Measuring the Goya Market: The Last Old Master's Highs and Lows

Measuring the Goya Market: The Last Old Master's Highs and Lows
Francisco José de Goya, Al Toro y al Aire Darles Calle (Lluvia de Toros), etching, aquatint & drypoint on tissue-thin Japan paper, circa 1824 (detail). Sold May 5, 2005, for $6,900.
(Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries)

Over the course of his lengthy career, Francisco de Goya (1746– 1828) embraced styles ranging from Rococo takes on religious and allegorical themes to Neoclassical court portraiture and, later, to a kind of incipient Expressionism, which he developed following the onset of deafness, the result of a serious illness in his late forties. The Spanish artist is often referred to as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the modernists.

Despite his status as one of the most important and influential figures in art history, only six paintings by Goya have sold for more than $1 million at auction. The record for a Goya painting, £4.5 million ($7.1 million), was realized for the late oil-on-canvas Bullfight, Suerte de varas, 1824, at Sotheby’s London in December 1992, when it was bought by the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles. The fact that the auction record has been unbroken for nearly 20 years speaks volumes about the rarity of Goya’s paintings coming to the auction block. The Blouin Art Sales Index records only 65 fully attributed oil paintings offered at auction.


Compounding the market rarity of Goya paintings and drawings are Spain’s draconian export restrictions on older works of national significance as well as numerous authenticity debates. As a result, most of the Goya market consists of trade in prints, including rare, lifetime editions as well as numerous sets produced posthumously. More than 100 lots of Goya prints—some offered individually and others in sets—appear at auction annually worldwide, but the variation in price is enormous.

According to Tim Schmelcher, Christie’s head of the prints department in London, when it comes to Goya prints, supply is an issue only with the rarest lifetime trial and first-edition proofs. The bulk of Goya prints that appear on the market—roughly 90 percent—are from four sets of etchings created in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, among which are his most famous images. These sets include “Los Caprichos,” made in 1797–98 (80 aqua-tint prints), “La Tauromaquia,” created circa 1815 (33 aquatint prints), “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” 1810–20 (approximately 80 prints), and “Los Proverbios,” circa 1816 (18 prints).

Of these four series, the only prints that were made in Goya’s lifetime are the first editions from “Los Caprichos” (published in 1799) and “La Tauromaquia” (published in 1816), though multiple sets of later, posthumous editions were also made. Of the other two sets, there are only numerous posthumous editions. “Los Desastres de la Guerra” was first published in 1863 and “Los Proverbios” in 1884. Posthumous edition dates run as late as 1937, perhaps not coincidentally at the height of the Spanish Civil War, for all four sets. Other etchings and lithographs that Goya created, distinct from these sets, are rarely seen on the market.

The market for Goya prints is “quite complicated,” says Severine Nackers, head of the prints department at Sotheby’s London. “There are huge gaps in price.” Among the highest prices ever achieved for Goya prints at auction was the SF448,500 ($360,000) paid for a first edition of “Los Caprichos,” which sold at Kornfeld in Bern, Switzerland, in June 2007. Yet last month in London, Sotheby’s offered two sets of “Los Caprichos” that were expected to sell for much less, a third-edition set estimated at £10,000 to £15,000 ($16– 24,000) and a fifth edition (est. £8,000–12,000; $13–19,000). Results were not available at press time.

The record for a full set of 33 prints from “La Tauromaquia,” was for a first edition that sold at Christie’s London in December 2007, for £168,500 ($346,700). By comparison, in 2003 Christie’s sold a second-edition set for a much lower $41,825.

The best “Los Caprichos” prints are early impressions from the first edition that have a dark, coffee-brown coloring, which is what the artist wanted, says Petra Rumbler, cofounder of the leading Frankfurt Old Master print dealer Helmut H. Rumbler. “And only four or five sets are in top condition. These are now worth between $400,000 and $600,000,” she says.

The difference between lifetime ?impressions and later prints made with the same plates is like “night and day,” says Todd Weyman, vice president of Swann Galleries, in New York. Goya first printed “Los Caprichos,” many of the compositions of which criticized government and religious authority, in 1799. Thereafter, fearing the wrath of Spain’s leaders, he stopped making prints. The second edition of “Los Caprichos” (as well as “La Tauromaquia”) was not made until around 1855, after successive changes in the Spanish government led to wider acceptance of dissent. From that time on and “well into the 1900s,” says Weyman, seemingly every time there was an occasion deemed important enough in Spain—say, for an aristocrat’s wedding—“some politician would make a point of dragging the plates out of the Prado and print some memorabilia edition. That is a lot of what you see.”

He says Swann typically handles posthumous Goya prints in sets, while lifetime impressions of sought-after images such as El sueño de la razón produce monstruos in “Los Caprichos” can easily be sold when offered individually because demand is robust.

Fine early impressions of these images can fetch up to £10,000 ($16,000) each, says Christie’s Schmelcher. Single prints of lesser-known images from first editions are among the most undervalued areas of the market, he says, and can sell for £2,000 to £3,000 ($3,100– 4,700) each. Meanwhile, single prints from the last editions can sell for as little as £200 each ($315).

The plates wear out and the quality of the impression diminishes as successive editions of etchings are made, notes R. Stanley Johnson, president of R.S. Johnson Fine Art in Chicago. In his own collection Johnson has several of Goya’s first etchings, from 1777–79, part of a set of 16 that the artist made after paintings by Velázquez. These were “intended to disseminate the older master’s works,” he says, adding that though these etchings are rare, they are “not very expensive,” about $10,000 to $15,000 each, because they are “generally overlooked by the public and museum curators.”

Goya enjoyed the favor of the Spanish monarchy—he became principal painter to King Charles IV in 1799 and survived the tumultuous changes in power that ensued, through the Napoleonic Wars and the restoration of the monarchy. In his printmaking, however, he exposed Spain’s then-rampant vice and corruption as well as the brutal realities of war. “Los Caprichos” depicts prostitutes, superstitious peasants, and dishonest rulers. “It was pretty much against the political climate of the time,” says Nackers. “There is a lot of sarcasm and satire in the prints.”

Nackers says that images from “Los Desastres de la Guerra”—even good-quality early impressions—are generally not as expensive or sought-after as those from “La Tauromaquia” because they tell “a terrible story.” Of the posthumously published “Los Desastres de la Guerra” and “Los Proverbios” editions, it is again the first editions with the freshest impressions that command the highest prices. Rumbler paid a record £78,000 ($136,000) for a complete first-edition set of “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” from 1862, at Christie’s London in March 2006.

New York print dealer Harris Schrank, who has been buying for 40 years, says this is not a speculator’s market. Prices go up gradually, he says, and are not high. “A Tauromaquia lifetime set is quite a bargain when you consider you have 33 superb etchings for the price of one third-rate Warhol.” Like Rumbler, he will exhibit Goya prints at the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) fair in New York in November.

A less well-known category of Goya prints is the lithographs he made at the end of his life, which are highly sought-after, though condition concerns have sometimes marred the sales. A set of the four “Bulls of Bordeaux” lithographs at Christie’s London in February 2009 was estimated at £200,000 to £300,000 ($290–435,000) but went unsold. However, at Doyle New York the following year, another set was sold for $364,000. Cynthia Klein, Doyle’s vice president and director of the prints department, says that set was in “generally good condition.”

Goya drawings are just as rare as his paintings, with only 42 fully attributed works appearing in the Blouin Art Sales Index database. In the drawings market, the highest prices have been realized at auction, says Benjamin Peronnet, Christie’s international head of Old Master drawings. The first private-album drawing to surpass £1 mil- lion was El toro mariposa, a black crayon drawing identified as a late work from volume G (1824–28), which was bought at Christie’s London in December 2006 by the Prado Museum for £1.5 million ($2.9 million).

If you have your heart set on a Goya painting, you may want to move to Madrid or Barcelona first. The main area of activity for Goya paintings, says James Macdonald, head of Old Master private-treaty sales at Sotheby’s, is in the private market within Spain, where a small group of wealthy Spaniards and museums with state support buy unexportable works.

Caylus gallery in Madrid is a major player. In 2000 it sold the full-length portrait of the Condessa de Chinchón, 1800, for €24 million (approximately $22 million) to the Prado. That price has been equalled only once, in 2003, when Maja y Celestina, 1824–25, was sold to Spain’s wealthiest woman, Alicia Koplowitz, also reportedly for €24 million (about $27 million).

Even when Goya paintings can be sold outside Spain, authenticity disputes can be a factor. The latest “Goya” painting discovery, Lot and His Daughters, was slatedto be sold by Koller Auctions in Switzerland in September as Art+Auction went to press. With several experts having expressed doubts over the attribution to Goya, the painting was promoted as an early work made when the artist was designing tapestries for the Spanish court and bore an estimate of SF600,000 to SF800,000 ($620–826,000).

This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Art+Auction.