Artists Fairs Switzerland

Things that go pop: Jeff Koons’s seesaw market

He’s the toast of Europe’s museums, but his prices go up and down

Works including "Tulips", 1995-2004, are drawing the crowds to Basel’s Fondation Beyeler

One American artist seems to be everywhere this year. At the Fondation Beyeler here in Basel, the acclaimed exhibition “Jeff Koons” opened on 13 May (until 2 September). The celebrations continue in Frankfurt on 20 June, when simultaneous exhibitions—one of his painting, the other of his sculpture—open at the Schirn Kunsthalle and the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (until 23 September). A Koons retrospective is being organised by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which is due to open next year and will travel to the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Works by Koons are for sale at Art Basel and in the saleroom. Christie’s is selling a Baroque Egg with Bow (Blue/Turquoise), 1994-2008, from the “Celebration” series, in its auction in London on 27 June. One of five differently coloured versions, it is estimated at £2.5m to £3.5m.

At Art Basel, Koons’s principal dealer, Gagosian Gallery (2.0/B15), is showing a large painting: Auto, 2001. L&M Arts (2.0/B12) has a mirror piece, Inflatable Yellow Flower, 2011, priced at $800,000. Richard Gray Gallery (2.0/E4) is offering a Bikini (Jungle) piece, 2001-06, for $950,000, while the print publisher Carolina Nitsch (2.1/Q8) sold her remaining copies of a crystal archive print, Untitled (Girl with dolphin and monkey), 2006, priced at $60,000 (edition of 25).

“There is tremendous demand for Koons’s works at collector and museum level,” says Larry Gagosian, who held his first solo show for Koons in 2001 and describes him as “a once-in-a-generation, transformative artist”.

He is also a divisive one. Some think he is one of the key artists of our time, for the technical perfection of his work, made by master craftsmen, and his branded, post-pop melding of high art with kitsch. Others can be damning. The critic Robert Hughes once wrote: “[Koons] has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida.”

Among his many admirers are heavyweight collectors. The owner of Christie’s, François Pinault, devotes a room in his Venice space, the Punta della Dogana, to five works from the “Popeye” series, which Koons began in 2002. He also has a huge red Hanging Heart, 1994-2006. The Greek collector Dakis Joannou has almost 40 works, the Californian Eli Broad has a couple of dozen, and the British artist Damien Hirst is also a collector: two of the vacuum-cleaner pieces on show in the Beyeler belong to him. Another fan is Ukraine’s Victor Pinchuk, whose holdings include a magenta and gold version of Hanging Heart, for which he paid $23.6m at Sotheby’s New York in 2007. The all-time record for a Koons is $25.8m, for a magenta Balloon Flower, 1995-2000, which sold at Christie’s London in June 2008.

But Koons’s market was hit after the 2008/09 financial crisis. In 2010, a blue Balloon Flower made just $16.9m at Christie’s New York, and in 2011, another Hanging Heart reportedly sold privately for just $11m. In each case, the sums were far lower than previous levels.

“Koons was the poster-boy of the art boom in the early 21st century,” says the Christie’s specialist Francis Outred. “His prices went up a lot because there was speculation, and because he is extremely perfectionist. The works took a long time to make, so sometimes they were only delivered after the financial crisis, and some buyers were caught short.”

This was the case with the previous owner of Baroque Egg with Bow: by the time it was delivered, the buyer’s circumstances had changed, and it was quickly sold on to the present vendor. Prices for these eggs have also softened. Previous examples sold for $5.4m in 2009 and $6.2m in 2011; Christie’s estimate for its example, translated into dollars, is $3.9m to $5.4m.

Koons works in series: his first was “Inflatables” in 1979, and he has since made another 16, including the highly regarded “Equilibrium” in the 1980s, with basketballs floating in tanks, and “Banality” in 1988, including the famous Michael Jackson and Bubbles. “Koons reformulated and changed sculpture and reached his artistic pinnacle with ‘Equilibrium’ and ‘Banality’,” says Outred, who believes that examples of Koons’s best known works, such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Balloon Dog, 1994-2000, and Rabbit, 1986, would set new records if they came to market today.

The large-scale and decorative “Celebration” series, which includes hearts, balloon dogs and flowers, fetches the highest prices, but Rachel Lehmann, the co-founder of Lehmann Maupin Gallery (2.1/J9), who is also a collector of Koons’s work, says: “It is important to distinguish between works in the post-‘Celebration’ series. Some of them have indeed lost value; the market is far more stable for earlier pieces.” She says that, while everyone focuses on the post-“Celebration” series, there is material that is much less well known. She cites the polychrome wood Cherubs, 1991, which sold at Christie’s New York in May for $722,500 (est $800,000-$1.2m).

Koons’s paintings, which are generally linked to his sculptures, are less popular with collectors, and this is reflected in their prices. The record sum—$5.1m for Loopy, 1999—was set at Christie’s London in 2010. Gagosian does not give a price for the painting on show at the fair, but has shown abstracts priced in the $2.5m range in the past.

Koons, speaking at the Beyeler on Thursday, told The Art Newspaper that he ignores the market and puts his paintings on the same level as his sculptures. “I’m very proud of them,” he said. “I put energy into them.” Asked whether he paints them himself, he gave a very Koonsian answer. “I articulate the fingertips of the different people I work with,” he said.

Correction: the version of this article that appeared in print incorrectly implied that Christie's was the vendor of Baroque Egg with Bow (Blue/Turquoise). The work is being sold at the auction house on behalf of its owner on 27 June.

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