The 20th Century Italian Art Market Is the Latest to Feel the Boom
When a work by Lucio Fontana sold at Christie’s New York last month for $29.2 million, it was the highest price the artist had ever achieved at auction. The giant, canary-yellow canvas was the latest in a string of broken records: Five of Fontana’s top 10 auction sales of all time were in 2015, according to Artnet.
In one respect, Fontana’s rise should surprise few familiar with the art world. Twentieth century Italian art, which includes the recently wildly popular postwar Arte Povera movement, has been on a boom for close to a decade. In fact, in October, sales in London dedicated specifically to 20th century Italian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s did so well that there can be few doubts about the movement’s ascendancy.
What is new, however, is postwar Italian art’s position in the highest echelons of the art world’s prestigious postwar and contemporary evening sales. Just five years ago, you wouldn't have seen a Fontana in one of those. As recently as 2010, says Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group in New York, prices for those paintings in private sales “topped out at $2 million to $2.5 million. And they were really a hard sell.”
The cheapest of Fontana's top 10 lots to sell at auction this past year, in contrast, was $10.3 million.
And while Fontana may be an outlier in terms of price point, Levin suggests he represents the proverbial tip of the Italian iceberg. “You’ve already seen significant jumps in a lot of the Zero and Arte Povera artists’ markets,” he points out, referring to a Europeanwide avant-garde movement in the 1960s.
Multiple dealers who sell works from the period agree—the public just may not know about it, because some major pieces have yet to come to auction.
A large-scale work by Alberto Burri, currently the subject of a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, can now sell privately for “more than $10 million, if it’s monumental and one of the best,” says Daniella Luxembourg, the co-owner of the gallery Luxembourg & Dayan, which has locations in New York and London. In contrast, the highest price paid at auction for a Burri was achieved last year at Christie’s in London, when his Combustione Plastica sold for $7.7 million. In other words, the price increases for these Italian 20th century works haven't revealed themselves to the wider world, yet.
“In the last five years, there wasn’t a monumental Burri at auction; most of them were sold privately,” Luxembourg says. “It just happened, in the same way it also happened that the last Fontanas sold at auction were big. Those works sold privately before.”
“In a way,” she continues, “the private market is the forerunner of the auction houses.”
If that’s true, then get ready for many more 20th century Italian works at auction. Currently, Luxembourg’s gallery has two solo shows of midcentury Italian artists—the neo-avant-gardeist Enrico Baj in New York, and the Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti in London—and the downtown gallery Sperone Westwater is currently showing a massive group show of midcentury Italian art, Painting in Italy 1910s-1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art, on view through January 23rd.
“It’s not the beginning, but it’s not the end of the game,” says Gian Enzo Sperone, who spent two years organizing the current show at Sperone Westwater. “The prices I paid three years ago are already doubling now. In a couple of years it could be three times, four times more.”
In comparison with the multimillion-dollar Arte Povera sales, Sperone’s exhibition, comprising primarily art from a generation earlier, is decidedly more affordable. Almost all of the show’s 120 artworks range from $20,000 to $110,000. The two exceptions are for work by Enrico Prampolini, whose prices in the show range from $80,000 to $140,000, and by Giacomo Balla, one of the Italian Futurism movement’s most famous proponents. One of his postcard-size works sells for $100,000; a major painting from 1914, which Sperone has owned since 1976, is on sale for $1.1 million. “Yesterday I saw a comparable work in a collection in Turin,” he says. “I asked the price, they said, ‘oh no, we don’t want to sell it, but just in case you can afford it, it’s over $1 million.'”
The question, then, is why now, and why 20th century Italian art? First, there's the simple fact that the contemporary art market—long fueled by U.S. collectors—ignored non-American artists for decades. The second is a clear-eyed look at the market, courtesy of the same dealers who have a financial interest in keeping Italian art afloat: Everything else got too expensive. "If you want to buy a great work by Jackson Pollock, the chances you can find it in private hands are very low, and the price would $30 million or $40 million," Luxembourg says. In contrast to American modernism, in other words, Arte Povera is a steal. "You can still buy a great piece by for a relatively reasonable price," she says.
Luxembourg, whose gallery has previously shown midcentury Italian artists such as Alberto Burri, Domenico Gnoli, and Mario Schifano, says that there are still deals to be found even among the more expensive Arte Poveraartists. “All of them have great works on paper that are just important as their works on oil,” she says. “I buy for myself at auction, and I think this work is fantastic. If the market develops the way we think it will, it’s a fabulous thing to have.”
Sperone offers similar counsel. “Since the very beginning of my career, there was always something clear in my mind,” he says. “Always be yourself, and always play against the market. That’s the way to express yourself, take your risk, and do your job with honor and with style.”