Critically-acclaimed artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude were known for their large-scale, site-specific environmental installations beloved by collectors throughout North and Central America, Europe and Asia. They wrapped gigantic landmarks and entire landscapes such as the Arc de Triomphe, Pont Neuf, the Reichstag, New York City’s Central Park, Colorado State Highway 325 and Sydney’s Little Bay in fabric, surrounded 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with pink polypropylene floating fabric, set up blue and gold umbrellas in Japan and California simultaneously, installed a series of floating walkways on Lake Iseo in Italy on which visitors could walk and created a 20-meter-high, mastaba-shaped floating sculpture of stacked barrels on The Serpentine in London. I speak with Simon Shaw, Vice Chairman of Sotheby’s Fine Arts Division, who advises important collectors and institutions on buying and selling 20th– and 21st-century art and has achieved impressive auction results for artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Clyfford Still and Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
What are your thoughts on the art market for Christo and Jeanne-Claude and how it has evolved over the past few years? When did you start seeing demand for their works and what is driving their growing market?
Since the world lost one of the greatest contemporary artists of our time last year, we have seen an undeniable growth in demand for Christo’s work. It’s a very unusual situation that one of his and Jeanne-Claude’s greatest works was realized posthumously with the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris last September. Not at all surprisingly, there was an enormous amount of excitement around the event, which naturally impacted his market. We had already seen new benchmarks for Christo’s works at auction last year. It is no secret that Christo’s oeuvre has been underappreciated at auction, but now he is getting the profile and recognition he deserves. Sotheby’s white glove sale of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s collection in Paris last year saw fierce competition for many original works, including “The Umbrellas”, which set a new world auction record for the artist: €1.7 million. “The Umbrellas” was the only project to have taken place on two continents simultaneously, and features among his most sought-after works. We are seeing more and more collectors discover and recognize Christo’s incomparable vision. In the Paris auction, for instance, 54 % of participants were transacting with us for the first time, while 40 % of the buyers overall were under 40! It is exciting to use Sotheby’s platform to showcase the brilliance of Christo to new audiences around the world.
What in particular stands out about their works, approach, process and technique that makes them so sought after by collectors?
Christo had a completely unique artistic practice, with each project beginning as just a concept that would then evolve, often over many decades, into its final realization. The projects themselves were deliberately temporary, lasting approximately two weeks at a time, yet they became eternal both in the collective imagination and in Christo’s extraordinary series of original works. These pieces really are like no other in bringing the virtuoso skill in handling different media together with a technical and architectural precision in his drawings.
When did they first make their auction debut?
They have long been a fixture at auction since the ’70s.
Are there other specific sold lots or important secondary market sales that you’d like to point out?
Absolutely. There has been great excitement, not just about the Arc de Triomphe project, but for Christo’s historic works. In “Unwrapped”, we saw a 1960’s work titled “Store Front, Project”, showing the origins of Christo’s wrapping, achieve €302,400. Last year, competitive bidding drove the final price for Christo’s 1980’s original work from the iconic “Surrounded Islands” project to an above-estimate $867,000. Additionally, Christo’s “The Pont Neuf Wrapped: Project for Paris” more than quadrupled its top estimate to bring in $378,000, as part of the Michelle Smith collection sale in New York.
Tell me about Sotheby’s selling exhibition of original artworks that was held at the same time as “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped”.
“L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” was one of the most exciting public works of art to happen last year. It was the perfect work to unveil to a world emerging from lockdown with its themes of freedom and wonder. There was huge anticipation ahead of the exhibition too, which told the story of how the wrapping came to life, from a dream Christo had as a young artist to its final realization six decades later. Collectors shared our enthusiasm and we saw huge appetite for these original works across the globe.
Who are the collectors of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works?
Christo had a very loyal collecting base principally in Europe and the US, and today we are seeing this expand significantly with new interest from all corners of the globe. Interestingly, young collectors of urban art and land art are coming to his work, alongside collectors of classic Modernism who recognize the extraordinary technical ability and imagination that characterizes Christo’s work.