The Top Ten of the 1920s



Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week: the top ten sales of works from the 1920s.

The Top Ten of the 1920s
Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Joan MIRO $32 938 500 Peinture (Étoile Bleue) (1927) 19/06/2012 (Sotheby’s LONDON)
2 Piet MONDRIAAN $24 627 840 Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir (1922) 23/02/2009 (Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé PARIS)
3 Constantin BRANCUSI $24 500 000 Oiseau dans l’espace (1922-1923) 04/05/2005 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
4 Joan MIRO $23 683 500 Painting Poem (Le corps de ma brune puisque je l’aime comme ma chatte habillée en vert salade comme de la grêle c’est pareil) (1925) 07/02/2012 (Christie’s LONDON)
5 Salvador DALI $19 292 400 Portrait de Paul Eluard (1929) 10/02/2011 (Sotheby’s LONDON)
6 Edward HOPPER $17 000 000 Blackwell’s Island (1928) 23/05/2013 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
7 Henri MATISSE $16 500 000 «Nu couché dos» (1927) 03/05/2006 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)
8 Pablo PICASSO $16 500 000 Tête et main de femme (1921) 09/05/2007 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
9 Pablo PICASSO $15 633 440 Mère et enfant (1921) 15/11/1989 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)
10 Henri MATISSE $15 578 850 Odalisque jouant aux dames (1928) 22/06/2010 (Sotheby’s LONDON)


In the wake of the First World War, a breath of freedom swept across Paris. From Montmartre to Montparnasse, the Roaring Twenties ignited a flame in the people and artists of this great city. With the triumph of art déco and the emergence of Surrealism (founded in 1924), Paris took its place as the capital of culture.
This unprecedented and intense burst of cultural activity led to the creation of most of the works that are now so hotly sought-after at auction. Miro, Matisse and Picasso all take up two places in this Top 10, alongside Mondrian, Brancusi, Dali and Edward Hopper. The latter was the only artist who was not part of the Parisian rivalry of the Twenties.

Three Surrealist works

Captivated by the break with artistic tradition and new Surrealist techniques, Joan MIRO became one of the leading lights of the movement after signing the manifesto in 1924. In his struggle against realism and convention, Miro outlines shapes, works on the lyrical accents of a living line, and draws his subject matter from the world of dreams and the unconscious. Two of his paintings have found their way into our ranking. The first is a rarely-seen work with the surreal title Painting Poem (Le corps de ma brune puisque je l’aime comme ma chatte habillée en vert salade comme de la grêle c’est pareil). Painted in 1925, the year of his first exhibition at the Pierre Loeb gallery in Paris, the work sold for £15 million or $23.68 million on 7 February 2012 at Christie’s, making it the 20th-highest sale of a painting in the West in 2012. It was a record for Miro until June of the same year, when another work scaled new heights. Sotheby’s sold l’Étoile bleue, a 1927 work with an estimate of £15-£20 million which finally sold for £21 million (close to $33 million). This is a new record at auction for a Surrealist work and the 11th-highest sale in 2012 for a painting sold in the West. The price of this Etoile bleue, which sold for the equivalent of $13.4 million in Paris in 2007 (Aguttes), soared by +145% in just five years. Considered to be a key Surrealist work, the eminent art critic Rosalind Krauss described l’Etoile bleue as a true synthesis of the work of Miro because “for once, we find human figures and cosmic signs depicted together in a single image”. Peinture (Étoile bleue) is to Miro what The Scream is to Edvard Munch. It forms the core of a body of work for which a few million dollars are neither here nor there for the most moneyed collectors on the planet.

On Miro’s recommendation, Salvador DALI began to take an interest in Surrealism and moved to Paris.His Portrait of Paul Eluard gives him 5th place in our ranking. This work was painted in 1929, the same year that he joined the Surrealist movement and met his future muse, Gala Eluard, the wife of his newfound friend. Dali supposedly painted this portrait at the moment when he fell in love with Gala. The head-and-shoulders portrait of the Surrealist poet floats above a desert landscape infested with multiple dream-like elements that are typical of his paranoid and critical way of working. This small oil on cardboard measuring 33 x 25 cm sold for the equivalent of $19.3 million in 2011 (more than doubling its high estimate), compared to just $1.7 million when it was sold in 1989 (Christie’s New York on 14 November 1989). In turn, Dali inspired Paul Eluard to write a poem entitled “Donner à voir”.

These top sales for Miro and Dali, all three very recent (between 2011 and 2012), reflect the frenetic competition to the tune of millions of dollars as collectors attempt to snap up the historic pieces that are the safe bets of modern art. The same is true of Brancusi, Matisse and Picasso.

Henri MATISSE‘s Odalisques are particularly in demand. Using models, he painted a series on this theme in Nice between 1917 and 1930. They depict women in seductive poses, inspired by the artist’s many visits to the Orient. The women’s bodies and the interplay of motifs are both equally important in creating a work that represents a quest for beauty and calmness. Works from this period rarely appear at auction, hence the two sales in excess of $15 million. During the same period, Picasso was painting his women from memory, rather than from models like his friend Matisse. The two Picassos in the Top 10 are calm, intimate works that reflect the artist’s short-lived return to Classicism and a more figurative style after his Cubist period. After 1925, Picasso would begin exploring Surrealism through convulsive visions depicting extremely distorted female bodies.

Blackwell’s Island, sold for $17 million in May 2013, is the third sale of works by Hopper. It was posted a few months before his record of $36 million for a 1930s piece. Last year, the artist once again set a new record. As for Piet MONDRIAAN, he takes second place in our ranking with a neo-plastic composition which sold for $24.6 million, double its high estimate, though this sale was in the very particular context of the break-up of the Pierre Bergé collection at the Grand Palais de Paris in 2009. It was also on the occasion of this historic sale that Christie’s produced a new record for Constantin BRANCUSI to the tune of $33.35 million (Madame L.R.). Brancusi is the creator of the only sculpture in this Top 10. It is one of his most famous, if not the most iconic, of his works: L’Oiseau dans l’espace, sold for double its high estimate in 2005.In total, he produced 16 versions of this Oiseau (7 in marble and 9 in bronze) synthesised in a surge of momentum that condenses the aesthetic of speed that is so dear to modern artists of this period.