Collect Modern and Contemporary Sculpture and Get More Than Your Money's Worth
Painting and sculpture have always been two of the favorite genres among art collectors. Whether you prefer the former or the latter, the addition of artwork to your life is sure to enhance your environment and the sophistication. This column of “Art and Investment” thus focuses on the current situation in the market for modern and contemporary sculpture, a topic that is probably both familiar and foreign to many of our readers.
Generally speaking, sculpture accounts only for a comparatively small portion of the art auction market. According to numbers published by artprice.com, between 1900 and 2011 sculptures made up 10% of all lots sold at art auctions, while oil paintings accounted for 52%, works on paper for 34%, and photography and others for 3%. The interesting thing, however, is that up to the 18th century, demand for sculpture in Western countries was actually much higher than for paintings.
In many ways, sculpture has more mass appeal than painting. Since the end of WWII, the concept of public art came to the fore in North America and Europe, and has since spread around the globe, with many governments passing legislation sponsoring and promoting public installation art. Community-based artworks, and sculptures in particular, have become integral parts of architectural spaces and can be found in parks, squares, train stations, streets, pedestrian areas, offices, schools, halls, and other public spaces. Outdoor sculptures are often placed in conspicuous spots where they are easily seen while merging more or less successfully with their surroundings. Whether we like them or not, or consider them beautiful or ugly, we have become used to the existence of sculptures in our cityscapes. Some of them have even become iconic landmarks.
What is the earliest work of Western art? It may surprise you to learn that it is an 11cm high Paleolithic limestone statuette called the “Venus of Willendorf.” Made more than 20,000 years ago, this prehistoric figurine displays all the hallmarks of nature and fertility worship. Her large breasts and full figure may not be compatible with modern Western beauty ideals, yet they afford us a glimpse of early aesthetic and religious values: a woman’s ability to bear many children was considered of supreme importance. As civilization marched on, many distinct concepts of beauty and cultural characteristics evolved around the world, with all of them leaving their mark on human history.
Sculpture is one field in which different cultural developments can be observed. In ancient times, most plastic art was totemic or symbolic in nature, and often was associated with religion or magic. Examples for this type of sculpture are found in practically all early cultures, from America’s Mexican and Incan civilizations to African and Egyptian art, and from Pacific cultures and the Mesopotamian civilization to various Asian cultures, including the Eastern Buddhist tradition.
Ancient Greece and Rome are the cradle of today’s Western art, and it was in the closely related areas of sculpture and architecture that the classical period reached its acme of artistic expression.
Originally, sculptures served purely decorative purposes. Used to embellish temples and other buildings, they mostly dealt with religious themes or extolled the virtues of political leaders. Classical Greek statues showed idealized bodies closer to godlike perfection than flawed humanity. In a state founded on the ideals of freedom and democracy, artists eagerly pursued perfect proportions and elegant design. They were quite content to neglect or even eliminate all the idiosyncrasies and imperfections that define our individuality. Good examples for this approach are the “Venus de Milo” and the “Nike of Samothrace,” two of the most prized pieces in the permanent collection of the Louvre. During the Roman period, classical art largely continued in the same vein, but added an extra touch of both grandeur and utility: the statues of the Pantheon and the Colosseum in Rome are proud manifestations of the Roman Empire’s former power and glory.
During the Middle Ages, art was dominated by Christian themes and motifs, and genres such as church architecture, murals, relief sculpture, and decorative painting all reached new heights. In the 15th and 16th century, this was followed by the Renaissance with its humanistic ideals and conscious reaching back to many of the concepts and values of classical antiquity. Michelangelo (1475-1564) is one of the most representative figures of that era, and many of his best-known works are sculptures. During the Baroque (17th century) and Rococo (18th century) periods, sculpture remained closely connected with architecture. At the same time, a new trend gradually emerged towards to more objectivity and realism.
The 19th century saw the emergence of what one may well describe as the first beginnings of public art, featuring often large monuments and memorial sculptures in places such as city squares and public buildings. Art historians consider this period, in which France became the main center of European sculpture, to be the third peak of Western sculpture after the Greco-Roman period and the Renaissance.
One of the giants of 19th-century sculpture is Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), who broke with many of the art’s traditions in favor of a more naturalistic approach, while also adding literary inspirations into the mix. Rodin was the harbinger of a new aesthetics, and his style anticipated much of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century, which is why he is widely known as “the father of modern sculpture.” No longer solely concerned with objective shapes and normative representations, modern sculpture discarded utility, functionality and realism for more originality, creative freedom, and expressiveness. Rodin was one of the first artists to eliminate pedestals and bring sculptures down to ground level so that audiences might connect more directly with his art. In this he was followed by others, such as his compatriot Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). Modern sculpture soon moved towards a variety of novel styles, including expressionism, abstractionism, and symbolism, and some of the major representatives of 20th-century sculpture include Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Jean Arp (1886-1966), Henry Moore (1898-1986), and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), while best known for their work as painters, also made some notable contributions to the art of sculpture.
Influenced by the contemporaneous evolution of modern painting, and propelled forward by the powerful forces of industrialization and modernization, 20th century sculpture witnessed an unprecedented explosion of styles and schools, as well as experimenting with a range of innovative media and forms of expression. Ready-made materials were combined with elements such as the environment, sound, images, and light in a groundbreaking fashion. Even the idea that sculptures had to be “solid” was challenged by soft sculptures, kinetic sculptures, and installation art. It is also important to point out that within modern and contemporary art, sculpture is fully recognized as an independent genre. Having its finger on the pulse of society, contemporary sculpture is more than “just” an art form. It is also a reflection of all kinds of trends and developments, and as the language of sculpture becomes more and more fragmented and individualized, the boundaries separating different styles and schools become more and more blurry. One could almost say that today there are as many movements and concepts as there are artists. Among the better-known exponents of this idiosyncratic, non-conformist era are the abstract minimalist David Smith (1906-1965), the kinetic sculptor and originator of the “mobile” Alexander Calder (1898-1976), pop artists such as George Segal (1924-2000), Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), and Jeff Koons (b. 1955), the famous English artist-cum-entrepreneur Damien Hirst (b. 1965), the Italian satirical hyperrealist Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960), the Australian hyperrealist Ron Mueck (b. 1958), and the Columbian figurative-abstract artist Fernando Botero (b. 1932).
Asia has also produced its fair share of internationally renowned contemporary sculptors and installation artists, including Japan’s Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), and Yoshimoto Nara (b. 1959), Korea’s Nam June Paik (1932-2006), Taiwan’s Yuyu Yang (1926-1997), Ju Ming (b. 1938), and Li Chen (b. 1963), China’s Ai Weiwei (b. 1957), Xu Bing (b. 1955), Sui Jianguo (b. 1956), and Zhan Wang (b. 1962), as well as India’s Anish Kapoor (b. 1954) and Subodh Gupta (b. 1964).
The early years of this century saw a boom on the global art market, with sculpture being one of the segments seeing marked growth. In 2010, modern Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s “L’homme qui marche I” made headlines when it sold for the record price of more than 100 million US dollars at Sotheby’s London. The bullish art market sentiment is also reflected in record auction sales of paintings over recent years, including “The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and “Garçon à la Pipe” by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). I should mention that quite a few more paintings changed hands for more than US$ 100 million in private transactions, including works by Paul Cézanne (1939-1906), Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). And, underscoring my point about sculpture’s increasing prominence on the high-end art market, it was even reported that a sculpture by the controversial English contemporary artist Damien Hirst also sold for a price beyond the 100 million dollar benchmark in a private deal.
The completion of a sculpture, especially a large-scale work in an outdoor setting, often requires a considerable investment of human and material resources, and involves a complex creative process. Ideally, such efforts should receive a commensurate remuneration, and fortunately things have begun to look up for internationally renowned sculptors in recent years. Prices for top-notch works have risen appreciably as sculpture is moving from the fringe closer to the spotlight. Lots by Modigliani, Matisse, Brancusi, Henry Moore, Picasso, Degas, and Rodin have all achieved prices of US$10 million or higher. In 2009, most of late fashion designer Yves Saint Lauren’s private art collection was sold at a special auction in Paris, at which new price records were set for individual works by the painter Mondrian, the sculptor Brancusi and the Dadaist Duchamp. And if works by grandmasters of modern sculpture have soared in value, the trend is even more obvious with contemporary sculptors. Over the past four years, sculptures by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Alexander Calder, Takashi Murakami, and Louise Bourgeois have realized auction prices of US$10 million or more.
In addition to large-scale sculptures with their usually very small runs, some contemporary artists with marketing savvy, such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, or Yoshimoto Nara also issue less expensive limited editions of small and miniature works that can be very good value. Taking their cue from print art, they may for example issue runs of several 100 to 2,000 copies that come with the artist’s signature and a certificate of authenticity. Quite popular with younger collectors, such works frequently achieve auction prices of several thousand to several ten thousand US dollars and can be found in the latest catalogues of all major auction houses. Examples include Jeff Koons’ “Puppy,” Damien Hirst’s “Pills” series or needle installations, Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin” sculptures, Takashi Murakami’s “Inochi Dolls,” or Yoshimoto Nara’s “Sleepless Night Sitting” and “Dog.”
An auction house in Beijing recently launched a specialized sculpture auction at which 90% of all lots were sold. Similarly, sculptures make up a growing percentage of lots at auctions in Hong Kong and Taipei. At the same time, large outdoor sculptures by eminent Asian artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Yoshimoto Nara, Ju Ming, Yuyu Yang, Li Chen, Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, and Zhan Wang increasingly attract the attention of collectors at auctions and exhibitions. Limited edition works in particular are bound to appreciate in value.
When buying sculpture and installation art, especially serial copies as opposed to unique pieces, one should know a bit about the technicalities and complexities involved. With sculptures by modern artists, the distinction between copies made during the artist’s lifetime and those made posthumously can be important. Furthermore, who licensed or authorized the copy to be made? At which foundry was the copy cast? How many copies were made and issued? Does the copy come with a certificate of authenticity? All these factors affect the value of an item, and it may be a good idea to seek expert advice before making any purchase. With contemporary artists matters are not quite as complicated, but it is still important to pay attention to things such as authenticity and number of copies made to ensure that the lots you acquire are not just captivating works of art, but also good investments.