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Works under $500K: top artists to buy during the crisis

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

It is quite rare to see major artists whose market has not skyrocketed yet, and even when you find one, the important pieces are often selling well above the $1-million mark. However, there are a few notable exceptions which represent great opportunities especially in times of crisis, as they offer the best balance between risk and return. We therefore prepared you a shortlist of the few undervalued blue-chip artists we know, whose prices have remained surprisingly stable in the last few years – with works still under $500K. Once again, we believe that these artists are particularly well equipped to weather the current economic turmoil.

1) The Pop legends

This small Wesselmann painting from the Smoker series sold for $435,000 at Christie’s in May 2019

Most of the biggest names from the pop era have consistently reached exorbitant prices recently, with major works acquired at auction in the 7 to 8-figure range. Tom Wesselmann is one of them, as his most remarkable 1960’s paintings have seen their prices surge at auction in the last 10 years. And yet, two types of works by the pop legend remain quite affordable: his works on paper and his small canvases from the 1970’s. Indeed, a small paintings from his iconic Smoker series sold for $435,000 at Christie’s in May 2019, while a large paper representing a beautiful female portrait – a well-known figure in Wesselmann’s work – was acquired for a surprising $489,428 at Phillips in London last February.

These red Flowers sold for $435,000 at Christie's New York last March

Even a huge star like Andy Warhol – it is often the first name that comes to mind when one thinks about pop art – has important works in the low 6-figure range, such as small canvases from the iconic Flower and Dollar series. For instance, a square 35.6 cm painting with red flowers was acquired for $435.000 last March at Christie’s New York. There are a few other series by Warhol which remain affordable, such as the Newspapers, one of which was on sale for $175,000 during the last edition of Art Basel in Miami.

In a different style, large 1980’s paintings by pop icon Robert Rauschenberg are regularly selling under $500k. It is quite surprising, knowing that his 1960’s works are among the most expensive contemporary pieces ever sold at auction. And yet, a 250 cm painting on aluminum from 1988 was recently acquired for an astonishing $411,000 at Christie’s New York.

This work on paper by Keith Haring was acquired for $343,750 at auction in 2018

Last but not least, an artist like Keith Haring, who clearly stands in the tradition of pop art, remains quite affordable despite his global success. Indeed, some of his most iconic works on paper – with an authentication certificate – are still selling below the $500k mark. For instance, two remarkable pieces with good sizes (around 100 x 70 cm) and famous symbols sold at auction for respectively $343,750 and $490,065 in the last two years. As for the private market, there are a few great deals to make in the same price range.

2) The conceptual pop artists

It is quite rare to see artists who stand out in both the conceptual and pop traditions. Ed Ruscha is one of them. Although his older paintings from the 1960's to the 1980's have reached record prices in the last few years – with pieces sold at auction for tens of millions – there are still a handful of interesting pieces at a relatively low price. Indeed, Ruscha's recent works on paper with a good wording and quality colors are a great buy. But the access to Ruscha's primary market is so difficult and constraining that collectors usually keeps their works on the long term.

However, the current Corona Crisis could cause them to sell more pieces at a better price. The gap between auction prices, which remain quite high, and the primary market, is so important that private deals have become very interesting. Indeed, a small work on paper from 2017 was sold at Sotheby's New York last year for $275,000, whereas the price for a similar piece on the primary market would be around $125,000.

This 1981 print was sold for $500,000 last November at Sotheby's

Barbara Kruger is another blue-chip conceptual artist whose prices haven’t skyrocketed yet. There are two main reasons why we believe in her market: the first one is that Kruger is certainly one of the greatest innovators in the field of conceptual art in recent History. The second reason is that the artist has recently signed with the mega-gallery David Zwirner, which will help her organize two major future retrospectives: one at the LACMA in Los Angeles, and another one at the prestigious Art Institute in Chicago. In the meantime, there are a few outstanding pieces to buy at bargain price, such as the gorgeous 1981 piece that sold at auction for $500,000 last November at Sotheby’s New York. Works from less prestigious periods can be acquired at an even lower price, such as the remarkable digital print that sold for $400,000 at Sotheby’s New York in May 2019.

3) The minimal masters

This Alfabeto on paper sold for $117,015 at Sotheby's Milan last Novembrer

There are a few blue-chip artists from this category whose prices remain quite low despite their international recognition, the first of whom is Jannis Kounellis. The late Italian artist, who is widely known as one of the leading representatives of Arte Povera, still has major works at auction with prices starting from $110,000, such as his iconic Alfabeto series. Indeed, one of them was acquired for $117,015 at Sotheby’s Milan last November, while galleries would ask $200,000 for a similar piece. His metal works from the 1980’s also remain affordable, as major pieces were recently sold for respectively $383,880 and $338,586 at Christie’s and Phillips in London last October. However, potential buyers should quickly acquire these iconic pieces, as the artist’s estate has entered an important restructuring phase under the management of his widow Michelle Coudray. This includes the creation of a catalogue raisonée for all the paper works from the 1960’s, which will help Kounellis strengthen his market and will likely attract mega-galleries who have every reason to believe in his future.

This monumental Line painting by Kenneth Noland was acquired for $327,525 in March 2019 at Christie’s London
This Dialogue by Lee Ufan was acquired at Christie’s Hong Kong for $443,999 last May

As for the abstract masters, there are two major artists who are still undervalued, in two very different styles: Kenneth Noland and Lee Ufan. The first one, who will go down on art History as one of the best-known Color Field painters, has two types of artworks under the $500,000 mark: his large line paintings form the late 1960’s, one of which was acquired for $327,525 in March 2019 at Christie’s London, and his shaped canvases from the 1970’s. Indeed, a monumental work from this series was sold a few months ago for $337,500 only at Phillips New York.

As for Lee Ufan, the Korean abstract artist, who is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest Asian contemporary painters, doesn’t quite have the prices he deserves. As a matter of fact, the most beautiful pieces from his important Dialogue series – the large grey ones are particularly sought-after – are selling in the $500,000 range, which is quite low for such a prestigious artist. Take for instance the monumental piece that was acquired at Christie’s Hong Kong for $443,999 last May !

4) The mid-career stars

An important number of famous mid-careers artists have seen their prices fluctuate recently, often with speculative rises soon followed by market corrections. However, a few acclaimed artists, with 3-decade-long careers at least, have remained quite stable in the last few years such as Wolfgang Tillmans. The German photographer and conceptual artist, who has reached the highest level of institutional recognition – he is an academician at the British Royal Academy of Arts, winner of the Turner Prize, and had a few major retrospectives in world-leading institutions – still has works under $500,000, especially in his two most iconic series: Freischwimmer and Greifbar. Indeed, two large prints from these series were respectively sold for $412,500 and $437,930 at auction in the last two years, and his prices on the primary market are even lower, with the same pieces selling around $200,000.

This Richter painting was bought for $292,307 at Sotheby’s London last October

Daniel Richter also belongs to this category, although his figurative style is quite different from the artists listed above. Richter is particularly interesting for several reasons: he is very prolific and his work is structured in different periods which are all very dense and rich, and his prices have been very consistent for more than a decade now, with paintings selling in the 6-figure range since the mid-2000’s. Recently, a large canvas from 2011 was acquired at Christie’s London for $440,393, as well as another painting from the same period which was bought for $292,307 at Sotheby’s London last October. Just like Tillmans, Richter’s prices on the primary market are a bit lower, with beautiful pieces around $220,000.



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