The Appraisal: Why Does the Market for American Icon Robert Rauschenberg Lag So Far Behind His Contemporaries?

We dived into Artnet's Price database to see what it could tell us about the artist's market.

Robert Rauschenberg's Transom, at Christie's London. Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images.

Last week, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation announced that it would tackle a mammoth task over the next two decades: publishing a catalogue raisonné of the American artist’s paintings and sculptures. The first of the planned 10 volumes will be available in 2025. 

The foundation intends to make the catalogue available for free online, removing the challenge of acquiring a bulky and expensive encyclopedia for those interested in the artist. Could the announcement, which follows a new auction record for set in 2019, signal new life for Rauschenberg’s long-dormant market? We dipped into Artnet’s Price Database to find out. 

The Context

Auction record: $88.8 million at Christie’s New York in May 2019

Rauschenberg’s Performance in 2021

Lots sold: 307
Bought in: 73
Sell-through rate: 80 percent
Average sale price: $72,443
Mean estimate: $45,007
Total sales: $22.2 million
Top painting price: $11 million
Lowest painting price: $2,300
Lowest overall price: $223, for a signed photographic etching from 1977

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

The Appraisal

  1. Rare Windfall. Following a long quiet period for Rauschenberg’s market, the artist’s total sales increased sharply in 2019, to $97.3 million, his best year yet. The result was buoyed almost entirely by the $89 million sale of a vivid prime-year silkscreen at Christie’s New York. Offered by the estate of the late Chicago collectors Robert and Beatrice Mayer, who had owned it for 50 years, the work fetched nearly five times the artist’s previous auction record of $18.6 million.
  2. Limited Supply. Rauschenberg’s market has long been characterized by a lack of supply for major works, which goes some way toward explaining the exceptional result above. Most in-demand are silkscreens and “combines”—which fuse painting and sculpture—produced around the time he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1964. Museums have since scooped up a lot of the best early work, making large-scale, good-condition examples hard to find.
  3. Uneven Demand. If it seems odd to be talking about a lack of supply from one of America’s most prolific and protean artists, that’s because it is. Supply is limited only for the popular early works. A relentless experimenter, Rauschenberg’s prints, ephemera, and outtakes far outnumber his most valuable combines and silkscreens. This may explain the lackluster sell-through rate over the past decade (between 19.2 percent and 37.5 percent of lots offered failed to find buyers) and the lack of trophy-level prices (of the 54 Rauschenbergs that have sold at auction for more than $1 million, only seven surpassed $10 million).
  4. Reliable Interest. That doesn’t mean that no one is looking. Some 5,171 users searched for Rauschenberg in Artnet’s Price Database in 2021, with interest spread out consistently across the year. (He got more searches than Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Rembrandt, to name a few.)
  5. Buzzy Private Sales. Public sales data can only tell us so much. Insiders insist that the real action for Rauschenberg is happening privately, where the best examples can fetch between $30 million and $100 million. There have been some public indications of such prices—MoMA reportedly purchased a major combine, Rebus (1955), from collector François Pinault in 2005 for $30 million. But there are also counterpoints: Thaddaeus Ropac reported selling a prime-period 1963 silkscreen for a relatively modest $2.8 million at FIAC in 2021.

 

Bottom Line

The 2019 sale was something of a watershed moment for Rauschenberg’s market, and saw him overtake the $36 million record for his contemporary Jasper Johns (another artist whose auction track record has suffered from a lack of supply). Nevertheless, the late artist’s prices have yet to reach the heights—or consistency—of peers such as Roy Lichtenstein (whose record stands at $95.4 million) or Andy Warhol ($105.4 million). And how long it will take for another top-tier example to appear on the market is anyone’s guess.

One thing is clear: other areas of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre have plenty of room to grow. The powerhouse gallerists working with the artist’s estate—Thaddaeus Ropac in Europe, Pace in the U.S., and Luisa Strina in Latin America—could help that matter along in the coming years (Ropac recently toured a group of grayscale metal paintings from 1991 while Pace is pushing the artist’s late-career return to painting). So could the forthcoming 10-volume catalogue raisonné, although the fact that it will not extend to drawings, prints, or other works on paper indicates that the focus of the moment may be elsewhere.

The later works may also simply need more time to appreciate. Consider the market for Picasso, whose late work—executed quickly and in high volume—was for a long time less desirable. To change that, it took a few key exhibitions and a new audience of high-end contemporary art collectors who could more easily draw parallels between the late work and the de Kooning and Basquiats already in their collections. Perhaps Rauschenberg’s late-career obsession with media and technology could find new takers in new buyers entering the market today.


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