For all the talk about a softening market or market correction, the Fall sales in New York have perhaps proven to be exactly what the secondary art market needed, not a whiz-bang return to the Covid-era flipping of young, new chip artists, but rather a consistent showing by collectors looking for blue-chip beauty. No lot supports that theory better than Agnes Martin’s Grey Stone II (1961).
Despite the Emily Fisher Landau sale at Sotheby’s being anchored by Pablo Picasso’s 1932 painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Femme à la montre, it was Martin who people were talking about over champagne and white wine both before and after the sale. Grey Stone II had the night’s deepest bidding and eventually hammered at $16 million, more than double its low estimate. With buyers fees, the final price was $18.7 million. That price earned Grey Stone II the title of the most expensive work by Martin to ever sell at auction, a title previously held by Untitled #44, which also sold at Sotheby’s , for $17.7 million last fall during the Macklowe sale.
Keen observers of Martin’s market won’t be surprised by the fact that her work is reaching such heights. Martin is part of a group of historically important artists, including Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, all of whom, not coincidentally, are women who have not been as monetarily appreciated as their male counterparts. Grey Stone II was arguably the perfect work for this season, which saw a return to the importance of provenance, rarity, and historical importance.
“That painting, Graystone II , was a unicorn,” David Galperin, a senior vice president, head of contemporary art, and co-head of marquee sales at Sotheby’s told ARTnews. “It’s the painting that the market has been waiting on for a long, long time.” According to Galperin, Greystone II is one of the earliest examples of Martin “homing in on her archetypal minimal grid compositions” and only one of three large scale works on which Martin used gold leaf. The other two are in museum collections at MoMA and SFMOMA.
The work was cleverly priced. “The specialists at Sotheby’s saw a great amount of interest in the work,” said Masha Golovina, the executive vice president of acquisitions at the fractional art startup Masterworks. “Interest is frequently a function of the estimates. When a historic work could possibly be bought for between $6 million and $8 million dollars that sends a very specific message to the market people who might consider bidding.”
Recent record-breaking works by Martin that have come up for auction have, in fact, all carried roughly the same estimate dating back to May 2016 when, at Christie’s postwar and contemporary evening sale, Orange Grove (1965) sold for $10.7 million (with fees) against an estimate of $6.5 million to $8.5 million. During the Macklowe sale in 2021 and this month’s Fisher Landau sale, the estimates for Agnes Martin paintings that went on to break her auction record were less than those at an evening sale nearly seven years ago.
“What we are seeing is the art world asking why artists like Martin, and Mitchell, and Krasner have markets that are significantly lower than their male counterparts,” Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery told ARTnews. Pace is the only gallery to have ever represented the artist and Marc Glimcher’s father, Pace founder Arne Glimcher, published what some consider the seminal text of Martin’s life and works, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances in 2012, eight years after her death at 92.
“Agnes made about 450 paintings in her lifetime. Or rather, there survive about 450 paintings. When she discovered the grid, in 1960, she destroyed everything she’d made before that point, and she’d been working since the 1930s,” Glimcher said. There are only 60 such grids that survive, of which, according to Glimcher, only five could possibly come to market over the next decade.
Apart from their rarity and beauty, Martin’s work holds a particular place in the art world, not only for collectors but also for historians and artists: For many she stands as an inspirational character, who like Mark Rothko, represents a purity of artistic mission and eschewed the commercial and financial trappings of the market.
Glimcher described the quickening of Martin’s market as “a moment that has been in the making for a while” and analogous to Rothko’s market in the early aughts. In the 1990s, acquiring a Rothko at auction would cost between $1 million and $3 million. Over the course of five or so years, that price rose steadily between $3 million to $6 million.
“Then there was this auction of Tom Hill’s blue and yellow Rothko,” said Glimcher, referring to Rothko’s 1954 painting No. 6 (Yellow, White, Blue over Yellow on Gray) , which sold for $17.36 million at Sotheby’s in 2004 and is now owned by the collector Tom Hill. “It was estimated for between six and eight million and sold for 17, and everybody thought, ‘Oh my God! The world’s gone insane! We all sat in the auction floor thinking everyone’s lost their minds. Now you can’t get a work on paper for $17 million.”
The steady increase in Rothko’s market is the same logarithmic change that Glimcher sees happening in Martin’s market. The fact that Martin’s work is so rare—Glimcher estimates about half of her paintings are held by institutions and says there was nothing left in the estate when she passed—means that with each year the prices at auction will likely rise.
“The real issue is that the work is finite, as in Martin always had an audience but the work was never that valuable, so it was never traded,” said Anthony Meier, the San Francisco-based art dealer and president of the Art Dealers Association of America. “When compared to her male counterparts of that vintage, the price achieved at Sotheby’s, just like Christie’s in 2016, is absolutely cheap.”
Meier said the result at the Fisher Landau sale was simple to qualify: beauty and quality rule. “Yes, the art market is down, yes, the world is in a precarious place. But Grey Stone II was a glorious thing that’s not coming around again. For an all-time great artist? It was a bargain. Good luck finding another one.”