In the early 1980s, German artist Gerhard Richter painted 24 views of flickering white candles, and not a single one sold. When one of those "Candle" canvases came up at Christie’s in London this past fall, it sold for $16.5 million.
A visitor at the blockbuster retrospective ’Gerhard Richter: Panorama’ at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie; it will travel to Paris in June. <http://tinyurl.com/88hpywn>
Few people can pinpoint the moment when an artist becomes iconic in the way of Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol, but right now the art world is trying to anoint Mr. Richter. Last year, his works sold at auction for a total of $200 million, according to auction tracker Artnet—more than any other living artist and topping last year’s auction totals for Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti and Mark Rothko combined. At Mr. Richter’s gallery in New York, the waiting list for one of his new works, which can sell for $3 million apiece, is several dozen names long.
In November at Sotheby’s, London collector Lily Safra paid $20.8 million for Mr. Richter’s 1997 eggplant-colored "Abstract Painting," an auction record for the artist. Other artists have sold individual works at higher prices—Jeff Koons, for example—but in terms of volume at auction, Mr. Richter currently tops the market.
The artist’s ascent is being driven by market demands as much as curatorial merit: Auction houses and museums, eager for new masters to canonize, are showcasing Mr. Richter’s works around the world at an ever-increasing clip. An influx of international collectors and dealers are also seizing the moment to buy or sell his pieces at a profit—including art-world tastemakers such as Russian industrialist Roman Abramovich, French luxury-goods executive Bernard Arnault, dealer Larry Gagosian, Taiwanese electronics mogul Pierre Chen and New York hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen.
Mr. Richter’s work is uniquely suited to the tastes of the current art market. Like Picasso, he paints in a number of different styles—from rainbow-hued abstracts to poignant family portraits—giving collectors plenty of choice. Like Warhol, he is prolific, which ensures a steady volume of his works in the marketplace—yet enough of his works are in museum collections that he has avoided a glut. And ever since the deaths last year of painters Cy Twombly and Lucian Freud, collectors searching for another senior statesman have started giving his work a closer look.
Collectors are paying a particular premium for Mr. Richter’s larger abstracts from the late 1980s, which have all the visual impact of a work by Francis Bacon or Mr. Rothko, artists whose prices spiked before the recession. These abstracts are also immediately identifiable as being Mr. Richter’s creations, making them easy status symbols. San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier says, "Collectors want an iconic work in a format that everyone recognizes. Monkey see, monkey do."
Mr. Richter, 80 years old, isn’t a household name in the U.S. yet, but he’s revered in Europe. Born in Dresden, he fled the former East Germany months before the Berlin Wall went up. He has spent the past six decades experimenting with ways to refresh traditional painting categories like the still life. He’s best known for haunting family portraits that evoke smudged newspaper clippings—a wry response to Pop that won him a pre-eminent spot among Europe’s postwar painters. He also uses an oversized squeegee the size of a car bumper to create layered abstracts. That he flits between several painting styles, rather than sticking to one signature look, has always confounded some audiences, yet the toggling is actually his calling card, the painter as polymath.
A blockbuster retrospective, "Gerhard Richter: Panorama," has been crisscrossing the art capitals of Europe, having just traveled from London’s Tate Modern to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, where it will show through May 13. So far, the show has drawn large crowds; it heads to Paris’s Centre Pompidou in June.
For his part, Mr. Richter seems a reluctant commodity. At a time when superstar artists typically have a different dealer for every continent, he funnels nearly all his new works through New York dealer Marian Goodman. Both are soft-spoken and rarely attend high-profile auctions. The pair has declined lucrative licensing deals and private commissions. For years, their combined efforts have helped his price levels retain an air of integrity. Ms. Goodman, speaking on behalf of the artist, who declined to be interviewed himself, said, "He has an honest market."
Mr. Richter has created more than 3,000 paintings, but nearly 40% of them (including ’Betty,’ pictured here) are in museum collections, which has prevented a market glut.<http://tinyurl.com/7zoc8hs>
Not everyone is ready to bet on Mr. Richter. Jose Mugrabi and David Nahmad, major dealers in Warhol and Picasso, respectively, said they don’t think Mr. Richter has enough heft to compete with the market presence of those modern masters. Mr. Mugrabi said Mr. Richter’s art is more fashionable now than it used to be, but not more important.
Trends in contemporary art, as in fashion, can also change quickly, so it’s unclear whether Mr. Richter’s prices will keep climbing or drop again over the long run. In the late 1980s, prices for Frank Stella’s geometric paintings rose quickly to nearly $4 million before reaching a plateau in 1989 that he hasn’t matched at auction since. Mr. Rothko’s abstract paintings also soared to $72.8 million during the market’s last peak in 2007, but nothing by him has sold for half as much in the past couple of years. Art adviser Nicolai Frahm says he’s counseling his collector clients to hold off seeking Mr. Richter’s works "until his prices equalize."
Russian industrialist Roman Abramovich is among the influential collectors who have helped to make Mr. Richter’s market. Mr. Abramovich paid $15.1 million for Mr. Richter’s 1990 ’Abstract Painting’ at Sotheby’s.<http://tinyurl.com/6voswl4>
Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, said he thinks such lofty comparisons to Picasso and Warhol will hold up, though. "Richter doesn’t want to be the next king, but he has taken painting farther than just about anyone else," he said.
Mr. Richter works out of a pair of pristine studios in Cologne, including one attached by a garden path to the home he shares with his third wife, Sabine, and their young son, Moritz. Mr. Richter suffered a stroke a few years ago, but he remains fit and moves easily, his face framed by a jaunty pair of translucent eyeglasses.
The son of a Dresden schoolteacher, Mr. Richter grew up in communist East Germany, steeped in the academic rigors of Soviet Realism. Some of his first jobs included painting murals of cheery workers for the state. In 1959, he saw Western contemporary art for the first time at an exhibition called Documenta in the German town of Kassel; afterward, he told friends he would have to rethink what he knew about art after seeing Jackson Pollock’s drippy splatters and Lucio Fontana’s punctured canvases.
Part of Mr. Richter’s appeal to collectors: He paints in a wide range of styles, from colorful abstracts to hazy portraits. His ’Sailors’ sold for $13.2 million at Sotheby’s. <http://tinyurl.com/759lrdw>
Two years later, he and his wife, Ema, enlisted a friend to sneak them by car into West Berlin so he could study art without political constraint. The couple moved to Düsseldorf, and by the end of the summer the Berlin Wall had gone up. He never saw his parents again.
Over the next decade, the artist grappled with occasional homesickness—and the legacy of his country’s role in the war—by painting portraits of his relatives that looked like black-and-white photographs, only hazy. The subjects included his "Aunt Marianne," who was exterminated by the Nazis because she was mentally ill, and his "Uncle Rudi," a Nazi soldier who died fighting in the war.
Rudolf Zwirner, one of the artist’s earliest dealers, was impressed when he saw the work in 1962; few German artists were addressing such disquieting topics. For years after the war, wealthy American collectors who were championing Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol considered German art "taboo," Mr. Zwirner said, so he and other dealers cultivated collectors for Mr. Richter nearby. Their prices rarely topped $1,000. "I sold Richters to my physician, my neighbors, my brother—anybody I could convince," he said. To this day, it’s not unusual for bourgeois families in the region to own dozens of works by the artist; one collector in Munich owns 70 works. By the time Mr. Richter was invited to represent Germany in the 1972 Venice Biennale, his pool of countrymen collectors was deep.
Mr. Richter’s 1982 ’Candle’ painting sold in October at Christie’s for $16.5 million. <http://tinyurl.com/7unw6wg>
In the years that followed, Mr. Richter churned through several different series—like those candles—which didn’t sell as well as the angst-ridden paintings of his German contemporaries like Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. But in the mid-1980s, he began making brightly colored abstracts, and collectors pounced. San Francisco collectors Donald and Doris Fisher, who founded the Gap retail chain, bought several of these works.
The real turning point for Mr. Richter came in 1995 when New York’s Museum of Modern Art paid $3 million for a suite of 15 grisaille paintings called "Oct. 18, 1977." The artist painted this cycle in 1988 as a response to the arrest, trial and grisly death in 1977 of a group of young German anarchists-turned-terrorists. Mr. Storr, the Yale dean who then served as the museum’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, began planning a major survey of Mr. Richter’s work for the museum.
As soon as word leaked about the museum show, Mr. Zwirner said his phone started ringing with American collectors seeking Richters. A year later, in 1996, Sotheby’s in London put a Richter on the cover of one of its sale catalogs. Back in Germany, longtime collectors started getting letters from auction houses: Did they care to sell a Richter?
MoMA’s long-awaited survey opened six years later, in 2001, and suddenly series that had seemed random when they debuted, like his "Candle" works, seemed relevant, said Sotheby’s specialist Cheyenne Westphal. Three months after the exhibit opened, the auction house sold his "Three Candles" for $5.3 million.
Mr. Richter with his longtime dealer, Marian Goodman <http://tinyurl.com/7lyb9wy>
Two years after that, a lawyer and collector based in Zurich named Joe Hage began gathering auction prices and exhibit details about the works in Mr. Richter’s oeuvre. He started a website, gerhard-richter.com, and began posting the results online.
For newer, Internet-savvy collectors, Mr. Hage’s site has proved popular because of all that its tallying has revealed. Mr. Richter has created 3,000 paintings—fewer than Warhol’s 8,000 silk-screens but considerably more than Salvador Dalí’s 1,200 works. He’s also heavily traded, with more than 200 of his works turning up at auction every year, which provides buyers with a regular stream of price points to analyze. Museums own roughly 38% of his works, though, including half of his most coveted works, those large squeegee abstracts.
By 2006, an influx of newly wealthy collectors began competing hard for contemporary art, spiking values for dozens of artists including Mr. Richter. Sotheby’s began shipping its top Richters to Hong Kong so potential bidders there could see his works. In May 2006, a bidder at Berlin’s Villa Griesbach auction house paid $1 million for Mr. Richter’s 1971 portrait of "Mao." The following summer, the same painting came up for bid at Christie’s in London and sold for $2.5 million.
Then came the snowball: In February 2008, the artist’s eldest daughter, Betty, sold her 1983 "Candle" for $15.8 million, triple the high estimate, at Sotheby’s. Three months later, Mr. Abramovich dropped $15.1 million for Mr. Richter’s green-gray "Abstract Painting" from 1990. It was only priced to sell for up to $7 million. With that, collectors recalibrated Mr. Richter’s high bar to $15 million or more.
Mr. Richter’s 1997 ’Abstract Painting,’ which Lily Safra bought for $20.8 million at Sotheby’s. <http://tinyurl.com/7gqw3yt>
During the recession that followed, potential sellers of Mr. Richter’s masterworks largely sat on the sidelines, but by late 2010, as the market perked up again, a fresh set of collectors began embellishing their collections with Richters. That November, Sotheby’s got $13.2 million for his 1966 "Sailors," a work that spent years in the New Museum Weserburg in Bremen. The buyers were Houston hedge-fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura.
A pivotal sale four months ago sealed the deal. At Sotheby’s in New York, London collectors Marc and Victoria Sursock offered up eight Richter abstracts; all sold for well over their asking prices, including the abstract that went to Ms. Safra for $20.8 million. Last month in London, collectors came back for more: Christie’s got $15.5 million for a green Richter abstract, while Sotheby’s sold a creamy abstract to a former Zurich nightclub owner, Carl Hirschmann, for $4.8 million.
Mr. Richter has told friends he thinks his recent auction records are "absurd." But for his longtime collectors, they’re paying dividends.
A few years ago, as Berlin endocrinologist Thomas Olbricht was constructing a five-story museum to showcase his art collection, he realized he was running low on cash. So he sold a blue-orange Richter abstract. Mr. Olbricht had paid about $287,000 for it in 1996; Christie’s sold it for him in 2008 for $14.8 million.
Today, the museum, called the Me Collectors Room, rises from a narrow street in Berlin’s bustling Mitte neighborhood. "I still wish I’d been able to keep that painting," Mr. Olbricht said. "Today, it would be worth $20 million."