Bridget Riley has been a mainstay of the Modern British and Contemporary art market for many years but her secondary market prices have not always been so high. Over the last 2 or 3 years we have witnessed a significant rise in her prices generally, which has been accompanied by a reappraisal of her later work. Historically, the innovative Op-Art works of the 1960s have always commanded the greater attention, but recently her large late works have rapidly risen in price. This is down in no small part to recent public exhibitions.
On the 15th June 2019 the National Galleries of Scotland opened the first significant retrospective survey of the artist’s work since the Tate Britain exhibition of 2003. The Edinburgh show then toured to London, opening at the Hayward Gallery on 23rd October 2019 to (justifiably) rave reviews. The beautifully curated exhibition was a huge popular success but appears to have had a significant impact on the market for the artist’s late work. The late works appear more frequently for sale now, and Christie’s sold a major late Riley in their Post War and Contemporary Evening sale on the 12th February.
Between 1989 and 1991 Riley painted a series of similar works measuring 65 x 90 inches – a number of these appeared in the recent Hayward Gallery exhibition. During the late 1990s such works would invariably sell on the secondary market for between £15-30,000. One such work, Close By, took £36,000 at the Eric Clapton sale in 1997 only to appear at auction again 6 months later and make just £18,400.
10 years later and comparable works were making more than 10 times that amount. The Tate retrospective certainly affected the market positively with a painting titled Galliard making over £400,000. The economic downturn hit the Modern British and Contemporary Art market hard, and there were a number of notable failures of similar Riley works between 2009-2012. One painting, Shadow Rhythm, was unsold at £400-600,000 in October 2010 before eventually selling in June 2011 for £340,000 (against estimates of £300-400,000).
By 2018 plans for the show in Scotland and London were well advanced and the market was once again on the move. Shadow Rhythm appeared again with estimates of £500-700,000 but despite its recent auction history, the painting made in excess of £1.6 million at a Christie’s Modern British Evening Sale. Close By appeared just 4 months later and took just under £1.75 million – quite an increase on its 1997 value (from either sale).
Christie’s offering on the 12th February was another familiar painting. Galliard was back on the market and commanding an estimate of £1.5 - 2 million. After the recent public exhibitions, and some very strong private sales of comparable works (one sold for a figure in excess of £2 million at Masterpiece London last summer), Galliard became the first large late Riley to make over £2 million at auction. Despite the record price, it may well prove to be a prudent buy.
2019 saw a major retrospective of the Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern. Tanning’s retrospective is part of an upswing of interest in female Surrealists in popular media, museum exhibitions and the art market. Now is a good time to buy the works of female Surrealists, whose work has still not found an upper limit.
Over the past 20 years art fairs have become an increasingly important part of the art market. Many sell a particular type of art that suits the local clientele, while some have expanded into ‘destination’ fairs which attract visitors from around the world. But with the best fairs, which are few in number, the locality of the fair helps to define its character.