Works of Art on Paper: A Golden Moment

Fernand Léger, ‘Les femmes au perroquet’, gouache, watercolor and Indian ink on paper, 1951. Sold in 2017 by Christie’s. Photo © Christie’s via Barnebys Price bank

The interest of collectors and enthusiasts towards artworks on paper is constantly increasing. We talked about this trend with a true connoisseur, Paolo Manazza, who told us about the Renaissance of paper and how, one day, these works will be considered real icons.

“The average values ​​of works on paper, compared to those made with other supports, are significantly more attractive. Today it is possible to take home small and real masterpieces with figures between 5 and 50,000 euros.”

Works of art on paper are experiencing their golden moment. Just look at the upcoming auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which will host several sales dedicated to Œuvres sur Papier, antique designs and prints.

In a market dominated by works on canvas, the rediscovery of paper is a rather recent phenomenon: from 2010 to today, the value of works on paper has increased exponentially, while also remaining attractive to collectors and enthusiasts who may have access to the big names of art.

Fairs and institutions have also contributed to the renewed interest in works on paper. We sat down and talked about the phenomenon with Paolo Manazza, journalist, painter, art market expert and founder of WopArt, the fair dedicated to works on paper that has been held every September in Lugano since 2016.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (crown of thorns), c. 1982. The work reached €228.240 at Phillips in 2014. Photo © Phillips via Barnebys Price bank

Barnebys: In recent years, the market for works on paper seems to be continuously growing: auction houses organize dedicated sales, interested collectors increase, fairs open special sections or, as in the case of WopArt, focus exclusively on works on paper. When and how did this renewed interest arise?

Paolo Manazza: The growing attention towards works on paper began, I would say, after 2010, when the auction catalogues of Christie’s and Sotheby’s (in New York and London) began to collect increasingly important figures. During the periods of the so-called Big Auctions (February, June and October in London; May and November in New York) the majors, for many years now, have joined the traditional ‘Evening’ and ‘Day’ auctions of ‘Impressionist & Modern’ and ‘Contemporary’, which separates catalogues for the works on paper. This undoubtedly has created a progressively greater attention to this segment of the market, which was once considered smaller. Today this is no longer the case: works on paper are undoubtedly at the centre of a whirlwind turnover that will continue to grow in the coming years.

David Hockney, ‘Santa Monica’, gouache on paper, 1968. Sold by Christie's last March 2019 for €600,781. Photo Christie's via Barnebys Price bank

David Hockney, ‘Santa Monica’, gouache on paper, 1968. Sold by Christie’s last March 2019 for €600,781. Photo Christie’s via Barnebys Price bank

In your experience, what are the factors that make works on paper so interesting for collectors?

There are basically three of them and they all contribute to making the growth of attention and prices constant. First of all, a work on paper expresses the germinal thought of an artist. I would say that it is so poetic that it has convinced some great artists to produce a series of paper works that have an aesthetic research value in themselves, without representing a sketch or proof for something else. So, and represents the second reason, the collector of works on paper has always been a very cultured person with a sensitive soul. From a status point of view, this is certainly a plus today. Thirdly, there is the economic reason. The average values ​​of works on paper, compared to those made with other supports, are significantly more attractive. An example for everyone: a gouache from the ‘60s by Pablo Picasso costs today (if very beautiful) between 700,000 and 1 million euros. An oil with the same date costs an average of 8 million. And so it is the same with many other modern artists – not to mention the designs of the 19th century until the early 20th century. In these cases, today it is possible to take home small and real masterpieces with figures between 5 and 50,000 euros.

Pablo Picasso, ‘Tête de femme (Dora Maar)’, oil on paper, 1939. The work was sold by Christie’s in 2017 for €501,510. Photo © Christie’s via Barnebys Price bank

“The collector of works on paper has always been a very cultured person with a sensitive soul.”

Often it is mentioned how digitisation has “murdered paper” and the fact that, in the coming decades, the work of art on paper is destined to become an icon. Should we therefore expect a further increase in interest in this type of work?

My answer is a hyperbole. It will take several decades for this murder of paper to become mass consciousness in the average consumer. But artists and intellectuals have the task of pre-seeing, of seeing first. It is clear that each of us already retains more data and information on a smartphone or cloud rather than on say a calendar or diary. Now I believe that if, over time, a sheet of paper becomes a sort of icon, then the artwork on paper will turn into an icon of the icon.

What is the value of a work of art on paper? Less expensive, but not only this.

I said it before. The poetry of the nascent state: but not only. Today many contemporary artists choose paper as an extraordinary and particular support. Only the artist is able to amplify the light of certain brush strokes, for example. Or its versatility allows you to play with shapes much more freely than with other materials.

Claude Monet, ‘Coucher de soleil’, pastel on paper, c. 1868. The work was sold by Christie’s in 2018 for €1,793,081. Photo © Christie’s via Barnebys Price bank

And tips for beginners. What technical characteristics should we check when we decide to buy a work on paper?

If the work is ancient, it is necessary to verify the state of conservation. The works on paper are undoubtedly more fragile than others. The appearance of mould or the presence of tears or lacerations significantly reduces the value of the work. In the contemporary field, what matters is the expressive power of the work.

Let’s talk about you: how did you start your journey in art? You are a painter, but also a journalist specializing in the market and, not least, director of the WopArt fair!

I think that here in Italy (perhaps starting from Ciompi in 1300…) everyone must have a specialization label. If one paints, one cannot write. If one writes, nothing can be invented. In the United States – for many years now – this has not been the case. I speak of the intellectual field. What matters is not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’! Look at Julian Schnabel. Today he is mentioned as a “painter, director and screenwriter”, but when he started his film career everyone (in Italy) scoffed. Then, in 2007, he pulled off masterpiece films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and nobody said anything.

Beyond the greatest examples, my path is simply that of a person in love with painting and art. I’ve painted since childhood, and for many years in disguise (“in hiding,” as Alan Jones wrote sarcastically). In those years, while I was painting, I mainly studied and (publicly) wrote. When I thought about it, while teaching ‘Multimedia of art’ in Brera, I created ArtsLife, which now (not thanks to me but to all the guys who work there) is one of the first online newspapers of art and culture in Italy. When a fair dedicated to works on paper came to mind, I found who believed in it and we created it. That’s all. I am not the Director of WopArt, but only the creator. There is also a staff of extraordinary people who work there. A staff that every day is enriched with young and professional minds of great stature. For me, I think that, as for ArtsLife, once the Format has been consolidated, I will let the others deal with it more and more. In 2006, in fact, I decided to make my pictorial activity public. And it is this research that interests me to continue. I have a lot of ideas in my mind.

WopArt 2019. Photo © WopArt

As director of the WopArt fair, what can you tell us about this year’s edition? I know there is a new section called ‘Booming’…

Do you see how I told you that the intellectuals’ task is to ‘pre-see’? There was still no mention of Coronavirus but here, during a meeting, we perceived that the word ‘emerging’ (used so much in the art world) has a root in common with ‘emergency’. So we contacted the talented Simona Gavioli who in Bologna, after ‘Set-Up’, invented the ‘Booming’ format. We told her that her idea seemed perfect for us to create an ‘open mind’ section at WopArt, always of high quality but destined to host galleries, artists, collectives, etc., committed – through works on paper – to unhinge the concept of the emerging, linking it to the literal meaning of being about to emerge and the need to bring out. In this sense it also connects to the double meaning of the word emergency.

Emergency as an urgency, but also as a critical moment for change. The WopArt Booming section will turn its attention to the search for works on paper identified on the basis of a compatibility that is not only aesthetic or functional to the market. Galleries and artists are therefore interpreters of a necessary art, bearer of change, which is critically faced with a headless and inhuman rhythm, enslaved to an unstoppable concept of development. And speaking of development, I do not deny that this Coronavirus story that is paralyzing Italy will certainly have a reflection on art and the economy to come. WopArt, whose fifth edition is scheduled for the end of September (from 18 to 20) in Lugano, perhaps will be among the first interpreters of this unprecedented horizon. After a crisis, in fact, normally we see new growth models. And the market for works on paper is ready to take up this challenge, both for gallery owners and collectors.

Interview by Alice Invernizzi on – 

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