who took up painting during his incarceration, was strongly influenced by the red-orange hues of the Texan landscape.

Like most Arte Povera works, this more than 18-foot-wide composition is crafted from basic materials, including scorched wood and industrial paints. The work is also among the first Burri created using his defining and influential wood-scorching mark-making technique.

Grande Legno e Rosso is a prime example from one of Burri’s most celebrated periods,” Hugues Joffre, Phillips’s senior advisor to the CEO, said in a statement. “A picture of exceptional quality, the sale presents an exciting opportunity for collectors of Italian postwar art to acquire a true masterwork.”


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