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Mapplethorpe Prices Rising

Above: Self-portrait in drag, approx $52,000. USD

Robert Mapplethorpe – Beauty and the devil are one and the same [Jun 07]

The work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) has something of a scandalous reputation, the photographer shocking puritanic Americans by putting sexuality at the heart of his artistic universe. He became a photographer in the 1970s, an era of sexual liberation soon to be brought to a halt by the rise of the AIDS epidemic. Mapplethorpe never ceased extolling the human body in meticulous compositions often evoking the cool and strict aesthetic of neoclassical painting.

Above: Another Self-portrait by Mapplethorpe

In addition to his photographs celebrating nudity, he took portraits of individuals in his circle, some of them anonymous and some celebrities (Andy Warhol, Richard Gere, Grace Jones, Patti Smith, etc), self portraits and photographs of flowers which assume an erotic dimension under his lens. The subject is often crude but the setting always ‘clean’, head-on, refined, even sterile. The artist favoured black and white and an aesthetic close to fashion photography, which is proving increasingly popular with collectors.

Above: Self-portrait with knife

Above: Mapplethorpe's portrait of Lisa Lyon with Snake

After a moribund period, Robert Mapplethorpe’s prices have risen by more than 102% since 2004, the year in which he achieved, for the first time, a price at auction in excess of $100,000. The work in question? A photograph of a Zantedeschia or arum lily measuring 61 x 50.8 cm, unique in this format, sold for $210,000 by Christie’s NY (title: Calla Lily, 15 Oct. 2004), making this flower portrait one of the most sought-after of the artist’s subjects. Sought after to the point that a Calla Lily print of a series of ten, made more attractive by the Margaret W. Weston provenance, exploded its estimated range of $40,000 - 60,000, selling for $140,000 on 25 April (1988, 48.7 x 49.1 cm, Sotheby’s NY)!

Above: One of Mapplethorpe's Most Famous Subjects; The Calla Lily

Above: Mapplethorpe's portrait of Warhol which sold at Christie's for $643,200.00 USD

This 2004 result was to be the first of a successful series: since then his photographs have seen 8 sales in excess of $100,000, including an outright record of more than $500,000 for a portrait of Andy Warhol! The auction of this monumental portrait of the King of Pop Art for $560,000 (106.7 x 106.7 cm, Christie’s NY) in October 2006 has contributed to firmer Mapplethorpe’s prices. Five months earlier in the same auction house, a large Warhol portrait in a 10-print series changed hands for only a tenth of this amount at $50,000 (103.5 x 103.5 cm).

Above chart from Art Price

The price of a work on the same subject varies according to the type of print (gelatin silver, dye-transfer, photo-engraving, etc), the date it was printed, its quality and size. Generally a work is printed in various numbered formats and the shorter the print series, the more auction prices are likely to rise given the rarity value. Certain formats are limited to one print and are thus all the more sought after. For example, the Leaf photograph, a very pure work, achieved its highest price at auction with a unique, large format print (94x78.5 cm) selling for $35,000 (€28,900) on 10 October 2005 at Christie's NY. During the same auction, the same subject in a smaller format, one of a 7-print series, sold for $5,000 less than its larger-scale version.

Above: One of Mapplethorpe's polaroids of Paul Mogensen

For a budget below $10,000, the market offers a wide range of works: nearly 70% of lots do not exceed this threshold. Numerous Polaroids and gelatin silver prints (more modestly priced than the Dye-transfers) are affordable at around $1,000 to $10,000. The Polaroids mark the origins of the Mapplethorpe photographic adventure before the acquisition of his first wide-angle camera during the 1970s. Despite the small dimensions (approximately 9.5 x 7 cm in most cases) the Polaroid has one quality which is sought after by collectors: it is a unique work. Mapplethorpe took numerous Polaroid self portraits during the 1970s for which you'll need between $2,000 and $4,000 on average such as the one sold on 8 September last at Christie’s NY for $2,800. As for larger-sized prints priced at less than $10,000, we could mention, for example, the Poppy photograph taken in 1982 (38.5 x 38.5 cm, Gelatin silver print) on which the hammer came down at £4,000 (under $8,000) on 31 May last at the Christie’s London auction. Another possible acquisition, the rare portfolios: on 26 April last, Season in Hell comprising 8 test-prints (each edited as a series of 40 prints) was sold for $6,500, an average acquisition cost of $812.5 per photograph (26 April 2007, Sotheby’s NY).

Can't afford a Mapplethorpe print? Perhaps some of the newer items on the market with his images will appeal to you.

Below: These limited edition plates & cups are available right now at Colette.

You can read more and see more Robert Mapplethorpe by clicking here.

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