ARTIST DOSSIER: How Tracey Emin Lured Buyers From Kate Moss to Charles Saatchi

Tracey Emin's "My Bed," 1998
(© Tracey Emin, courtesy Saatchi Gallery, London)

Emin first gained notoriety nearly three decades ago as a member of the YBAs (Young British Artists), with deeply personal and confessional works that chronicled her life, thoughts, joys, and sorrows, often obscured by an apparently reckless and hedonistic lifestyle. Over the years, as her steady, prolific output attracted high-profile collectors, prestigious museum and gallery shows, and an international audience, her public image gradually morphed from that of an art world wild child to a pillar of its establishment. This perception was cemented by her election to the Royal Academy in 2007, followed by her appointment there as a professor — one of only two women in the institution’s history ever to achieve this distinction. (The other is Fiona Rae.)

Today Emin ranks among the best-known British artists. Her position within the international art market, though, seems less settled. Francis Outred, the Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary art in Europe, concedes that Emin’s auction prices do not match her fame: The record for a non-charity sale is £157,250 ($250,000), achieved at Christie’s London in February 2010 for one of her appliqué blankets, It’s the Way We Think, 2004. Outred describes her market as a peculiarly British phenomenon, with a limited auction market that does not match the extent of public interest. More to the point, he says, “buyers of her best works are committed collectors and do not want to sell,” thereby limiting the supply.

Representatives at Emin’s primary galleries — White Cube in London and Lehmann Maupin in New York — concur, saying that her more substantial exhibited works all sell, yet few reappear on the secondary market. The galleries placed work from her exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale at prices from £12,000 to £350,000 ($24,000 to $700,000), including some substantial sculptures. None of the large-scale works have reappeared at auction to date.

“Collectors want to keep her sculptures; they don’t want to sell,” says gallerist David Maupin, who will give over both of his New York gallery spaces to Emin’s work in May. “In my view, she is a visual poet, and one of the most important living artists. Although her work sells well, hers is not a speculator’s market.”

The roster of museum and private collections holding her work is extensive, the private list peppered with celebrities — Orlando Bloom and Kate Moss — and prominent collectors — Anita Zabludowicz, Victor Pinchuk, Kent Logan, the Rubell Family — and notables who straddle both worlds — Elton John, George Michael, and Kenny Goss, who may well possess the greatest number of her works.

According to Daniela Gareh, director of sales at White Cube, American collectors were the first to snap up Emin’s major works in the early 1990s. But the collector who probably did more than anyone else to put her on the map is Charles Saatchi.

For his legendary “Sensation” exhibition in 1997, he acquired Emin’s tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995, a small camping shelter embroidered with the names of everyone she had ever slept with, including her mother at birth. Private dealer Eric Frank originally bought the tent from her for £12,000 ($19,000) and sold it to Saatchi for £40,000 ($64,000). Saatchi was rumored to have turned down an offer of £300,000 ($540,000) before it was destroyed in a catastrophic 2004 Momart storage fire.

Saatchi’s other major acquisition was My Bed, 1998, which he bought for £150,000 ($248,000) from Lehmann Maupin’s “Every Part of Me’s Bleeding,” the exhibition that won the artist a nomination for the 1999 Turner Prize. The installation consists of her actual bed — unmade and with soiled sheets — on a dirty rug littered with empty vodka bottles, cigarette butts, condoms, and other detritus. Saatchi still owns the work, and market insiders believe it is so iconic that it would now fetch in excess of $1.5 million.

Saatchi also paid the top auction price for a group of Emin’s paintings when he acquired Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, 1996, at Christie’s London in February 2001 for £108,250 ($157,000), outbidding the Tate Gallery and more than doubling a high estimate of £40,000 ($58,000). The paintings were the product of a performance by Emin in Sweden, during which she sought to overcome anxieties going back to her student days, when she destroyed all her paintings.

Born in 1963 in Croyden, London, Emin was raised in poverty in the seaside town of Margate after her father left her mother. Emin’s teenage years saw a catalogue of misfortune, including rape, pregnancies, and abortions, which are all intimately documented in her work. It was halfway through a two-year program at the Royal College of Art in 1989 that she demolished her paintings. Her longtime friend and fellow artist, Sarah Lucas, encouraged Emin to pursue her art through whatever methods inspired or motivated her. The two opened a shop selling art and objects in London in 1993. The same year she was spotted by gallerist Jay Jopling, who gave her a solo show cheekily titled “My Major Retrospective” at his then new White Cube gallery. It consisted mostly of memorabilia and a large embroidered blanket.

Following the debut at White Cube, which has shown her regularly since, came a breakthrough exhibition at the South London Gallery in 1997, the same year as Saatchi’s “Sensation” showcase at the Royal Academy. In the United States, Emin’s first showing was by White Cube at the Gramercy International Art fair (the forerunner of the Armory Show), in 1994. She was included the following year in Richard Flood’s “Brilliant!” exhibition of YBAs at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and Lehmann Maupin began to represent her in 1997.

Emin’s work embraces a wide variety of media — from letters and memorabilia to photographs, drawings (her most prolific format), mono- and editioned prints, gouaches (mostly of her own body), paintings, videos, films, neon sculptures, textiles, and sculptures — with writing and storytelling the common thread.

Such a diverse body of work takes time to study and understand, which accounts in part for Emin’s lower prices compared with other notable YBAs, according to Alexander Branczik, senior director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s London. He also notes that bidding for her work comes mostly from the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, and to a lesser extent, the United States. “We haven’t had interest from South America or Asia yet, though that may change,” he says, since White Cube launched in Hong Kong recently and Lehmann Maupin will open there this spring.

Works on paper, mainly depicting the artist herself, have appeared at auction since 1997 and garnered up to £46,850 ($75,000), the sale price for the 2011 gouache Deep Blue III, at Christie’s London this past June. The highest price for a single photograph is £32,450 ($51,800), paid at Phillips de Pury & Company in London in February 2011 for I’ve Got It All, 2000, from an edition of six, in which the artist clutches a pile of money to her crotch.

Emin’s most commonly auctioned sculptural works are phrases in her own handwriting set in neon, usually issued in editions of three, with two artist’s proofs. Her first was The Tracey Emin Museum, 1995, which was made to hang outside the self-styled Tracey Emin Museum in Waterloo Road, London, where she traded her own work from 1995 to 1998. The artist still owns this unique work. An early example of her editioned neons is Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Cover My Body in Love, 1997; it was shown at White Cube in April 1997, when the edition sold out at £4,750 ($6,800) each. A piece from this edition later sold at Christie’s London in February 2003 for £19,120 ($31,000). Another early neon, Be Faithful to Your Dreams, 1998, went for £43,250 ($70,000) this past October at Phillips in London.

The record for a neon, and the second highest auction price for the artist, was set at Sotheby’s New York during the charity Red Sale in February 2008, when the heart-shaped I Promise to Love You, 2007, sold for $220,000. The top non-charity price for a neon is the £85,250 ($133,000) achieved at Phillips in February 2010 for another example of I Promise to Love You, from the same edition. On the primary market her neon works are currently priced between £55,000 and £100,000 ($87,000–160,000), according to Gareh.

Currently the most sought-after works, Gareh says, are Emin’s appliqué blankets or quilts, especially those that measure more than six feet square, with early examples commanding prices close to $1 million in private sales. (The artist used to make them herself, but now employs assistants.) Emin exhibited her first blanket, Hotel International — a reference to a hotel her father owned — at White Cube in 1993. It is currently in the private collection of Lehmann Maupin co-owner Rachel Lehmann and her husband, Jean-Pierre.

In 1999 Lehmann Maupin was selling Emin’s blankets for between $20,000 and $30,000. Collector Kent Logan bought one, Psycho Slut, 1999, and donated it to sfmoma. Another, Mad Tracey from Margate, 1997, is in the Goetz Collection, in Munich, while Damien Hirst’s Murderme collection holds later examples. By April 2001, White Cube in London was selling them for between £60,000 and £70,000 ($84,000 and $98,000) each. At that time, she was making only two or three a year.

The $250,000 price paid nearly three years ago for It’s the Way We Think, is both the record for a blanket and the artist’s record at a non-charity auction. (The overall record for Emin, who donates a considerable amount to charitable events, is the £800,000 [$1.5 million] exchanged at a 2007 Elton John AIDS Foundation sale for the appliqué blanket Star Trek Voyager, 2007. However this price is not representative of the primary or secondary market prices typically seen for these works.) Emin stopped making appliqué blankets in 2009, according to David Maupin, but she continues to make stitched, figurative embroideries on silk. Gareh says they retail for between £125,000 and £175,000 ($199,000 and $280,000).

She has also periodically made large sculptures — huts, towers, helter-skelters — from reclaimed wood, the likes of which were first shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale and originally sold for prices up to £350,000 ($560,000). They have risen significantly since, though none has appeared at auction.

Emin’s career entered a new stage last month when White Cube debuted its São Paulo gallery with an exhibition devoted to her work. The gallery selected Emin for the event from its impressive roster because “she is a world-class artist with a growing reputation who has never shown in Brazil and who is generating increasing international interest,” says Tim Marlowe, White Cube’s director of exhibitions. Further broadening her audience is a museum show on view through February 21 at MALBA (Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires), in Argentina. Her first major solo museum exhibition in the U.S. is planned at MOCA North Miami in December 2013.

Museum director Bonnie Clearwater is curating that show; she was also the first curator at an American museum to buy a work by Emin: in 1997 she purchased one of Emin’s early film works, Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, from Lehmann Maupin for MOCA North Miami. The film recounts how Emin entered a dance competition in her hometown but was jeered by a crowd of boys with whom she had slept; they chanted “slag, slag, slag.” The film ends with her dancing jubilantly in her own studio — a celebration of her success as an artist.

Clearwater believes she is important because, like Rothko, “she shows how apt emotion is to art. She did not enjoy art school because they did not recognize emotion in art unless it was cynical or ironic.” Clearwater places her in the traditions of both medieval religious art (but in a secular vein) and the picaresque novel exemplified by Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century Moll Flanders, a racy story concerning a social outcast who navigates high society by means of her wits. Emin “has a clear voice. You can’t confuse her with anyone else,” says Clearwater.

As she continues to make new work, Emin admits that she feels a certain distance from the often shocking pieces that marked her entry into the limelight nearly 30 years ago. In a BBC interview earlier this year, Emin described the experience of having to reinstall My Bed several times for a traveling retrospective. “Every time, I had to take a deep breath because it was like really throwing myself back into the past, into a place I would never ever be now. I’d never have a bed like that. I can’t even believe I lived like that,” she says. Her memory continues to serve her art, she adds, but “I don’t want to be a screaming adolescent girl when I’m nearly 50.”  

To see images of Emin's works and their auction prices, click on the slideshow. 

This article was published in the January issue of Art+Auction.