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Experts Predict Wyeth Market Will Remain Strong

Collectors and art experts are wondering how the death of Andrew Wyeth, who passed away last month at the age of 91, will affect demand and prices for the American artist's work.

NEW YORK—Collectors and art experts are wondering how the death of Andrew Wyeth, who passed away last month at the age of 91, will affect demand and prices for the American artist’s work.

For nearly four decades, Frank Fowler, of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., has been the principal dealer in primary-market work by Wyeth. Fowler compares the market for Wyeth’s work over the past several decades to “a long stairway, going up, then leveling off, then up, then even. There have been no downticks.”

However, experts say the current economy may factor into prices for Wyeth’s work, at least in the short term. “When an artist of great stature, like Wyeth, dies, the general thought is that the market will take off,” said Debra Force, a New York dealer who specializes in American art. “The market for Wyeth certainly won’t come down, and the best examples of his work will remain strong. The only question is, can the current market bear sharply escalating prices? That we’ll have to see.”

The overall increase in prices for Wyeth’s work is particularly evident in the auction market. In 1997 the top public sale price for a work by the artist was $1.7million, paid at Sotheby’s for a 1947 portrait of Christina Olson in a doorway (estimate: $2million/3million). In 2000 the auction record became $2.5million, also paid at Sotheby’s, for the tempera-on-panel The Quaker, 1975 (estimate: $1.5million/2million). By 2007 the record was five times as much, after Ericksons, 1973, a tempera-on-panel portrait of the artist’s neighbor gazing out of a window, was sold at Christie’s for $10.3million against an estimate of $4million/6million.

There have been numerous multimillion-dollar prices for Wyeth at auctions in recent years, including the $5.7million paid for The Intruder, 1971, at Christie’s in 2007 (estimate: $3million/5million); $4.4million for South Cushing, 1955, at Sotheby’s in 2006 (estimate: $2million/3million); and $3.8million for Battle Ensign, 1987, at Sotheby’s in 2005 (estimate: $1.5million/2million). All three are tempera paintings.

Last December Cider Barrel, 1969, sold at Christie’s for $782,500, a new record for a watercolor by the artist, surpassing the estimate of $500,000/700,000. The previous record prices for watercolors were $743,000, paid for The Finn, 1969, at Christie’s in 2000 (estimate: $300,000/500,000), and $508,500, paid for Perpetual Care, 1961, at Sotheby’s in 1998 (estimate: $350,000/550,000).

Fowler said “there has never been a lull” in the primary market for Wyeth’s work. He added that since the artist’s death he has received numerous condolences, but “no one has expressed any interest in selling work or asking values.”

New York dealer Warren Adelson handles works by Wyeth, including drawings, watercolors and temperas, on the secondary market. In 2005 Adelson and Fowler brokered the sale of Wyeth’s “Helga” series—comprising 244 drawings and paintings of his neighbor Helga Testorf—to a U.S. collector by an unidentified Japanese corporation.

The “Helga” portraits, many nude, were painted over a period of 15 years and were revealed to the world in 1986. The collection was exhibited and sold twice in the course of three years: The first sale, in 1986, was made directly by the artist to ­publisher-collector Leonard Andrews (who also passed away last month). In 1989 Andrews sold the collection to the Japanese corporation for an amount reportedly exceeding $40million.

Adelson told ARTnewsletter that sale was a milestone in the artist’s market history, that raised prices for Wyeth’s work “to a considerable degree.” However, the downturn in the Japanese economy that began in 1990 took away some of the most avid collectors of Wyeth’s work on the secondary market, and the recession in the United States that followed soon after also slowed the growth of prices “for a period of 10 years, say, 1993 to 2002,” Adelson added. “Starting in 2003, prices of his work began to rise, due to a growing recognition of his work, his placement in art history and his age.”

Fowler says that no particular subject—not even the artist’s landscapes—is more sought after than others. Prices for Wyeth drawings range around $50,000/300,000, while watercolors cost in the range of $200,000/800,000. The temperas, which are scarcer because they took longer to produce, are priced according to size. The smallest of these works (about 12 by 12 inches) are priced around $2mil­lion/2.5million; the more common ­medium-size paintings (about 24 by 30 inches) cost $4million/5million, and the largest tempera works (about 42 by 38 inches) can reach $10million.

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