How to buy a… René Magritte

A la Rencontre du Plaisir (1962), which will be sold at Christie's this month Courtesy of Christies

Magritte is “the most areligious, ahistorical, apolitical of almost any artist. His work is easy to get into, and its very seductive.” So says the international director and co-head of Impressionist and Modern art at Christies, Olivier Camu, of the global appeal of the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967). Such factors, combined with his prolific output—he made over 1,000 paintings, gouaches, drawings and sculptures—and repeated tropes, such as the apple and bowler hat, are art market catnip.

Born in Lessines in Belgium, his childhood was marred by the suicide of his mother, perhaps contributing to the dark thread that runs through his dreamlike scenes. He studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels during the First World War, exploring Cubism then Surrealism. A fertile stint in Paris in the heady 1920s followed before he moved back to Belgium, becoming a leading light of the Belgian Surrealist movement.

In 1930, Magritte set up an advertising agency, Studio Dongo, with his brother, and his eye for commercial imagery shows. As Thomas Boyd-Bowman, a director of Sothebys Impressionist and Modern art department, says: “Magritte was the proto-contemporary artist, very aware of his own image.” Indeed, it is almost impossible to divorce Magritte from his persona, but he is more than just bowler hats and easy-on-the-eye aesthetics, says Camu: “He was a very proud intellectual artist, always trying to solve, as he put it, the problem of reality.”

Magritte was commercially success­ful in his lifetime, with the help of a few key dealers. In 2018, Luxembourg and Dayan held an exhibition focused on the often-overlooked work Magritte did in Paris between 1927 and 1930—a prolific period as Magritte “was living with a community of artists who included Joan Miró and Jean Arp and was being paid a monthly stipend by Galerie LEpoque,” Alma Luxembourg says. Also important was Magrittes Word vs Image exhibition with Sidney Janis in New York in 1954. “That was important for a lot of American artists—people like Jasper Johns went to see it.” Then there was Alexandre Iolas, the flamboyant Greek art dealer who exported Magritte to the US, selling him to many collectors, most notably John and Dominique de Menil, the founders of the Menil Collection in Houston.

The sale of the contents of Magritte's studio accounts for a spike of works sold in 1987 Graph by Katherine Hardy, data from Art Market Research


Magrittes auction prices have been rising for the past 30 years, and a trigger point was the sale of the lawyer and writer Harry Torczyners collection of 25 works at Christies New York in 1998. In that sale, the artists record was broken three times, topped by Les Valeurs Personnelles (1952), sold for $7.1m (all prices with fees) to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2002, Lempire des Lumières (1952) sold for $12.6m at Christies New York, a record that stood until 2017, when La Corde Sensible (1960) sold for £14.4m at Christies London. The following year at Sothebys New York, Le Principe du Plaisir (1937), a portrait of the Surrealist patron Edward James, sold for the current record—£26.8m. But, some works have sold privately for more, says the dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, pointing to “a couple [sold] in the mid-$30m to mid-$40m range”.

The market for Magrittes work has “grown significantly in the past two years, with a surge in demand for Surrealism as a whole”, says Emma Ward of the London dealers Dickinson. “If you consider the importance of Surrealism in the cannon of 20th-century art history, its rather amazing that the prices have remained as low as they have. The Magritte record is still sub-$30m—compare that to Picasso, whose record is $179m.”

Most in demand are works from the 1950s and 60s containing Magrittes trademark motifs—the man in a bowler hat, an apple, the moon, etc. Some collectors commissioned Magritte to paint works including such motifs, although Camu says, “he would always introduce some sort of variation”. Topping the Magritte hierarchy are the unsettling LEmpire des Lumières series, which depict a house lit by a streetlamp, but under a daytime sky.

Less popular—sometimes derided—are the pseudo-Impressionist Renoir works (1943-47) and ensuing Vache period (1948), seen as a precursor to the Bad Painting movement. But Boyd-Bowman thinks even these are gaining popularity: “Traditionally, there was a lack of appetite for these works. But recently, such is Magrittes popularity, even works from the Renoir or Vache period can do well, at the right price.”

MoMAs exhibition of Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, in 2014 renewed interest in his experimental early work, says Luxembourg, who notes “a big shift in the past two years to reassessing the earlier works”, pointing to the record-breaking Edward James portrait which was painted in 1937. Di Donna thinks “there is still room to grow in the pre-1935 bracket and his sculptures and objects are undervalued”.

Rene Magritte and Le Barbare (1938) Read More – Source