Can Anselm Kiefer’s Auction Market Ever Catch Up to His Work’s Monumental Ambitions?
We took to Artnet's Price Database to find out.
No one has ever accused Anselm Kiefer of having too light a touch. He’s one of few painters whose bravado can truly meet the setting of one of Venice’s grandest buildings, and Kiefer’s monumental charred canvases in the cavernous Sala dello Scrutinio at the Palazzo Ducale were a talking point during the Venice Biennale.
The desolate painting-cum-sculptural assemblages incorporate inspirations from the Italian masters who filled the space before him. Drawing on other histories, from ancient mythologies to the traumas of the Holocaust, the works become metaphors for more recent horrors, such as the refugee crisis and the war unfolding in Ukraine.
Even though the this year’s biennale aimed to interrupt the idea of the white man as the center of the artistic universe, a Financial Times critic dubbed Kiefer “the man of the moment” in Venice.
All this is to say that the art world is abuzz about Kiefer. But can his share of the market ever match the monumental scale of his canvases? We dug into the Artnet Price Database to find out.
Auction Record: $4 million, achieved at China Guardian Auctions Co. in June 2019.
Kiefer’s Performance in 2021
Lots sold: 32
Bought in: 8
Sell-through rate: 80 percent
Average sale price: $209,558
Mean estimate: $184,975
Total sales: $6.7 million
Top painting price: $1.1 million
Lowest painting price: $69,300
Lowest overall price: $10,478, for a collage of ashes and lead on digital photographs, from an edition of 150
- Market history. Kiefer’s work first cracked the $1 million watermark at auction in 2001, and since then 48 of his works have sold in excess of that benchmark. Kiefer’s total sales peaked at $22.5 million in 2016, the same year the greatest number of lots to date (58) were offered to market, and when his average price also topped out at $562,496.
- It’s all relative. Despite plenty of critical acclaim for his work, Kiefer’s secondary market has failed to meet the highs of some of his older German peers, such as Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter, who have netted (respectively) top prices of $9 million, $27.1 million, and $46.4 million. (That said, Kiefer’s recent work sells on the primary market for between $1 million and $3 million, which is in line with primary prices for Baselitz.)
- Crunched supply. Kiefer’s most important pieces date from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, many of which are housed in major museums. Three works from his “Parsifal” cycle, for example, are owned by Tate in London; others are in the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA, and important private collections, such as that of Charles Saatchi. Nothing of this quality has come to be offered at auction, and often the Kiefer works that do come to auction have condition issues since the artist’s works need special conservation care.
- Size matters. Kiefer prefers to work in very large and often in monumental scale, which can make the works challenging to place outside of institutional settings. His most in-demand works are paintings at the more domestic scale of around six feet by nine feet, and perhaps somewhat counterintuitively as a result these tend to be proportionally more expensive than the larger works. There is also a robust market for his works on paper, which regularly sell at auction for into the six figures. As with the paintings, demand is strongest for earlier examples, but again many of these are in museums such as the Met in New York and the Albertina in Vienna.
- Pandemic slump. Kiefer’s already illiquid secondary market was dealt a heavy blow by the pandemic, with total sales dropping 70.2 percent since 2019, to $4 million, and nary a work breaking the $1 million threshold. The market only slightly recovered in 2021, rising to $6.7 million in total sales, with the top price just squeaking past the $1 million mark.
- Market moment. Despite the slow activity on the secondary market, there remains clear demand for the work, with 2,567 users searching for Kiefer in Artnet’s Price Database over the past 12 months. Kiefer’s dealers—Gagosian, Thaddaeus Ropac, and White Cube—have been working hard to keep him in the spotlight in recent years, including securing him a major permanent installation at the Pantheon in Paris in 2020. In 2021, he was the first visual artist to take over the space of the Grand Palais Éphèmère; and the major moment in Venice this year is concurrently running with a show at Thaddaeus Ropac’s Paris Pantin space.
The lack of supply of top examples of Kiefer’s work to the secondary market means that auction data can only tell us so much. The scale of much of the work—the artist resists making what he calls “sofa paintings”—means that it is most at home in museums, which are unlikely to deaccession. Meanwhile, his galleries have done a good job of controlling supply to the auction market, and having works that are resold come back through the galleries privately, and consequently keeping the secondary market relatively illiquid.
Kiefer’s market story is not unlike that of Robert Rauschenberg, whose market we looked at a few weeks back. While Rauschenberg was undoubtedly a key American artist and one of the 20th-century greats, for decades his marked lagged behind peers like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Johns. The reason being that while important works were being sold privately, the auction market was slow to come up with a real masterpiece. All it takes is a single quality painting offered at auction—for Rauschenberg that was an $89 million silkscreen from a prime year that hit the block in 2019—to change that market story.
For Kiefer’s auction market, that moment might still be a ways off. While there is some good stuff coming up—a Kiefer woodcut being offered as part of the Macklowe collection sale in New York could set a record for a woodcut, and there is a monumental 1982 landscape coming up in a Sotheby’s evening sale—anything of the caliber that would upend the public narrative has yet to appear on the auction horizon.
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