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Collectors Covet the Scarce Art of Eva Hesse

Two current New York exhibitions have heightened focus on the work of Eva Hesse (1936-1970). The Jewish Museum, Manhattan, is currently exhibiting Hesse’s sculpture (through Sept. 17), while The Drawing Center, also in Manhattan, is displaying her drawings (through July 15).

NEW YORK—Two current New York exhibitions have heightened focus on the work of Eva Hesse (1936-1970). The Jewish Museum, Manhattan, is currently exhibiting Hesse’s sculpture (through Sept. 17), while The Drawing Center, also in Manhattan, is displaying her drawings (through July 15).

Previously, in 2002, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staged a Hesse retrospective, which later traveled to London’s Tate Modern.

The main obstacle for would-be buyers is that little major work is available to buy. Hesse, born in Hamburg, Germany, came to the United States when she was 3, in 1939; she died of cancer in 1970 at 34. Her career spanned only 10 years, less if one considers that her mature work developed in 1965.

Hesse created perhaps 100 major sculptures in her lifetime (there may be another 100 smaller sculptural works), and the most important pieces are already in museum collections, reports Barry Rosen, administrator of the Eva Hesse estate, New York. What’s more, any available sculptures, priced in the $1/2 million range, are set aside for sale to museums, Rosen adds.

The estate, which is represented by the gallery Hauser & Wirth, of London and Zurich, holds an undisclosed number of Hesse drawings, paintings, collages and sculptures. The gallery’s representation is focused more on encouraging exhibitions of the artist’s work at museums, creating reproductions and providing access to scholars than on conducting sales of works from the estate, says Rosen.

Both Rosen and Florian Berktold, director of Hauser & Wirth’s Zurich gallery, say the majority of Hesse collectors are in the U.S. (The estate was represented from 1988-2000 by the Robert Miller Gallery, New York.)

Of the artist’s available pieces, Rosen told ARTnewsletter, works on paper (drawings and collages) are priced from $100,000/ $400,000; prints (etchings, lithographs, woodcuts) are in the $35,000/40,000 range; and paintings (which Hesse had stopped making by the mid-1960s to pursue sculpture full-time) cost $500,000. (As a point of comparison, prices for works on paper in 2002, at the time of the retrospective, ranged from $65,000/300,000, representing a 33 percent increase.)

Photograms that Hesse created from time to time have sold for as much as $186,000 at auction, but none are held by the estate. Hesse used uncharacteristic materials, such as rope, fiberglass and latex, in her sculptures. Overall, Rosen relates, they have remained in good condition, although there have been some conservation concerns about the durability of the latex in some of the artist’s pieces.

On May 9, Hesse’s work scored a record high at auction, earning $2.25 million for the 1965 mixed-media An Ear in a Pond at Christie’s, surpassing the $1/1.5 million estimate.

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