Star artist’s market implodes after collectors ‘paid too much’

Font Size

HIS brooding self-portraits and glittering abstractions used to be the must-have trophies for billionaires, celebrities and investors — from Francois Pinault to Leonardo DiCaprio.

These days, Rudolf Stingel’s works are a hard sell. JN Contemporary Art, an entity affiliated with the Nahmad art dynasty, sued Phillips auction house for reneging on an agreement to include its painting by the Italian artist in a “major” auction, after guaranteeing it for $5 million.

It’s a stark reversal for one of the most commercially successful and sought-after living artists, whose new paintings have sold for about $3 million. At its peak in 2017, Stingel’s works totaled $44.2 million at auction, according to One of them, consigned by Pinault, fetched a record $10.6 million. Speculative trading on the secondary market was rampant. But the activity slowed in the past two years, with more lots failing to find buyers. There isn’t a single Stingel at Sotheby’s big contemporary auctions this week — or at Christie’s next month.

“It’s dead,” Jeremy Larner, a New York art dealer, said of the Stingel market. “Everyone wants out of their Stingels right now, but they can’t. They paid too much.”

A key player in the Stingel market was Inigo Philbrick, an art dealer arrested in June on US charges that he defrauded victims out of more than $20 million to finance his business. From 2016 to 2019, Philbrick sold the same works to different investors, sometimes using them as collateral on loans while hiding others’ ownership interests, according to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. Stingel’s paintings, including his portrait of Pablo Picasso, are among the contested items.

Stingel is known for probing processes and styles, which range from photo-realism to abstract. He has turned to carpet, aluminum, and Styrofoam as his surfaces, left shoe marks on canvases and painted animals and saints. His works gained critical and commercial acclaim after the Whitney Museum retrospective in 2007. In 2013, he staged a sprawling show at Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Investors took note — and prices took off.

“It became too quickly a megabucks market for trophy-hunting collectors,” said Benjamin Godsill, an art adviser. “The prices outstripped people’s ability to buy the work. And that sucked a lot of oxygen out of the market.”

Stingel’s Untitled (2009), at the center of the JN Contemporary Art complaint, depicts a snowy mountain range. Works from this series were exhibited at Gagosian gallery in 2014, selling for about $3 million each. Four years later, one of them doubled in price at Sotheby’s.

JN Contemporary Art consigned its landscape to Phillips last year to be offered in a “major spring 2020 evening auction,” according to the June 9 complaint in Manhattan federal court. The auction house agreed to give the consignor a $5-million guarantee for the 11-by-15-foot canvas, according to court documents.

But like the rest of the art world, Phillips was in pandemic lockdown and had to postpone its major auctions in New York. In early June, the company notified Joseph Nahmad, the manager of JN Contemporary Art, that it was terminating the contract because of “circumstances beyond our or your reasonable control,” according to the complaint.

Phillips “is making a commercial decision to illegally terminate a contract based on its belief that the current commercial market for works of art by Rudolf Stingel is not strong,” JN Contemporary Art said in court papers. “Defendant is disingenuously using COVID-19 as a false pretext for an unlawful termination.”

Nahmad and Phillips declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for Gagosian gallery, which represents Stingel, had no immediate comment.

The lull in the Stingel market may be temporary.

“I feel tremendously bullish about Rudolf Stingel for a long term if you can secure it for a decent price,” Godsill said.

As for those who bought at the peak, “they might have paid tomorrow’s price today,” he said, “but in 20 years it will look like a very perceptive trade.” — Bloomberg