The balance sheet: Why is the market of the American icon Robert Rauschenberg lagging so far behind his contemporaries?

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Last week, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation announced that it would be tackling a mammoth task over the next two decades: publishing a catalog raisonné of the American artist’s paintings and sculptures. The first of the planned 10 volumes will be available in 2025.

The foundation intends to make the catalog available online free of charge, removing the challenge of acquiring a bulky and expensive encyclopedia for those interested in the artist. Could the announcement, which follows a new auction record for 2019, signal new life for the long-dormant Rauschenberg market? We dug into Artnet’s price database to find out.

the context

Auction record: $88.8 million at Christie’s New York in May 2019

Rauschenberg’s appearance in 2021

Lots sold: 307
Bought: 73
sell-through rate: 80 percent
Average selling price: $72,443
Mean Estimate: $45,007
Total sales: $22.2 million
Top painting price: 11 million dollars
Lowest painting price: $2,300
Lowest total price: $223 for a signed photo etching from 1977

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

The review

  1. Rare windfall. After a long lull in the Rauschenberg market, the artist’s total sales soared to $97.3 million in 2019, his best year yet. The result was borne almost exclusively by $89 million sale of a lively screenprint from the best year at Christie’s New York. Offered from the estate of the late Chicago collectors Robert and Beatrice Mayer, who had owned it for 50 years, the work fetched nearly five times the artist’s previous auction record of $18.6 million.
  2. Limited offer. The Rauschenberg market has long been characterized by a lack of offers for large works, which partly explains the excellent result mentioned above. The most sought-after are silkscreens and “combines” – which fuse painting and sculpture – made around the time he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1964. Museums have since collected and produced large-scale much of the best early work, specimens in good condition difficult to find.
  3. unequal demand. If it seems odd to talk about a lack of offerings from one of America’s most prolific and diverse artists, that’s because it is. The offer is only limited for the popular early works. A tireless experimenter, Rauschenberg’s prints, ephemera, and outtakes far surpass his most prized combinations and screenprints. This could be the lackluster sell-through rate over the past decade (between 19.2 percent and 37.5 percent of lots on offer have found no buyers) and the lack of trophy-level prices (for the 54 Rauschenbergs, who have sold at auction for more than US$1 -dollars sold) declare millions, only seven exceeded $10 million).
  4. reliable interest. That doesn’t mean nobody is looking. About 5,171 users searched for Rauschenberg in Artnet’s Price Database in 2021, with interest being consistent throughout the year. (He received more searches than Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Rembrandt, to name a few.)
  5. Buzzy Private Sales. Public sales data can only tell us so much. insider throb that the real action for Rauschenberg is private, where the best examples can fetch between $30 million and $100 million. There have been some public references to such awards – MoMA allegedly purchase of a large combine harvester, rebus (1955), by collector François Pinault in 2005 for $30 million. But there are counterpoints too: Thaddaeus Ropac reported that he sold a 1963 prime-time screenprint for a relatively modest $2.8 million at FIAC in 2021.

bottom line

The 2019 auction was something of a turning point for Rauschenberg’s market, seeing him surpass the $36 million record for his contemporary Jasper Johns (another artist whose auction success has suffered from a lack of supply). Still, the late artist’s prices have yet to match the heights — or consistency — of peers like Roy Lichtenstein (whose record is $95.4 million) or Andy Warhol ($105.4 million). And how long it will be before another prime example hits the market is unclear.

One thing is clear: other areas of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre have plenty of room to grow. The powerful gallerists who work with the artist’s estate – Thaddaeus Ropac in Europe, Pace in the US and Luisa Strina in Latin America – could contribute in the years to come (Ropac recently inspected a group of greyscale metal paintings from 1991, while Pace is forcing the artist’s late-career return to painting). That could also be the forthcoming 10-volume catalog raisonné, although the fact that it won’t extend to drawings, prints, or other works on paper suggests the focus might be elsewhere at the moment.

Perhaps the later works simply need more time to appreciate them. Think of the market for Picasso, whose late work – executed quickly and on a large scale – was long less sought after. Changing that would require a few key exhibitions and a new audience of high-calibre contemporary art collectors who could more easily draw parallels between the late work and the de Kooning and Basquiat already in their collections. Perhaps Rauschenberg’s late-career obsession with media and technology could find new takers in new buyers entering the market today.

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