Will the Contentious Opening of a Philip Guston Show Hurt or Help the Artist’s Market? We Parsed the Auction Data to Find Out

Is it high time the artist's market catches up to his Ab-Ex contemporaries?

Philip Guston, Nile(1958). Courtesy Sotheby's
Philip Guston, Nile(1958). Courtesy Sotheby's

Last week, Sotheby’s announced that it would offer a resplendent Philip Guston abstraction during its Modern art evening sale in New York next month. The painting, which has been in the same collection for four decades, carries the highest estimate ever set for a Guston work, $20 million to $30 million, which means it could break the artist’s existing record of $25.9 million, set in 2013. 

The event will coincide with another momentous occasion for Guston’s work: the opening of a long-awaited retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on May 1. “Philip Guston Now,” which will go on to tour to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Tate Modern in London, was controversially postponed in 2020, amid fears from organizers that the public might object to some of Guston’s depictions of the Ku Klux Klan.

Two years on, has the controversy helped or harmed Guston’s market? We took to Artnet’s Price Database to investigate.

 

The Context

Auction Record: $25.9 million, achieved at Christie’s New York in May 2013 

Guston’s Performance in 2021

Lots sold: 27

Bought in: 3

Sell-through rate: 90 percent

Average sale price: $1.5 million

Mean estimate: $765,356

Total sales: $39.4 million

Top painting price: $24.4 million

Lowest painting price: $312,500

Lowest overall price: $1,800, for a screenprint on plexiglass, part of an edition of 125.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

  1. Sharp spikes. Guston’s works first cracked the $1 million mark in 1990, and since then they have traded hands on the auction market for more than $1 million 60 times. Since the ‘90s, total sales of the artist’s work have risen and fallen in sharp peaks, largely corresponding with the supply of top examples to the market. The greatest year for Guston’s market so far was 2017, which saw $48.5 million in total sales across 30 lots.
  2. Pandemic crash. As was the case for many artists, Guston’s market crashed in 2020 as collectors held off from making major consignments, and total sales plummeted 82.7 percent to their lowest level since 2015. But the market quickly bounced back in 2021, reaching $39.4 million in total sales, its highest level since 2017.
  3. Figurative turn. Guston’s mid-career turn to figuration from abstraction hampered his market for a long time, but today Guston is best known for his figurative paintings, composed later in his career during the 1960s. Hauser and Wirth has represented the Guston estate since 2015, and has worked particularly hard to promote this later figurative work. Most of the artist’s recent top auction prices have reflected those efforts, including the sale of his 1976 painting Strong Light, which tripled its estimate and approached his world record price when it sold for $24.4 million as part of the divorce sale of billionaire collectors Harry and Linda Macklowe last November. 
  4. Ab-Ex demand. Which is not to say there is no demand for abstract works. The painting being offered at Sotheby’s, Nile, dates from 1958, after Guston embraced abstraction in his work. His record was achieved in 2013 when Fellini—another abstract work from 1958 that was once owned by Nelson Rockefeller—sold for $25.8 million. During his lifetime, the Ab-Ex paintings from the 1950s were his most in-demand body of work. They are now rare to market because many of the few he painted are in museums—such as two canvases similar to Nile, which are owned by MoMA and the Whitney.
  5. Market watchers. Over the past year,2,665 users have searched for Philip Guston on the Artnet Price Database.

 

Bottom Line

Guston’s work has never reached the high watermarks of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. (The latter’s auction record is more than double Guston’s, at $61.2 million). But a change has been brewing in the market for a while

There has been a surge of interest in Guston’s oeuvre from a new generation of collectors in recent years, which has been helped along by the global headlines surrounding his upcoming retrospective, as well as the concerted promotional efforts of his gallery, Hauser and Wirth. These younger collectors know him best for his more politically-engaged figurative works, which reflect his progressive values and social conscience. Meanwhile, collectors in Asia, who seem to be holding all the market cards these days, are seeking Guston work from across the artist’s career.

The work hitting the block at Sotheby’s is being offered from the esteemed collection of Dallas-based philanthropists Peter and Edith O’Donnell, and is being sold to raise money for the late collectors’ charitable organization. Even outside of the solid provenance and philanthropic element, the work is well-placed to sell for a high price. It is a rare-to-market example of Guston’s abstract work, which has been consistently popular with older, more established collectors who understand Guston as a modern master—and might be easier to hang in their salons than some of his more challenging figuration. 


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