Kiefer Fever Spreads Into The Art Market

The German artist has already made the history books; the market is finally catching on.

One thing about the art market that no one likes to discuss is its tendency to misvalue artists who make a lasting impact on art history. Some who achieve staggering prices during their lifetimes end up as curiosities just a few decades later. Others achieve fame and near-universal respect without ever seeing their prices reach the stratosphere.

Take Anselm Kiefer, the 66-year-old German painter with a taste for the grand and sometimes bombastic themes of national identity and collective memory, who first came to notice in the 1980s. He combined German mythology with Jewish mysticism in sprawling, brooding, often lugubrious paintings that incorporated humble materials like glass, straw, wood and even dirt. His big, expressive paintings put him in the same league as big, expressive American stars like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel.

The first of those artists died; and the second turned to country music and film. Mr. Kiefer not only survived the ’80s but continued to evolve intellectually and stylistically as a painter. A leading figure in contemporary art for more than 40 years, he has achieved the kind of cognoscenti recognition that gave him a cameo role propping up a naked Courtney Love as she traipsed around a hotel in a New York Times Styles section profile last fall. He’s built a global base of collectors who eagerly snap up his new work, which he still produces in prodigious amounts. Over the last two and a half years, his popularity has ramped up, with a dozen shows in New York, London and in Europe at galleries like White Cube, Yvon Lambert and Gagosian. The latest Kiefer show—consisting of 20 of the artist’s signature canvases exploring the theme of alchemy—opens this week at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, in Salzburg.

But even given all of these gallery exhibitions, and some solid results in recent auctions—Christie’s set a new worldwide record of $3.6 million for the artist this May in New York and sales in London in late June saw Kiefers sell well above presale estimates—his performance on the resale market (that is, the trade in older works) has been more leaden than golden. When a leading auction house specialist who has sold some significant Kiefers was informed that almost $14 million in Mr. Kiefer’s art had publicly traded in the first half of 2011 the expert raised an eyebrow, and replied, “Really? I had no idea.”

That’s because $14 million is an impressive number in the Kiefer market. When the market for contemporary art last peaked, in 2007, Mr. Kiefer’s full-year sales shot up to $8.3 million. In 2008, they spiked to $12.3 million. But compared to some of his slightly older German peers—so far this year, Georg Baselitz has sold $25 million at auction; Sigmar Polke, who recently died, $40 million and Gerhard Richter’s sales topped $100 million—Mr. Kiefer is an underperformer.

“Given his critical acclaim, his auction records are lackluster to say the least,” observed prominent Kiefer collector Andrew J. Hall, the head of Phibro, the commodities trading firm. “Not much comes to auction, and when it does it never performs as well as his fame would suggest.”

Not that Mr. Kiefer’s collectors or his dealers are complaining: one of the distinctive features of his art is its unsuitability to anything that might be thought of as decorating. “He almost intentionally makes his work difficult for domestic settings,” said Mr. Hall. “He’s dismissive of what most people would consider very large paintings. He calls those works sofa paintings.”

Mr. Hall, who owns some Kiefers that span 25 feet and rise up to 10 feet high, knows a thing or two about the difficulty of housing the artist’s work. After an altercation with his neighbors in Fairfield, Conn., over a 42-ton concrete sculpture that sat on his lawn from 2003 until 2007, he decided to put some of his Kiefers on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. After a successful two-year loan from 2008 to 2010, Mr. Hall now has plans to open a new structure at the North Adams museum some time this fall to permanently display around a quarter of his Kiefer holdings.

Not surprisingly, museums provide the backbone of the market for Mr. Kiefer’s uncompromisingly large works, but even his more manageable output has strong institutional support. The Metropolitan Museum in New York owns a suite of 20 of the artist’s rare watercolors, a few examples of which sold particularly well in London last month. Such museum support adds prestige to an artist’s oeuvre but also limits the supply that can create liquidity in an artist’s market.

“You don’t see rampant speculation,” said Robert Manley, head of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary department who made the recent record price of $3.6 million selling the 1983 painting To the Unknown Painter this May.

To the Unknown Painter had the benefit of being an almost living room friendly 6 feet by 8 feet, but that’s not the reason the haunting depiction of a German courtyard sold so well. “His architectural paintings are always going to sell for the most,” said New York dealer James Cohan. “It’s the last architectural painting in private hands to come to market.”

It had the benefit of coming from a recognized body of the artist’s work with decades of critical acclaim, and sold at Christie’s to an unnamed American private collector. But on the whole, although Mr. Kiefer has been an art star since the 1980s, his prices haven’t risen until recently. According to data compiled by Artnet, his market leapt forward in 2007 when the number of works selling at auction nearly doubled from the previous year. Work was drawn onto the market that year because of a rise in prices in 2006, when the artist’s average price peaked at $454,640. So far this year, Mr. Kiefer’s auction sales have generated an average price that is 15% higher, at $521,477.

If Mr. Kiefer’s market has remained at something of an even keel, this may be because his dealers have worked to keep it that way. Even faced with rising demand at auction, they’ve maintained careful control over his secondary market. “Sometimes the works come back through the gallery,” said Mr. Ropac, “and we can place these easily.”

Not only do many works go back through his primary galleries but when work comes up at auction a dealer like Mr. Ropac pays careful attention to who might be on the other end of a telephone line. In London, Mr. Ropac was a visible underbidder on several works that sold well above their six-figure estimate range during the evening sale at Christie’s but he never went in for the kill.

“I knew who else was bidding,” Mr. Ropac said. “I felt it was not so nice to bid against a client.”

That kind of restraint makes Mr. Kiefer a bit of a safe haven. “It’s very blue chip in that way, without big peaks and valleys,” Mr. Manley says. “He creates enough to feed the international demand for his work.”

International is right. A museum in Australia is planning to open a Kiefer room. There’s a strong presence in Tel Aviv. Then there’s Asia where, according to Mr. Cohan, the tradition of history painting in China seems to drive some of Mr. Kiefer’s appeal. “Dealing with complex subjects that are metaphors for current events touches a nerve in many different traditions,” Mr. Cohan said. Mr. Ropac points to strong demand from collectors in Hong Kong and says that two Chinese buyers are planning make the trip to Salzburg this week to attend his opening. And Mr. Kiefer has been shown in Korea since the early 1990s.

Then, somewhat surprisingly, there is the United States. Many think of Mr. Kiefer as an artist whose work is too cerebral for American tastes—many of his works are painted books or photographs and he makes all manner of assemblages—or too far from the brightly colored Pop art that dominates the American market. But Kiefer collectors see things differently.

“We have some fairly extraordinary contemporary art hanging in our house,” said Mr. Hall. “But when guests who have no knowledge of art come to our house, the one painting they’re most attracted to is the Kiefer. The imagery is straightforward; there’s a narrative there; it’s what they think art should be.”

Demand for his work extends far beyond art centers like New York. The Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, Calif., has added three Kiefers—a book sculpture, a dress sculpture and an important painting—in the past few years. Two were gifts from Minnesota collectors Donna and Cargill MacMillan Jr. who have a house in that snowbird community.

Visitors seeing those works have prompted demand through dealers like Chip Tom of Heather James Fine Arts in Palm Desert. “The buyers that we’re dealing with are long-time collectors and very knowledgeable,” said Mr. Tom. “It’s not going into these trendier collections with all the artists who came around since 2000. It’s going to people who are looking for things with a more conceptual bent, who have deep collections with other pieces from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.”

Mr. Tom has sold a handful of works in low six- and high five-figure range over the past three years. The gallery is looking to get its hands on more work if it can, which might, in turn, explain the recent strong results at auctions in London for Mr. Kiefer’s mixed media pieces and watercolors.

“Those watercolors, I couldn’t believe the prices,” said Mr. Hall. “I was bidding on them.” One, an image of a rose, made a healthy £97,250 or $156,275, against a high pre-sale estimate of £30,000-40,000 ($48,208-64,277). Mr. Ropac doesn’t think that price is abnormal for the watercolors. Perhaps he’s heard the rumors that Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell wants to create a room to show the museum’s 20 Kiefer watercolors if and when the museum takes over the Whitney Museum’s building on Madison Avenue.

Mr. Ropac feels that Christie’s put low estimates on the watercolors to incite interest. He should know. He was one of the bidders gunning for the other watercolor, a prosaic view of mountains. It had also been estimated at £30-40,000 ($48,208-64,277), and Mr. Ropac won it for a whopping £163,250 ($262,333). He told The Observer that, because the current show at his gallery features mountainous landscapes, Mr. Kiefer wanted his dealer to have this 1972 watercolor in inventory, to better serve loyal collectors.

But Mr. Ropac thinks the $3.6 million record for To the Unknown Painter makes a poor benchmark for Mr. Kiefer’s market. “The painting was good but not one of his absolute top paintings,” the dealer said. “A lot of what we see in the secondary market isn’t always prime.”

That’s another way of saying that, in the still mostly secretive world of private sales, Mr. Kiefer’s best works could be selling even higher. Kiefer Fever Spreads Into The Art Market