Top French artists sold in the United States


In today’s Top ranking (every other Friday) Artprice looks at the top-selling Contemporary French artists on the other side of the Atlantic.


Art history tells us that France was the primary geographical locus for what we now classify as ‘Modern’ and ‘Avant-garde’ art. It also tells us that this incredibly creative period lasted roughly from the latter decades of the 19th century until World War II. Even today, works by the artists from this period fetch the highest prices on the international market, especially in major American auction rooms. The exceptional results at New York’s recent prestige May sales have once again demonstrated the absolute centrality and value supremacy of works by Impressionist and Modern artists who lived and worked in France when the country was considered the most free and creative nation in the world. The major results hammered last week confirm the continuity of this legend: $157 million for a Reclining Nude by Amedeo Modigliani; $115 million for Picasso’s Girl with basket of flowers… and new auction records for other grand masters of Modernism like Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Although WWII seems to have curtailed France’s international magnetism and attractiveness, it remains – no less than any other country – an inexhaustible source of talent and creativity, generating numerous highly original and extraordinary artists. However, the evidence clearly shows that these artists struggle to gain recognition outside their national borders, and particularly on the American auction market.

Rank Artist Best Hammer Price in 2017 ($) Global result 2017 Artworks Sold
1 Laurence JENKELL (1965) 337 500 425000 2
2 MR BRAINWASH (1966) 97 500 193445 27
3 INVADER (1969) 53 125 152200 6
4 Bernard FRIZE (1954) 47 500 119610 4
5 Cyprien GAILLARD (1980) 75 000 95000 2
6 André DUBREUIL (1951) 52 500 85000 3
7 Philippe PASQUA (1965) 35 000 35000 1
8 Vicky COLOMBET (1953) 31 250 34275 2
9 Valérie BELIN (1964) 22 500 22500 1
10 Sophie CALLE (1953) 16 250 16250 1
copyright © 2018


A handful of living French artists manage to sell their works on the American secondary market; these include Daniel Buren, Pierre Soulages and Bernar Venet who are all collected at very substantial price levels in both France and the United States. But what about the subsequent generation, i.e. artists born after 1950?

Which Contemporary French artists sell in the US?

This week’s ranking plots the 10 best results obtained for Contemporary French artists in the USA during 2017. However, considering the notoriety (or lack thereof) of the artists listed, the ranking is somewhat surprising. The neo-pop work of Laurence Jenkell managed to seduce American collectors above the $300,000 threshold. His giant aluminum candy Polimiroir (8 copies) became a ‘must-have’ object during a session organized at Sotheby’s last November, so his gleaming sculpture fetched far more than works by artists with well-established institutional reputations like Xavier Veilhan (represented France at the last Venice Biennale), Cyprien Gaillard (awarded the Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2010) and Sophie CALLE, whose artistic and existential experiments are widely appreciated.

However, these 2017 results reflect only the tip of the iceberg. We need a much loçnger timeframe to appreciate the market reality of the major Contemporary French artists. If we look at Sophie Calle over ten years (2008 – 2018) we see that half of her auction turnover was generated in the United States. Her work is therefore much appreciated in the USA, and her 2011 auction record of $218,500 (The Sleepers (Les dormeurs)) was hammered at Christie’s in New York.

So this week’s ranking reveals not so much the low prices of works by French artists on the US market (we already know there is a major price differential between the respective stars Contemporary American art and Contemporary French art), but rather the absence of a constant flow of highly quality works by French artists in American auction houses.

In short… it is difficult to stimulate demand for works that do not reach the auction podium. It would appear that French art dealers are generally less willing to play the auction game “à l’américaine”. Americans clearly have a much more uninhibited approach to the relationship between art and money.