In May of this year, Christie’s sold a 1981 work by A.R. Penck for $567,000 during the New York sales cycle. The price was the second highest price achieved for the artist’s work. What made the sale significant was not only the confirmation price 17.5% off the high-water mark of $688,091 achieved in London a little more than two years earlier but also the fact that the work was being sold in New York.
Penck is hardly a household name in the art world. But his market and cultural currency tend to be concentrated in Europe. Born in pre-World War II Germany as Ralf Winkler, the artist grew up in Dresden under Communist rule. Never formally trained and often at odds with the authorities, Penck emigrated to West Germany in 1980 where he joined artists like Jorg Immendorff and Georg Baselitz as a proponent of a different kind of figuration.
Penck’s work resonates with the Expressionism of street art but has previously been valued within the matrix of other post-war European expressionist painters. The New York near-record suggests that might be changing as Penck’s market begins to show global demand. It may not be a coincidence that records were set for Georg Baselitz in the same New York sales cycle.
Looking at Penck’s public sales since 1986, we can see that the artist has a long auction history filled with peaks and valleys of interest and price action. In 1989, the artist first saw nearly $1 million in total auction sales and average prices of more than $82,000 for his paintings. That rise proved to be a false dawn for the artist’s market. It would take until 17 and 18 years later for the auction volumes and average prices to surpass that level.
Penck’s sales coincided with the rise of the Contemporary art market beginning in 2004 and jumping 2007 and 2008 before the global financial crisis. Although Penck’s sales suffered in the following two years, they never fell much below the levels of 2004 and 2005. But it wasn’t until 2017, the same year as major exhibition of Penck’s work was held at the Fondation Maeght, that his market showed new life and growth.
From 2017 to 2021, auction volumes were way up for Penck’s paintings. In 2017, $3.6 million in Penck paintings were auctioned and sold. The next year the total fell slightly to $3.1 million before rebounding in 2020 to more than $3.7 million. In that same period, average prices continued to climb. In 2017, average price for a Penck painting at auction was $113, 412; by 2020, it had risen to a record $138,071. Average prices pulled back slightly during the pandemic year of 2020 when auction volumes were occluded by the shift to hybrid sales. But so far in 2022, the average price of a Penck painting has exploded upwards to $250,360.
That 1981 work, Frauen K., selling for $567,000 this year after another sold for $439,707 and a third made $321,850 is part of the reason the average price has shot up. These strong sales are taking place in London, Seoul and New York.
That’s part of the story. Penck hasn’t been an artist with a global collector base before. Like Baselitz, he’s previously been more appealing to European buyers than those in Asia and the Americas. With Baselitz traveling the same path to a broader base of collectors but with a price level that is an order of magnitude higher and then some, Penck seems positioned to travel in his peer’s slipstream.