Two weeks ago, contemporary art sales in New York at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury totaled $837 million. More than 120 artists recorded all-time high prices.
The prices achieved were staggering, as were the returns on investment that they represented.
A 1962 Andy Warhol, “Green Car Crash,” sold at Christie’s for $71.8 million. The painting was acquired by the consignor in 1978 for $71,000. His return on investment, before auction fees, was 100,000 percent.
Also at Christie’s, a 1950 painting by Mark Rothko, “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” from the collection of David Rockefeller, sold for $72.8 million.
Rockefeller acquired the painting in 1960 for $8,500.
Obviously, it’s too late to pick up a Warhol or a Rothko for a few thousand dollars, but there are plenty of contemporary artists whose work can be purchased for four figures or less.
Of the hundreds, even thousands of artists working in the Rocky Mountain region, which ones have a shot at the big time? As the Eagles once put it: “Who is gonna make it? We’ll find out, in the long run.”
According to Jina Pierce, curator of fine art at Pueblo’s Sangre de Cristo Museum, successful contemporary artists have to pass through a series of gatekeepers.
“They don’t just work alone in an attic, they go to school, get an MFA at somewhere good,” she said. “Maybe they’re so good that their professors will recommend them to one of the high-end galleries or they’ll get a major fellowship. But most of them will end up teaching, or working for a museum or maybe just getting a ‘job’ job.”
As their work matures and they make more connections, they may get represented by a small gallery, or get shown in a regional museum, like the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center or the Sangre de Cristo.
“At a really tiny level, I’m one of the gatekeepers,” Pierce said. “If I really like someone, I’ll try to get them represented by one of the good regional galleries. And, of course, curators talk to each other and that creates a buzz.”
Once an artist makes it to the next level, it’s extremely difficult to climb to the elite level, Pierce said.
“You’re talking the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent — just a few people. And once they get there, you or I simply couldn’t buy one of their pieces, regardless of money.”
That’s because elite galleries carefully control access to their artists by determining who’s allowed to buy, and which museums are permitted to show their works.
“We wanted to show a Japanese artist, Izumi Masatoshi, in our last show,” Pierce said. “He wanted to do it, everything was ready to go, and his L.A. dealer nixed it. He didn’t want Masatoshi in Pueblo.”
The art world is analogous to the music industry, she said.
“There are lots of singer/songwriters, but most of them never get very far,” Pierce said. “There’s only one Bob Dylan. And there was only one Andy Warhol.”
There are some local artists that Pierce said are worth considering.
“Richard Devore (a Colorado State University professor and ceramics artist who died last year) is wonderful,” she said. “I think that Floyd Tunson will get major national recognition sooner or later. He’s really an important artist. And Gabriel Liston is a young artist doing extraordinary work, and he’s totally affordable.”
And there are scores of talented contemporary artists living and working in Colorado whose work Pierce expects will rise in value.
“These are people like Clark Richert, Dean Fleming, Dave Yust, and Dale Chisman,” she said. “They’re so incredibly talented and creative, but still not good enough to hit that top one-tenth of 1 percent. They’ll be like the Broadmoor Art Academy group of the 1920’s — collected, sought after, but still regional, not national. To be at the top, you have to have that divine gift — and not many people have it.”
Carrie Wassemiller at David Cook Fine Arts in Denver also has a list of artists to watch.
“Twenty-five years ago, I would have bought (Kansas/Colorado artist) Birger Sandzen and (Denver artist) Vance Kirkland,” she said. “A good medium-sized Sandzen would have cost $8,500 then. Today, over $100,000. You could have had a Kirkland for $1,500, and now they’re in the $20(,000)’s — at least.”
Wassemiller also likes 1930s Colorado Springs artist Charles Bunnell.
“His early regionalist works are good, and not too expensive,” she said. “But we think his later abstract expressionist works are really undervalued.”
Eve Tilley, the president of the Pikes Peak Arts Council, has deep roots in the regional visual arts community. Her father, Lew Tilley, was a prominent Colorado Springs artist from the 1940s until his death three years ago.
Although intimately familiar with local artists, she only discussed two.
“Sean O’Meallie is wonderful,” she said. “I like the whimsicality of his work, and it’s so original. But Jean Gumpper is simply the best. She’s got the best skills, the best eye and her subject matter is universal. Of all the artists in the community, she’s my favorite.”
Bill Havu, whose Denver Gallery represents more than 50 of the region’s best-known contemporary artists, said raw talent often isn’t enough.
“To be a serious, top-tier artist, you obviously have to be good, but you have to want it,” he said. “You have to have the talent, the personality, the ambition — even the looks.”
Havu mentioned four Colorado artists that he thinks could make it to the elite level.
“Dale Chisman, whom I don’t represent, but he does good work,” he said. “Joellyn Duesberry — she just had a big show in New York, so she’s right on the verge. Lawrence Argent (the sculptor who created the famous blue bear at the Denver Convention Center). Don Coen, (a Lamar native whose works were on display at Poor Richard’s 15 years ago, selling for a few hundred dollars. Today, a large oil sells for $25,000). And Emilio Lobato, a 16th generation Coloradoan from a family of weavers. He’s got galleries in Texas and San Francisco. He works very hard and he’s dead set on being famous.”
Fine Arts Center president Michael De Marsche wouldn’t single out any artist, or group of artists, saying cheerfully: “Do you want to get me crucified?” But he was less reluctant to talk about the art market.
“Warhol and Rothko aren’t just national artists — they transcend boundaries, they’re global,” he said. “The art market is like a pyramid. At the bottom are the good artists who are unknown, in the middle are those who have had a number of shows, a monograph written about them, maybe a show at a medium-sized museum. Most of them will just stay at that level. A very few will make the jump to the top of the pyramid, to the Met, to MOMA, to the Venice Biennale.
“Locally, Boardman Robinson (1871-1955) is probably our best-known artist. He may be ready to break out. And Eric Bransby is a living link with the artists of the Broadmoor Academy.”
Like successful investors in other fields, successful collectors tend to buy and hold. One collector, who asked not to be identified, would just as soon forget a transaction that he made during the early 1980s.
“I bought three Charles Partridge Adams watercolors at a sale for $900, and ran them up to Denver the next day and flipped them … for $1,500,” he said. “I thought I was pretty smart, but I sure wish I had them today.”
On davidcookfineart.com there’s a small oil of Pikes Peak by Adams available for sale. The asking price: $24,500.