“Surrealism is the last of the early 20th-century movements to be taken up by the market,” explains Simon Shaw of Sotheby’s. “There is a supply, with a lot of works in private hands, unlike Cubist or Fauve paintings, which have become extremely rare.” Magritte is the auction heavyweight. “La condition humaine”, 1935, sold for £1.28 million at Christie’s London in November 1989, and since then the price has been beaten nine times. In June 1996 “L’empire des lumières”, 1948-1962, a highly seductive work showing night and day in the same composition–one of the artist’s recurring themes–sold for £2.3 million ($3.54 million) Then, in 1998, Christie’s sold the collection of Magritte’s friend and lawyer, Harry Torsczyner, and set three new records, including $4.9 million (£2.9 million) for “Le fils de l’homme”, 1964. These prices were shattered last year in New York when another version of “L’empire des lumières” made $12.6 million (£8.6 million). "It was bigger and had a great provenance, from the de Menil collection,” says Christie’s expert Olivier Camu: “The light was beautifully painted and the surface treatment was fine; these two criteria are important for collectors.” The highest prices are made for Magritte’s later period, around 1950-60. “The market adores these rather commercial works, explains Simon Shaw, “Private collectors want them, and so do museums because they bring in visitors.”
With the current reassessment of the Surrealists, and as other major works come on the market, he thinks the strength of the market will be confirmed. “Collectors are waiting for a major Dalí to appear at auction, and it could beat the current record of $3.7 million (£2.2 million) , set at Christie’s New York in 1990 for “Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina.” He continues: “Tanguy and Ernst are still undervalued, with the best prices at about $1.5 million: they should go up from there.” At last month’s sales, a new record was set for an Ernst at £996,650 ($1.63 million (see above). The other Belgian star, Paul Delvaux, is also on the way up, but less so than Magritte. The highest price was given for “Le miroir”, 1936, a marvellously poetic work which sold for £2.9 million ($4.7 million) in 1999. Unlike Magritte, the highest prices are given for early Delvaux, dating from 1936 to 1949. However, apart from Magritte and Delvaux, no other Belgian artists have an international reputation. For example, Edouard Louis Théodore Mesens, or Magritte’s friend Marcel Marien only make about £3,500, and are often sold in Amsterdam. The famous Belgian School seems to have disappeared, and its members have been forgotten. They are not highly considered and have little value, says Olivier Camu. Other artists are Auguste Mambour, whose “Surrealistic figure” sold for £7,260 ($11,320) at Christie's, Amsterdam in 1994 or Marc Eemans. A work by Eemans dating from 1927 made £10,500 ($15,000) last year. Simon Shaw says, “The subject was very Surrealist and from the best period. For really good images there are buyers, but Magritte is still the centre of gravity for this market.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Surrealism'