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The Sam Francis Exhibition Boom

Seven Shows in U.S. and Europe Mark Publication of Catalogue Raisonné

"Sam Francis: The Last Works," November 7, 2011 – February 10, 2012 exhibition at Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.


NEW YORK—Numerous fall exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe are dedicated to the artwork of Sam Francis—coinciding with the publication of the Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946–1994, edited by Debra Burchett-Lere, who is the director of the Sam Francis Foundation in Glendale, California. The catalogue was published by the University of California Press, Berkeley.

Nico Delaive, owner of Gallery Delaive in Amsterdam, which had represented the artist in Europe for years and is currently holding its own exhibition (through Dec. 11), said the gallery owns approximately 1,100 paintings and works on paper by the artist, some of which he bought directly from the artist while others were acquired from the artist’s estate and foundation.

Delaive has sent numerous Francis works that are for sale to various galleries holding Francis shows. The first of these shows consisted of 49 paintings at Sotheby’s (Sept. 17–Oct. 14) in what was described as a “private selling exhibition.” Seventeen works were sold at prices ranging from $25,000 to $2.5 million, according to Miety Heiden, senior international specialist at the auction house. She noted that buyers are spread throughout the world, “from Australia and Indonesia to France and the U.S.,” adding that the remaining works will remain on consignment at the auction house through the end of November for additional private sales.

Other galleries holding Sam Francis exhibitions are Galerie Guy Pieters in Paris (Oct. 21–Nov. 27), Galerie Kornfeld in Bern, Switzerland (Nov. 15–Dec. 23), Galerie Iris Wazzau in Davos, Switzerland (Dec.17–Jan. 21, 2012), and Jonathan Novak Fine Art in Los Angeles (Oct. 31–Dec. 5). A recent show at Galerie Thomas in Munich, Germany closed Nov. 19.

Delaive said Francis’s works from the 1950s are the most sought-after, “with prices that are three to four times as expensive as for any other period in his career. The problem is, there aren’t many of these works left to buy,” resulting in artworks being placed in museum collections or “collectors just not wanting to sell.” Works that the artist created in his final years tend to have the smallest audience. However Delaive says prices for these have risen as well, sometimes to as much as $300,000.

The lowest-priced Francis works are monotypes and acrylic paintings on paper (which range in price from $15,000/20,000 up to $300,000, depending upon size) according to Robert Delaney, director of the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London, which held a Sam Francis works on paper exhibit in 2009.

Among the reasons why the artist’s prices are lower than those of some other Abstract Expressionist painters, Jonathan Novak explains: “Sam was not part of the New York scene, and he did not get the same attention.” In addition, resolving the estate took ten years, because of disputes over money and artworks between the artist’s numerous ex-wives and children.

A large number of paintings appeared on the market over a short period of time in order for the artist’s heirs to pay the estate tax—Francis died with little cash on hand. This resulted in depressed prices, dealers say. “There was too much of Sam’s work on the market for a time, and people thought that the supply would never end,” said Novak. It was only after the estate was settled and the foundation was established “that people realized that all the art was gone. Everything now is on the secondary market, and the prices have been rising ever since,” Novak said. The foundation has relatively few works and does not make sales.

Work by Francis has frequently appeared at major auctions. The highest auction price to date is $6.4 million (estimate: $3 million/5 million) for the oil Middle Blue, 1957, sold at Christie’s in the spring of 2010.