What Does the $89 Million Sale of a Prime Robert Rauschenberg at Christie’s Mean for the Artist’s Long-Quiet Market?
For decades, Robert Rauschenberg's market lagged behind that of his peers.
On Wednesday evening, Robert Rauschenberg’s vivid silkscreen Buffalo II (1964) sold for a whopping $88.8 million at Christie’s, shattering the artist’s previous record by nearly a factor of five. The trade’s nonplussed reaction to this news: What took so long?
Amid the broader contemporary art market boom and at a time when top works by market giants like Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, and Cy Twombly routinely command auction prices in excess of $50 million, the market action for Rauschenberg has been relatively subdued and quiet by comparison. And the reasons why teach you a lot about how museums, the art market, and fame work in tandem, and sometimes in opposition, to shape artists’ legacies and financial values.
The coveted silkscreen, interpreted as a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, was created the same year Rauschenberg won the Golden Lion at the 1964 Venice Biennale, when he was at the peak of his fame and the top of his game. It was sold by the estate of the late Chicago collectors Robert and Beatrice Mayer, who owned the work for 50 years. The uniquely American images—JFK during a presidential debate, the “space race,” a bald eagle, and the Coca-Cola logo—represent something of a time capsule of US history.
“There hasn’t been anything of this quality, scale, and importance, that has this truly iconic, masterpiece status,” Sara Friedlander, Christie’s international director of postwar and contemporary art, told artnet News ahead of the sale last week. Last night, bidding on the work started at $40 million; Friedlander handled the winning bid for a client over the phone.
Supply, Not Demand
Several elements combine to make Rauschenberg’s market difficult to read. First, it has long been characterized by a lack of supply for major works. “It’s not a demand problem,” says David Galperin, Sotheby’s head of evening auctions for the New York contemporary art department.
This dynamic is partly a result of Rauschenberg’s early fame: the artist became famous after his star turn at the Venice Biennale in 1964, and much of his most celebrated work—the so-called “combines” that fuse painting, sculpture, and real-world objects—were swiftly acquired by museums. Many others are promised as gifts to museum collections. After his death, the museum prioritized placing major works by Rauschenberg—including some that he was unwilling to part with during his lifetime—in institutions.
It is, therefore, exceedingly rare for a work of Buffalo II‘s scale and quality to come up for sale—which means its impact on the artist’s market may be limited. “There may never be one again,” Friedlander says. “A lot of people are asking if this will recalibrate the Rauschenberg market, but I would be careful about the word ‘recalibrate.'”
Of course, there are some market players who don’t consider an artist to be major without a $50 million-plus auction record, no matter how many museum shows they may have had. And for those people, this sale will serve as a symbol of “how undervalued he has been and how important he is to the canon,” Friedlander notes.
To date, 46 works by Rauschenberg have sold at auction for more than $1 million, according to the artnet Price Database, but only six have fetched more than $10 million. Last night marked the first time a work by the artist sold for above $20 million. Numerous experts say it’s telling of both the extreme demand and extreme scarcity that his third-highest auction price was achieved for another ’60s silkscreen over a decade ago, in 2008, the same year the artist died.
What’s more, his more recent $18 million record, set in 2015, was not even achieved for a major work (though it did come from the estate of the late legendary dealer Ileana Sonnabend). The final result for Johanson’s Painting (1961), a small combine, tripled its $6 million high estimate.
There is slightly more activity on the private market, where Galperin says certain works—particularly small early combines and transfer drawings—sell for around $3 million not infrequently.
In a private transaction, the Museum of Modern Art purchased a major combine, Rebus (1955), from collector Francois Pinault in 2005 for a reported $30 million, a price far higher than any Rauschenberg auction result (at least prior to last night’s new record). The Swedish real estate investor Hans Thulin had sold the three-panel, nearly 11-foot-long work at auction nearly 14 years earlier, when dealer Larry Gagosian bought it for $7.5 million.
Developing the Market
Rauschenberg’s market is also shaped by two other factors: his heterogeneous output and a long-held attitude that the quality of his work declined as he got older. More than almost any other artist of his era, Rauschenberg was a relentless experimenter, tinkering with materials and processes endlessly. He was prolific, but not every work is regarded equally, and his prints, ephemera, and outtakes far outnumber his most valuable combines.
Perhaps more importantly, many have long regarded Rauschenberg’s late work with skepticism. As Calvin Tomkins wrote in the book Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, “the critical rap is that he stopped breaking new ground around 1965.” In recent years, this notion has been challenged by both major museum shows, like the retrospective that toured Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2017, as well as by his dealers (who clearly have a vested interest, since the late work is most of what remains available for sale).
Among the staunchest advocates of Rauschenberg’s late work is Thaddaeus Ropac, whose gallery was one of three selected by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation around three and a half years ago to represent the estate and foundation. (The foundation opted to swap Gagosian for Ropac, which works with the artist in Europe, Pace Gallery in the United States and Asia, and Brazil-based Luisa Strina in South America.)
Since then, Ropac has organized three Rauschenberg exhibitions to spotlight three lesser-known bodies of work. “Salvage” in Paris focused on the artist’s final series on canvas from the ’80s; “Spreads” in London presented large-scale, mixed media works made between 1975 and 1983.
“Borealis,” on view in Salzburg through the end of this month, presents silk-screened photographs on copper and bronze plates that the artist took during a tour overseas between 1984 and 1991.
Prices for these works range from the mid-six figures to about $3 million, Ropac says. He concedes that both his gallery and the foundation have been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest. “The foundation didn’t expect so much from the first show we did in Europe,” Ropac says. “We were surprised how well it went, and how many works went to European collections. It really broke new ground.”
Ropac notes that Paris already has a substantial market for Rauschenberg, given that the artist’s former dealer Ileana Sonnabend organized three shows there. Of Europe more broadly, Ropac says, “the door was leaning open, we just had to push it.”
For its part, the foundation is also interested in promoting the lesser-known elements of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre. “We are, in fact, finding more and more interest in his later work,” says Julia Blaut, the foundation’s director of curatorial affairs. “We are finding more and more scholars in our archives focusing on works from the 1980s and ’90s.” She notes there is a particular interest in Rauschenberg’s utopian Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project, for which he traveled the world to use art as a tool for cross-cultural connection between 1984 and 1991.
Blaut adds: “Rauschenberg often observed that it took his audience a few decades to catch up with him.”
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