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Diebenkorn Paintings Leap In Price and Keep Climbing

The career of American painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) is roughly demarcated by his Abstract Expressionist pieces of the early 1950s, figurative art of the later 1950s and “Ocean Park” series, distinguished by large geometrical color areas set up like architectural elevations, from the late 1960s.

NEW YORK—The career of American painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) is roughly demarcated by his Abstract Expressionist pieces of the early 1950s, figurative art of the later 1950s and “Ocean Park” series, distinguished by large geometrical color areas set up like architectural elevations, from the late 1960s. However, Diebenkorn’s work also is categorized by places—the Albuquerque period, the Berkeley period and others in California’s Santa Monica and Healdsburg, where the artist lived and worked.

Prices have taken “a big leap over the past five years, reflecting the appetite for great works by Diebenkorn,” Dorsey Waxter, director of New York’s Greenberg Van Doren Gallery told ARTnewsletter. The gallery has represented the Diebenkorn estate since 1999 in association with Lawrence Rubin, a former gallery partner and former president of Knoedler & Company, which represented the artist for 20 years. Rubin now lives in Milan, Italy, and is involved principally in creating exhibitions of the artist’s work, says Waxter. Collectors often seek out paintings with a particular style and subject matter, Waxter says.

Last year, London’s Thomas Gibson Fine Art exhibited 15 figurative drawings by Diebenkorn, all dating between 1957 and 1967, selling “a significant amount. We were happy with the result,” Hugh Gibson, director of the gallery, told ARTnewsletter.

It was the gallery’s first showing of the artist’s work and first time working with the estate, which had consigned the drawings for the show. Gibson noted sales to private collectors in England, France, Italy and the U.S.

Prices for Diebenkorn’s early abstract paintings start at $500,000/700,000 and can bring several million dollars, depending upon size, Waxter affirms. Among the highest prices achieved for works from this period, was the $6.76 million given for the 53-by-53-inch oil Berkeley #5, 1953, at a Christie’s postwar and contemporary art sale last May, which set a record auction price for the artist. (The pre-auction estimate was $6/8 million.)

“The early abstracts still look more foreign to us than the later works,” Waxter says. Prices for figurative paintings start considerably higher, she points out—at about $3.5 million—and can climb to $5/6 million, again depending upon scale.

The “Ocean Park” images that Diebenkorn began creating in the late 1960s are those for which he is best-known. Prices run “$8 million and up,” Waxter says. Scale and color have some bearing on price. High prices at auction for “Ocean Park” works on paper, have also boosted demand, Waxter reports.

Diebenkorn also created numerous works on paper, including prints (monoprints, etchings and lithographs), mixed-media drawings (in combinations of charcoal, gouache, acrylic and watercolor) and charcoal drawings (figurative, still lifes and landscapes) that start at $50,000 for the drawings and draw upward of $500,000 for mixed-media works.

Greenberg Van Doren plans an exhibit in May of 45 Diebenkorn monotypes from the early 1990s, along with other works on paper with Ocean Park images. Asking prices for these works have not been been set. The artist’s widow, Phyllis Diebenkorn, actively participates in the running of her husband’s estate and joins with the gallery in establishing prices a month or so before a show opens. Prices at the May exhibition will likely be higher than at the gallery’s last show, in 2006, of paintings and works on paper, which sold out. The estate still has a number of works on paper, but far fewer major paintings.

Besides Berkeley #5, other works by the artist have produced big numbers at auction, including the $6.2 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million) paid for the 1955 oil Berkeley #53 at Christie’s in 2006 and $3.96 million (estimate: $1.5/2 million) for the 1959 Horizon—Ocean View at Sotheby’s in 1998.

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