Dreams for Sale: Why Today’s Collectors Are in Hot Pursuit of Surrealist Art

Dreams for Sale: Why Today’s Collectors Are in Hot Pursuit of Surrealist Art
René Magritte's "Les jours gigantesques," 1928 (detail)
(Christie's Images LTD. 2012)

As the wider Impressionist and modern market slowly withers on the auction vine — the victim of a paucity of first-rate material — the international market for Surrealism has started to sizzle. Interest in the erotically preoccupied mid-century movement languished for decades as collectors lavished money and attention on Impressionist and Fauve art. Yet in the last two years, works by the handful of brand name artists associated with Surrealism — Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Joan Miró — are taking center stage.

In June at the Christie’s London Impressionist and modern sales, for example, Magritte’s darkly menacing “Les jours gigantesques,” 1928, depicting a violent struggle between a clothed man and a naked woman and remarkable for the illusionistic effect of one body superimposed on and merging with the other, sold to the New York financier Wilbur Ross for £7.2 million ($11.3 million) on an estimate of £800,000 to £1.5 million. Ross outgunned a posse of competitors, including London dealer Daniella Luxembourg. Housed in a private collection since around 1975 (another version of the sinister work resides in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, in Düsseldorf), the painting suffered a seemingly symbolic tear just below the woman’s bare throat. Apparently condition wasn’t a problem, as the canvas achieved the second-highest auction price ever for Magritte. The price came relatively close to the record $12.7 million set by his later, more decorative, and decidedly calmer “L’empire des lumières,” 1952, at Christie’s New York in May 2002. Prior to the London sale, an early Magritte was considered a tough sell and far less desirable than the artist’s late works, but now “early” appears to be in vogue, a view that is likely to gain adherents with the September 2013 opening of “René Magritte 1926-1938” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Famed for its Surrealist holdings, MoMA is mounting the first major museum show to focus on those breakthrough years.

In the past 18 months, Surrealist records have fallen like dominoes, as Miró’s “Peinture (Etoile bleue),” 1927, fetched £23.5 million ($36.9 million) at Sotheby’s London in June; Man Ray’s late oil “Image à deux faces,” 1959, made €2.4 million ($3 million) at Sotheby’s Paris in May; Ernst’s “Stolen Mirror,” 1941, soared to $16.3 million at Christie’s New York in November 2011; and Dalí’s 1929 portrait of the Surrealist poet and early art dealer Paul Eluard realized £13.5 million ($21.7 million) in a single-owner sale at Sotheby’s London in February 2011 — at the time the highest price ever paid for a Surrealist work at auction.The Dalí had last sold in 1989, at Christie’s, New York, for a then-record $2.3 million to the Swiss-based collector George Kostalitz, who consigned it to Sotheby’s. Dalí’s star is likely to shine even brighter with the upcoming retrospective exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, on the calendar for November 21 through March 25. Given the recent spike in prices for all these sometimes nightmarish explorations of the 20th-century psyche, one naturally wonders: What is it about Surrealism that speaks to today’s collectors?

“Surrealist art used to be reserved for the happy few,” says Olivier Camu, deputy chairman of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art, who initiated the “Art of the Surreal” sale category in February 2001 in London. On that occasion the works were segregated from the rest of the modern fare in a carefully staged pre-auction display, and a separate catalogue was prepared, two practices that have continued. “I felt it was an area of art history that was undervalued and underappreciated,” explains Camu. “A few pro collectors and pro dealers were the only ones focusing on it. I thought it was a very interesting [movement] to resuscitate.”

One of those happy few who pursued Surrealism before it skyrocketed in value is the collector and legendary Paris Match magazine publisher Daniel Filipacchi, whose Manhattan duplex is crammed with museum quality works that trace the historical arc of the movement. The depth and quality of his holdings were duly recognized in the 1999 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibition “Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, the Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections.” Encouraged to cite some of his favorites, Filipacchi, who was intrigued by Surrealist poetry as a youngster and then, at 14, was drawn to its visual manifestation, ticks off four works in the New York apartment: Yves Tanguy’s “Solar Perils,” 1943; Dalí’s “Surrealist Objects, Gauges of Instantaneous Memory,” 1932; Magritte’s “L’invention collective,” 1935; and Frida Kahlo’s “What the Water Gave Me,” 1939. As the collector explains, “All of these paintings were purchased in my early days of collecting, when prices were low.”

The Kahlo, for example, was bought at Sotheby’s New York in 1983 for $235,000, a fraction of what it would fetch today. (For comparison, Kahlo’s “Survivor,” 1938, a small and decidedly less important oil-on-metal painting, sold at Christie’s New York in May 2010 for $1,178,500, more than 10 times its low estimate.) When asked if there was a Surrealist work that he coveted, Filipacchi replies serenely, “I don’t remember any particular artwork that eluded me.” A more recent Filipacchi acquisition, Magritte’s “Le chevalier du couchant,” 1926, a Giorgio de Chirico-influenced composition with a cloth-draped mannequin seeming to look over its headless counterpart to examine a painting of a barren landscape, was purchased at Sotheby’s New York in November 2011 for $4,114,500. The painting had been included in Magritte’s first solo show at Brusssels’s Galerie le Centaure in 1927 and appeared in the 1992-93 Magritte retrospective organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This sort of consummate cherry-picking suits a collector refining an already established collection.

Camu believes that the growing market interest in Surrealism can be attributed to its “presence in everyday media, marketing, and advertising,” as well as to the influx of emerging-market buyers in Asia, Russia, and South America. Surrealism has achieved a paradoxical state, its aesthetic so pervasive as to no longer be off-putting, while the best of the artworks retain something of their original power to cause unease.

“Art of the Surreal” generated £8.7 million ($12.7 million) at its Christie’s debut in 2001 and brought £37.2 million ($58.7 million) this past February. Sotheby’s London made its first foray into a specialized Surrealism auction a few months before Christie’s, launching a “Surrealism: Dreams and Imagery” sale in December 2000. The stand-alone theme recurred in 2002, ’04, ’05, and ’07, with Sotheby’s joining Christie’s in the month of February, but then was quietly dropped.

“We’ve always taken a slightly modest view,” explains Andrew Strauss, the Paris-based senior director for Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s who organized those sales. “If we have a sensible group of Surrealists, we’ll make a catalogue, but we never felt happy about just having this empty catalogue to fill once a year.” Strauss observes, “The reasons these results have gone up over the last 10 years are the lack of decent Impressionist and early 20th century masters and the globalization of the market, which has brought in new buyers and a younger generation who want fun, snappy, mysterious, and appealing wall power. Surrealism provides it all.”

As Strauss and others point out, few art movements have the historical credentials, visual pervasiveness, and cult-worthy personalities of Surrealism. “MTV and video have kept Surrealism alive,” notes the New York dealer Francis Naumann, a specialist in Dada and Surrealist art, “because whenever anyone has to do a video, they want to think out of the box, and thinking out of the box is almost the definition of Surrealism.”

The Surrealist movement arose in Paris during the decade after World War I, a period that saw an explosion of creative activity and competing styles throughout Europe. Built on Dada’s celebration of the irrational and first expressed in literature, Surrealism coalesced thanks to diligent organizing by the writer and Freudian ideologue André Breton, whose 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism” became the founding document for artists plumbing the notions of dream imagery and automatism, the exercise of pure creation without the intervention of reason. In 1925 Breton organized the first Surrealism exhibition in Paris. His essays on painting were collected in “Le Surréalisme et la peinture,” first published in 1928 and subsequently reissued with Breton’s updates until 1965, the year before his death.

Surrealism’s early success in the U.S. was due largely to the efforts of three individuals: the New York dealer Julien Levy; Alfred H.  Barr, Jr., the founding director of MoMA; and the Los Angeles dealer William Copley (later known as the artist CPLY). Levy, who opened his gallery in 1931, purchased Dalí’s iconic “Persistence of Memory,” 1931, for $250 from the Pierre Colle Gallery in Paris and displayed it in New York in his 1932 show “Surrealism: Paintings, Drawings and Photographs.” Barr (a Harvard classmate of Levy’s) staged the comprehensive and authoritative “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition in 1936.  (Among other works, MoMA had acquired “The Persistence of Memory” in 1934.)

Copley, who operated the short-lived Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills from 1948 to 1949, showed the work of Joseph Cornell, Ernst, Magritte, Roberto Matta, Man Ray, and Tanguy. He guaranteed all of the artists the sale of 10 percent of the works in each exhibition, selling nothing to others but assembling a major collection of his own. The canonical Man Ray “Observatory Time — The Lovers,” 1932-34, featuring the painted lips of Lee Miller floating in the sky, was acquired directly from the artist in 1948 and sold in the Copley estate sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York in 1979 to Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos for a long-held artist record of $750,000. Estée Lauder and Mick Jagger were underbidders, according to Strauss. The work remains in the Niarchos family’s possession. “No one could believe it could go that high,” recalls Naumann, who attended the historic sale. “People were gasping at the price.”

Along with Levy, Pierre Matisse and Alexander Iolas championed Surrealism well into the 1970s. Among Iolas’s clients were John and Dominique de Menil, whose Surrealist holdings are among the masterworks of the Menil Collection, in Houston. Today few galleries specialize exclusively in the movement, although it is indicative of the strong market that the New York gallery Blain|Di Donna opened in October 2011 with an exhibition of Magritte and followed up with a show devoted to André Masson that closed this past June.

The Helly Nahmad Gallery of New York and London has a deep inventory of Surrealist works, much of it cloistered in the Geneva Freeport (a tax-free haven where a number of high-value art collections are stored) and reserved as part of the Nahmad family collection, according to Helly Nahmad, who runs the New York gallery. “We have substantial holdings in Surrealists, absolutely,” affirms the dealer,“but they’re in the collection and can’t be touched.” Nevertheless, in 2006-07 the gallery staged an exhibition in London and New York of 40 paintings by Ernst, dating from 1926 to 1964 and priced between £270,000 and £2.7 million ($514,300 and $5.1 million), all of it sourced from the Nahmad inventory.

Nahmad holds a dim view of the current availability of truly significant Surrealist art. He says bluntly, “It’s very difficult for a major collector to buy Surrealist art today. In fact it’s virtually impossible, because the works are either in European, American, or Asian institutions or they belong to collectors who are so wealthy that they have no desire to sell. They’re virtually unfindable.”

Strauss, of Sotheby’s, is more optimistic. He believes it’s still possible to build an important Surrealist collection, noting, “If you look at the number of really great Surrealist paintings that have come to the market in the past five years — if you bought all of those, you’d have quite a collection of Surrealist work.”

There is another option if you aren’t a billionaire. “I have the best inventory in America of the more affordable, lower-priced things,” says Timothy Baum, the seasoned New York private dealer who fondly recalls the time in the mid-1960s when one could buy a good Magritte painting from the Iolas Gallery for $5,000. “I accommodate anybody who tells me they like Surrealism, from, say, $1,000 and up,” he adds. “But after the half-million-dollar mark, I pass the hat to some big shot.”

Unlike many other modern movements, Baum says, “Surrealism is multimedia, and I deal in everything from manuscripts and illustrated books to prints, drawings, collages, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ [a form of collaborative automatic drawing], objects, and paintings.” Baum points to the record-setting Dalí portrait of Eluard in the Sotheby’s London sale of February 2011 as the point when Surrealism became priced beyond the reach of most. “From that day on, it was all over. Anything comparable was going to follow suit.”

Baum suggests pursuing Surrealists who haven’t hit the stratospheric price range, such as Victor Brauner and Oscar Domínguez, as well as the undervalued women artists in the movement: Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Valentine Hugo, and Dorothea Tanning. Except for the French-born Hugo, all were featured in the recent exhibition “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (January-May 2012).

At the Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern evening sale in June, Carrington’s “Personajes de teatro,” 1941, a painting that depicts the spindly figures of a costumed man and a woman hovering beside the hides of a longhorn steer and a pinto, sold for £337,250 ($529,000), near the high end of its estimate of £250,000 to £350,000 ($392,000-549,000). That same month in London, Alison Jacques Gallery opened “Dorothea Tanning: Collages,” which included a 1945 collage incorporating three photographs taken by Julien Levy of a chess tournament at his gallery, with Tanning and her husband, Ernst, competing against a blindfolded chess master, priced at $25,000. “She’s an under-recognized great artist,” Jacques said while installing the Tanning show, “and it’s time for people to understand that.” By contrast, a postcard-size Magritte gouache on paper featured in Sotheby’s June 20 day sale, “La main heureuse,” 1952, depicting a diamond engagement ring encircling a grand piano, sold for a whopping £529,250 ($835,500).

Earlier in June at Art Basel, Surrealist fare was on offer. Galerie Applicat-Prazan of Paris devoted its stand to Masson, selling the hotly colored and mythology-inspired “Acteon,” 1943, to a prominent European collector for a sum in the region of its €580,000 ($727,000) asking price. A Surrealist discovery of sorts was also snatched up during the fair at David and Marcel Fleiss’s Galerie 1900-2000: An untitled canvas, circa 1933, by the rarely seen Jean Marembert that features two nude women, one reclining on a gnarled tree branch and looking up at an enormous eye, was bought by a collector for €13,500 ($17,000).

“In 50 years of dealing,” says Marcel Fleiss,“I’ve only had two of Marembert’s paintings, and that was one. Nobody knows where his paintings are. It’s a big mystery.” Fleiss affirms it is still possible to build a decent Surrealist collection — “by all means, as long as you don’t try to collect the Surrealists who are already expensive but concentrate on artists who are as important: Hans Bellmer, Brauner, Jacques Herold, Marcel Jean, Masson, Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann, Remedios Varo, and many others.” Asked how to determine which are worth pursuing, Fleiss suggests doing it by the book: “Go by the artists included in Breton’s 'Le Surréalisme et la peinture,' because he really knew who was great or not.”

This article appears in the September issue of Art+Auction magazine.