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Scarcity of Vija Celmins’ Work Fuels Competitive Collecting

“There is a long waiting list” for the work of Vija Celmins, Renee McKee, co-owner of Manhattan’s McKee Gallery, told ARTnewsletter.

NEW YORK—“There is a long waiting list” for the work of Vija Celmins, Renee McKee, co-owner of Manhattan’s McKee Gallery, told ARTnewsletter. McKee Gallery has represented the artist worldwide for more than 10 years. “Celmins is not a prolific artist so there is not much work to show or to sell,” McKee said. When there is work available, it goes fast, McKee says. The gallery’s last one-person exhibition of Celmins’ work took place last spring and included four oil paintings, seven sculptural works and 11 print editions (in edition sizes ranging from six to 30).

“The unique works in our show sold out by the first day,” said McKee. “Some of the prints sold out. Some are still available but at higher prices.” McKee notes that sales of Celmins’ work occur mostly to U.S. buyers, but “there is a solid market in Europe as well.”

Last year, prints by Celmins, including lithographs, mezzotints and wood engravings, were shown at Galerie Jan Mot in Brussels, Belgium and Senior & Shopmaker in Manhattan, at prices ranging from $7,500 to $50,000. Both Betsy Senior, gallery co-owner, and Jan Mot told ARTnewsletter their respective shows did quite well.

The Senior & Shopmaker exhibition also included some drawings, but they were not for sale. Had they been, Senior noted, they would have been priced from $200,000/250,000. “The problem is, there is so little of her work available.” That is most true for unique paintings and sculpture, where prices on both the primary and secondary markets are priced well in excess of half a million dollars, McKee said.

Celmins work is currently on view in two museum exhibitions. The Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany is showing 60 paintings and drawings of the desert, sea and stars through July 17, and then the exhibition will be displayed at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark from Sept. 8 through Jan. 8, 2012.

The other is an exhibition of early paintings, “Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster 1964-1968,” which is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through June 5, having already been exhibited at the Menil Collection in Houston last fall and winter.

In March of next year, an Artist’s Room at London’s Tate Modern will be devoted to her work.

Celmins, who was born in Latvia in 1938, fled with her family to Germany in 1944 in advance of the Soviet Army, and then to the United States in 1948. She is best known for her highly realistic drawings and paintings that are based not on direct observation but on black-and-white photographs found in books and magazines.

Some prints by the artist have been sold at auction, with the majority (screenprints and mezzotints mostly) selling in the mid-four figures. The top public-sale price for Celmins’ work is $576,000 (estimate: $400,000/600,000) for the oil on canvas Pan, 1964, at Sotheby’s in 2005. Other auction highs include $545,600 (estimate: $200,000/300,000) for the 1990-95 oil on linen Untitled (Ocean) at Sotheby’s in 2003 and $296,800 (estimate: $60,000/80,000) for the 1975 acrylic on paper Untitled (Sea no. 10) at Sotheby’s London in 2003.

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