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Market revs up for racing car artist Salvatore Scarpitta

As the Italian-American’s historical importance is reassessed, curators play catch-up with his later works

Italian artists have been enjoying their moment in the sun, and the Italian-American Salvatore Scarpitta is the latest to emerge from the shadows, thanks to big gallery shows and an increased presence at auction this season.

Luxembourg & Dayan in New York is presenting an exhibition of works from his most sought-after period, the late-1950s to the mid-1960s. The show, which opens tomorrow (13 October-23 December), contains 20 mixed-media works—wall pieces made with torn bandages and canvas. Not all are for sale; those that are available are priced between $300,000 and $4m. London’s M&L Fine Art was the first gallery to show his work this year, in June; Tornabuoni Art also presented a solo stand of his work at Art Basel.

Although Scarpitta, who died in 2007, is not a household name, his work is in important private collections in the US and Europe. “Alfred Barr bought his work and so did the Menil family, for example, but not the wider public,” says Daniella Luxembourg, of Luxembourg & Dayan. “But his market is going to change this season. In 2005, the prices for his important works were in the low six figures—now he’s on the catalogue cover.”

Forager for Plankton (1959) could set a record for Scarpitta this month. Courtesy Sotheby’s

Scarpitta’s Forager for Plankton (1959), the cover lot of Sotheby’s Italian sale (7 October), set a new auction record for his work, selling for £1.8m (£2.2m with premium, est £1m-£1.5m). The previous record stood at $1.4m (with fees) for The Corn Queen (1959), which sold at Christie's New York in 2014. Provenance notes for Forager for Plankton include Leo Castelli's New York gallery. The famous US dealer helped Scarpitta become a New York art world fixture after visiting his studio in Rome in 1958, and gave him his first show in New York the following year.

In the current market, collectors are looking for historically proven artists. “Prices are so high for Anglo-American contemporary art—people look for value elsewhere,” Luxembourg says. Scarpitta’s work appears to possess a combination of old-world historicism and American market approval. Simply put, Scarpitta is still good value for money, though “the beautiful pieces are very, very rare”, according to Mariolina Bassetti, who heads the Italian sale at Christie’s.

But why the interest now? Michele Casamonti, the director of Tornabuoni Art, says that “among the contributing factors are a rigorous catalogue raisonné, the rarity of his top work and its historical importance”. Luigi Sansone, who wrote the catalogue in 2005, says the artist is “finally getting more attention, and rightly so”. He also says that a very small number of fakes has been in circulation, but that the rigorous research he conducted with Scarpitta while he was alive, means “it’s very hard to introduce them into the market”.

Luxembourg believes rising interest in his bandage works will encourage people to discover the rest of his catalogue: “It was the same with Alberto Burri—first, collectors just wanted his burlap sacks, then they discovered his combustions.”

The Contemporary Art Museum St Louis, Missouri, is organising a show of Scarpitta’s later works, which revolved around (and included) racing cars. It is due to open in January 2018. “Scarpitta’s exhibitions in the US have focused heavily on the wrapped and bandaged canvases. But with the cars, the artist embraced an art form that is typically American,” says the museum’s director Lisa Melandri. “His market is growing, but I feel that the museological perspective must catch up.”