When Artprice published its list in March of the top 50 contemporary European artists at auction in 2011, it was something of a surprise to see the Spanish painter Miquel Barceló sitting in second spot. Barceló had an extraordinary year, his works selling for a total of €12.8m at auction. That was slightly more than Anselm Kiefer and substantially more than Peter Doig, Urs Fischer, Andreas Gursky and Maurizio Cattelan, all of whom receive far more attention in the press.
Barceló’s moment in the market did not come after a steady rise in prices or because the number of works on offer consistently grew; it arrived in a rush of record-setting sales. The painter’s auction turnover in 2011 was nearly 20 times greater than his sales in 2010, and an almost 75% rise on his previous peak in 2007.
“The most important European collectors want to have a major Barceló painting in their collection, and they’re going for the best,” says Beatriz Ordovas, a post-war and contemporary specialist at Christie’s, who has played an important role in propelling the growth of the artist’s market. “Once you’ve seen a piece, you tend to remember it,” says the independent curator Catherine Lampert, who organised a show of Barceló’s work in Madrid and Barcelona in 2010.
Barceló’s market has registered strong prices during the past decade. Examples include Bibliotheque avec Poe, 1983, which sold at Christie’s Madrid in 2006 for €1.2m—well over its estimate of €220,000 to €320,000—and Autour du Lac Noir, 1989-90, which sold at Sotheby’s London in 2002 for £941,600 (est £300,000-£600,000). There have also been fallow periods, the most recent occurring between 2007 and 2011, when public sales dwindled. But last year’s sales, including the £3.96m paid for the bullfight painting Faena de muleta, 1990, at Christie’s London in June—a record for any work by a living Spanish artist—seemed to take the entire market by surprise.
Barceló’s dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, has exerted almost exclusive control over his output, says Tobias Mueller, a director at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger. He says that private sales have never slackened. Nevertheless, the recent growth of the artist’s market is due to auction sales. The contemporary department at Christie’s was the first to make its move, having set its sights five years ago on a painting from the bullfight series. “I used to look at the book that Bischofberger produced for his bullfight show [in 1991],” Francis Outred, the head of post-war and contemporary art for Christie’s Europe, says. “Even at that stage, it was clear to me that if a great bullfight came to auction, it would make a great price.”
Curators such as Lampert do not regard the bullfight paintings as highly as other works by Barceló—but collectors do. Bischofberger sold the 36 works from the gallery’s 1991 bullfight show to European collectors, most of whom are unlikely to resell the paintings. However, the Christie’s team managed to persuade an Italian collector to part with Tres equis, 1990, which he bought in 2003 for £532,000.
Once the prized painting was in hand, the Christie’s team was divided on its auction strategy. “I can remember a team of about seven or eight of us, all huddled around a table, having a huge argument about the estimate,” Outred says. The estimate was eventually set at £400,000 to £600,000. But the auction house need not have worried: the work sold for £1.3m in February last year.
Following this success, Sotheby’s and Christie’s secured bigger, more impressive bullfight paintings to sell last June. Outred travelled to “an Alpine ski resort where we found a Barceló masterpiece on the wall”, and convinced its owner to sell. The work, Faena de muleta, was estimated at £1.5m to £2m, based on the new reference point of Tres equis. It set a record for the artist when it made nearly twice its high estimate, selling for £3.96m. (Sotheby’s sold Muletero, 1990, the next night for £2.3m, against an estimate of £1.5m to £2m.)
In October, Sotheby’s responded by selling a painting from Barceló’s series based on Malian fishing boats. A tall and hard-to-hang work, Pluja contracorrent, 1991, nonetheless sold for £1.7m (est £1.4m-£1.8m). Christie’s sold the much smaller work Contracorrent, 1991, for £1.49m (est £500,000-£800,000) in February this year.
“It is a reassertion of the confidence in Barceló’s market,” says the contemporary art specialist Oliver Barker, who is Sotheby’s deputy chairman in Europe. “The interest still seems to be in the same three series that we saw in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. People really like the white paintings, the Malian fishing boats and the bullfight pictures.”
Barceló—who, aged 55, is in the middle of his career—first came to prominence in 1982, when his work was chosen for Documenta. At that stage, he was seen as a neo-expressionist painter, partly because of his proximity to artists including David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Over the course of the next decade, Barceló gradually stripped his work of content, culminating in a group of white paintings that drove the artist to destinations beyond Europe in search of inspiration. Drawing on his experiences in Mali in 1990, he created a series of images of boats.
Between 2007 and 2009, Barceló rose in public prominence. He represented Spain at the 2009 Venice Biennale after completing two major public projects: a chapel in the cathedral of Palma, Majorca, in 2007 and a ceiling in the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations in 2008.
The recent resurgence in enthusiasm for his work suggests that Barceló may have benefited from a turn of the critical wheel. “It’s a bit difficult for artists who came out in the 1980s,” Mueller says. “Some of them have had a difficult time, as they’re not historical yet and they’re not cutting-edge any more. Has art history—the critics, the museums and the collectors—looked back favourably on their work?”
The auction houses clearly have, but Mueller is wary. Last year’s spike in prices brought as much trepidation as joy. “I try to urge my friends at the auction houses to take responsibility for the artist. There are only so many collectors at any given point who are looking for one thing,” he says. Catherine Lampert worries that the rising cost of the works could deter northern European museums, in which Barceló remains under-represented.
The auction houses do not see Barceló’s market growing much from here. For one thing, the large scale of his works makes it difficult for all but the best to sell well. And there’s nothing to prevent his market from going cold, as it has before.
Then again, Barceló’s collecting base could jump past Europe and even the US. Although all the major buyers in the last spree were Europeans, including a Russian who previously bought only impressionist works, there is growing interest from collectors in other continents. “There is a huge demand for his work,” says the dealer Ben Brown, who worked with Bischofberger to stage an exhibition of Barceló’s work in Hong Kong last summer. “I sold two works to America and the rest were evenly spread between Europe and Asia. I was expecting to sell pretty well, but I didn’t realise I would sell quite as well as I did.”
The writer is the publisher of Art Market Monitor; www.artmarketmonitor.com