With a Thomas Struth exhibition opening at the Metropolitan Museum in New York this month (moving on to Chicago in June), Andreas Gursky showing at SFMOMA, Thomas Ruff on a six-nation, 10-venue tour, and a Thomas Demand show just closed in Milan, the profile of these German photographers could not be higher.
Just as high are the prices their works have been fetching, even by the standards of the booming contemporary art market. In less than 10 years, Gursky, Struth, Ruff and their slightly younger colleague Thomas Demand have blazed a meteoric trail through the salerooms and galleries. The annual growth rate for Gursky topped 3,000% in 1999. Even though the prices for his work have now peaked, he still achieved an average growth rate of 16% last year. Prices for Struth grew at 17% while Demand was 23%; only Ruff weakened slightly at -3% (1).
With the exception of Demand, this brilliant generation of German photographers comes from the hotbed of artistic excellence, Düsseldorf’s Staatliche Kunstakademie. All except Demand were pupils, in the 1970s, of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the famous and influential factory-snappers.
All work with photography, and are particularly known for large-scale works. Gursky (b. 1955) has made panoramas of stock exchanges, buildings, techno music raves or shop displays. Struth (b. 1954), is reputed for his grand coloured architectural pieces, particularly interiors of museums, but has also made landscapes, portraits and even flowers. Ruff (b. 1958) has varied the most in his choice of subjects, moving from domestic views, nudes and portraits to architecture and then constellations in night skies.
The ascendance of these three artists dates back to the late 1980s and the then vibrant Art Cologne fair. A strong American gallery presence ensured that bright new talents were spotted and promoted. Gursky had his first international solo show at 303 Gallery in New York in 1989 while Struth, who initially overshadowed him, was shown by the Marian Goodman Gallery in 1990. Portraits by Thomas Ruff were shown by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco in 1986. Demand, who at 39 is the youngest, works a bit differently, constructing life-size environments (such as a bridge or an office), photographing them and then destroying them. He was spotted by London’s Victoria Miro Gallery when a student at Goldsmiths, and she first showed him in 1995.
All produce their work in limited editions, generally less than 10, with a possible artist’s print (AP) in addition. “There was something about the format, the new way the works were framed, which gave them a separate identity. They felt like solid objects; some were printed on plexiglass. They were different from the previous works of art using photography,” remembers Simon Lee, a leading secondary dealer in this market. He sold all of Charles Saatchi’s collection of Gursky to the Swiss-based investment fund, Pisces Trust, in 1998.
Prices just a few years ago were a fraction of today’s. In 1998 Marian Goodman was offering Struth photographs for $1,700 at Paris Photo, but sold none. A Gursky “Giordano Bruno” made £6,500 at Sotheby’s London in the same year; one of Struth’s most sought-after images, “Galleria dell’Accademia”, sold for $14,000 at Christie’s New York in 1995. Last year another print of the same image sold for a triple estimate £207,000 at Sotheby’s. A Ruff Constellation made just $10,000 in 1991. As for Demand, in his first show works were priced at £2,000, and not all sold. Last year “Studio” sold for £65,000 at Christie's, London.
While such days and prices are long gone, the market is, according to Simon Lee, very tiered, with certain images being highly sought after, but others selling for much lower sums.
The climax was reached at Christie’s in 2001/2002. The auction house sold, in two sessions, material from the Hans Grothe collection, which had been built up with the help of Munich dealer Monika Sprüth. In November 2001 in New York it set a new auction record for Gursky, when it sold an immense, almost abstract, panorama of a Parisian apartment block, “Paris, Montparnasse” for $600,000. It was bought by Korean art advisor June Lee. Then in February 2002, the auction house just topped that price with a twice-estimate £432,750 paid for “Untitled V” a veritable still-life of fashion. Again the work was a Grothe consignment; again the buyer was June Lee, sitting in the room with her client, Mrs Song-Won Hong, presumed to be buying for the Ho-Am Museum outside Seoul.
Since that spectacular blow-out, prices have dropped. “They were crazy and that market has now peaked out,” admits Christie’s specialist Gérard Goodrow. “The Montparnasse image did so well because it was the only one available; all the others are in museums.” However, he notes that “it is the Gursky images with painterly qualities that do the best.” Size is also important: a smaller series of the Prada shops are not worth nearly as much.
The same market structure applies to Thomas Struth, with prices for the iconic images of museums and buildings soaring well above the other series. Here the top was hit in May last year when a façade of Mailänder Dom doubled low estimate to make $317,500 at Christie’s New York. An indication of how rapidly the market has expanded is that Milan dealer Monica de Cardenas priced this edition at $35,000 in 1998. However, the landscapes, for instance, have not caught fire in the same way. One, coming up this month at Sotheby’s in London is estimated at £10/15,000.
Thomas Ruff took longer than his two contemporaries to come to the fore, with the “Constellation” series the most sought after: these, which were making under $6,000 in the early 1990s, are now in the $80/100,000 range. “Ruff is less of a commodity,” says Mr Goodrow, “his work is more varied, he takes more risks, I think he still has enormous potential.”
As for Thomas Demand, demand far outstrips supply. According to Glenn Scott Wright of the primary dealer Victoria Miro, “He only produces about five works a year, in editions of six, and we have a waiting list of museums and collectors for them.” He explains, “We’re not going to place a new Demand work with someone we don’t know. We obviously privilege our own collectors, starting with museums. We know what they already have, that they will be careful with the work and that they won’t flip it into auction to make a quick profit.” The gallery is currently showing “Kabine” priced at $38,000 (all sold, with one on hold for a museum).
This small and controlled primary market explains why the prices made on the secondary market are so high, and one recent consequence has been a flurry of auction consignments. The result is that recent sales have seen high buy-in rates as well. In the first half of last year, 44% of the Ruff works offered were bought in, as were 38% of the Gurskys and 35% of the Struths. “There were just too many of these works on the market, particularly ones that are not the most desirable. That, coupled with greedy vendors, led to the high failure rate,” explains Mr Goodrow.
Monika Sprüth was surprised, she says, when Mr Grothe decided to sell. “Speculation is dangerous for the artist; you can ruin a career. As a dealer we to protect and build a reputation, and we want a slow development of prices”. As a result she, like the other dealers, controls the market carefully.
But potential buyers might like to note one thing: contrary to Ms Sprüth’s opinion, Mr Goodrow and Mr Scott Wright maintain that buying seems to be easier in Germany, probably because of its current economic problems and very soft market.
(1) source for the figures in this article: Artprice.com
Who shows whom
Matthew Marks, New York
Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, Cologne and Munich
Victoria Miro, London
Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam
Monica de Cardenas, Milan
Johnen + Schöttle, Cologne
Marian Goodman, New York
Sharon Essor, London
David Zwirner, New York
Johnen + Schöttle, Cologne
Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich
303 Gallery New York
Schnipper and Krome, Berlin
Lia Rumma, Milan
Rudiger Schöttle, Munich
Sprüth and Magers, Cologne and Munich
Victoria Miro, London
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Star-studded firmament'