Art fairs

How to keep an artist’s name alive

Galleries at Art Basel bring historic works that are fresh to the market as artists’ estates get proactive


As the art market’s taste turns towards history, it is not just curators and scholars who are keeping the legacy of dead artists alive. At Art Basel, galleries with big stables of contemporary artists are devoting valuable space to works by artists including the late Mike Kelley, Josef Albers and Joan Mitchell. Such displays are paying off and reflect the increased competition among dealers to represent artists’ estates.

“The hot young artist dynamic has given way to history over the past five years,” says Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Gallery, whose estate artists include Agnes Martin and Robert Rauschenberg.

Generally, artists’ estates include works that they chose not to sell (often their best pieces). So dealers who represent estates can offer works of historical importance that are fresh to the market.

There is no standard relationship between an artist’s estate and a gallery. Some estates work with more than one gallery, some set up charitable foundations, and there are often legal issues to overcome before a commercial agreement is in place. “It should be a round-table conversation about what is in the best interest of the work. Estates ask galleries to be the barometer of the market; we lean on them for questions of legacy,” says Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read.

When it works, a commercial gallery can be instrumental in revising an artist’s reputation. In 2007, Cheim & Read staged a show of Joan Mitchell’s works on paper, with institutional loans and a scholarly catalogue. These “misunderstood and underappreciated” pieces were presented not as studies, but as “fully realised works”, for the first time, Sheffer says. As a result, their market “exploded”. At Art Basel, the gallery sold three of Mitchell’s 1991 pastels on paper for $200,000 each. A US museum is mulling over the artist’s painting Untitled (1958, priced at $5.5m).

The phenomenon is not new; Pace began working with Mark Rothko’s family in 1978, for example. But Glimcher says that estates tend to be bigger now that artists are generally more prolific.

Galleries have their work cut out. “It’s tough keeping a legacy alive once an artist is dead,” says Iwan Wirth, the president of Hauser & Wirth. He says that art fairs are one way “to reintroduce and reposition” artists. The gallery has brought works by Lygia Pape, David Smith, Philip Guston and Fausto Melotti to Art Basel, having taken on each of these artists’ estates during the past year. “If an artist isn’t seen by a younger generation of collectors, their art can languish,” says Mary Sabbatino, vice-president of Galerie Lelong. She adds that the institutional exhibition schedule for Ana Mendieta, who died in 1985, is “as intense as for some of our living artists”.

Meanwhile, living artists are being encouraged to plan their own legacies. In March, the lawyer and collector Loretta Würtenberger co-founded the Institute for Artists’ Estates to offer support to living artists and heirs. One aim is to “try to get artists to think of their estate as the last work of art they make”, she says.

• Art Basel Salon: Artists’ Estates Today and Tomorrow, moderated by Javier Pes, editor of The Art Newspaper, Friday 17 June, 3pm-4pm, Auditorium, Hall 1