Post-War French Art at the Paris Auctions: December 2014

Though the idea of buying large abstracts is a rarity to most of those starting a collection there is a significant value in doing so. Large format works have a tendency to polarise buyers, many of whom who tend to prefer three or four smaller pictures in one precious space instead of one large canvas. I believe it is worth taking a long hard look at one or two post-war European artists that worked in large format who have largely been in the shadows of the market for the last 20 years. Names that might have been central to the Post-War market in the 1960s are now coming back with a vengeance – even the vast ‘musical’ compositions by Georges Mathieu are being considered in the 1m GBP plus bracket. When I started at Sotheby’s in 2002 most of Mathieu’s work was considered below threshold and large canvases only rarely made an appearance in the Bond St. Sales.

 

That said, Mathieu could be good, very good, and his work has that enviable trait that most contemporary painters covet: individuality. A signature work by Soulages, Mathieu or (to a lesser extent) de Stael is easy to spot on the wall of rich Paris dealers who have easy access to such paintings thanks to the weak Nouvelles Realiste market of the 1990s and 2000s.

 

When a large Pierre Soulages at Sotheby’s London made over 6.6m USD last year it was arguably the breaking point for the artist and indeed the Post-War French art market. In 2014 the auction house sales exhibit countless works by the likes of Poliakoff, Fautrier, Riopelle, Soulages and others. Yet still the centrepoint of this market is Paris. The sales this week (1-5th December) form one of the most important in the Paris trade as Sotheby’s and Christie’s go head to head in their Art Contemporain auctions. Tajan and Artcurial try to compete but frankly the sales are unfairly weak in comparison as the two big names offer no less than 500 works of (somewhat uneven) quality between them.

 

The spectacular rise of these partly-forgotten artists has led me to look for other names that were working in the same timeframe – artists such as Gerard Schneider worked in the same circle as Pierre Soulages in the 1950s but sadly never held the same acclaim. Schneider may not be an artist to watch in the same mould as an uber-contemporary Sterling Ruby or Lucien Smith but I still rate him highly since his works are affordable: a work on paper from a good date will be well under five figures at auction.

 

When it comes to investing heavily I would not get carried away with comparing the prices of Stills, Rothkos and Pollocks with those of the European arena since the buying geography is so different. Deep-pocketed US collectors covet US post-war artists as they are considered the Monets and Manets of their time – not many of the top US buyers will be chasing Ecole de Paris or Nouvelles Realiste paintings any time soon.

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