What to Know About Toyen—the Under-the-Radar Surrealist Genius Whose Market Is Rapidly Gaining Traction

In the wake of a major sale—and with a Venice Biennale bow on the horizon—we took to the Artnet Price Database to investigate.

Toyen, Chambre secrète sans serrure (1966). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Last week, a mysterious canvas by a little known Surrealist painter more than doubled its high estimate to sell for €1.5 million ($1.7 million) at Sotheby’s Surrealism sale in Paris.

The notable result was achieved for a 1966 painting, titled Chambre secrète sans serrure (secret room without a lock). Its artist, the Czech-born Marie Čermínová, took the name “Toyen” as a professional moniker in 1923. A couple of overlapping myths surround the re-naming—some suggest “Toyen” was derived from the French word “citoyen,” meaning citizen, while others have proposed it to have been a play on the Czech “‘to je on,” meaning, “it is he.”

Either way, Toyen was known to speak Czech in the masculine singular form, and refused to use feminine endings when speaking in first person. Gender and sexual politics figure heavily in their work. The artist associated with the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil, which had close links to French culture, and Toyen relocated to Paris before the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. There, they moved in circles with the Paris Surrealist group including André Breton and Annie Le Brun.

Wondering whether the surprising result last week was a fluke or signs of a quietly growing market prompted us to investigate Toyen’s market performance using Artnet’s Price Database. Here’s what we found.


The Context

Auction record: $3 million achieved at Czech auction house Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery in April 2021

Toyen’s Performance in 2021

Lots sold: 38

Bought in: 7

Sell-through rate: 84.4 percent

Average sale price: $272,282

Mean estimate: $695,109

Total sales: $10.3 million

Top painting price: $3 million

Lowest painting price: $69,394

Lowest overall price: $696, for a signed etching from an edition of 30.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

  1. Peaks and Troughs. Toyen’s market history is characterized by steady growth—with occasional bad years. The last significant moment in the artist’s market was between 2010 (the first year Toyen’s work brought in more than $1 million in total sales) and 2015. But 2016 was a bad year for the market, with 33.3 percent sell-through rate, and total sales plunging 97.3 percent. The market recovered the following two years, in 2018 reaching its highest total sales since 2010—only to be followed by another bad year in 2019, with total sales plummeting to their lowest level since 2007.
  2. Pandemic Resistant. While many other artists’ markets suffered during the pandemic, buyers still went after Toyen, with the market reaching $3.5 million in total sales, its highest level since 2010.
  3. Standout Moment. 2021 was the pivotal year for Toyen’s market. Total sales rocketed to $10.3 million, representing a 286 percent bump from 2020—and more than the previous five years combined. Their $3 million auction record was achieved in 2021 at a provincial Czech house.
  4. Potential for Growth. Their work has consistently traded hands for more than its high estimate, suggesting that it is still relatively undervalued. The Sotheby’s sale was the first significant sum achieved by the artist at one of the main houses. Their work has sold for more than $1 million six times, all in the past two years.
  5. Attracting Attention. It looks like the market interest is growing, with 139 users searching for Toyen in Artnet’s Price Database in the past year. 


Bottom Line

Resuscitated market interest in this obscure, gender-non-conforming artist is hardly surprising in 2022, when the market has increasingly reflected academic and curatorial interest in overlooked historical figures, particularly women or non-binary artists. 

Surrealism is also having a moment, with a major surrealism exhibition currently on view at Tate (after debuting at the Met) and many of the contemporary art stars of today taking inspiration from the surrealist aesthetic, and the markets for many of the better known surrealists seeing a bump.

Based on what we know so far, both of these trends are expected to combine at the forthcoming Venice Biennale. Surrealism, and an emphasis on women and gender non-conforming artists are some of the through-lines Cecilia Alemani has picked out about her exhibition “The Milk of Dreams”—named for Leonora Carrington. Toyen is among the 213 artists included in the exhibition.

The international visibility from this major art world event could bode well for the artist’s rising market. The opportunity for one of the main auction houses to notch the world record for Toyen’s work is wide opening, meaning we will likely see more work offered to the block outside of Czech Republic. 

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