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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|Prior issues of the Art Market Guide have referred to Joseph Cornell as the most undervalued of all major American artists. Despite gradually increasing prices for his work, nothing has changed to alter that opinion. The question is, will Cornell prices ever catch up to those of his contemporaries? Since the majority of Cornell's boxes were made during the 1950s, his work should be aligned with Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning -- not stylistically, but in terms of quality.
As for prices, if the ultimate Cornell box came on the market -- the fabled Medici Slot Machine -- it would bring approximately $1 million. That wouldn't come close to buying even a mediocre Rothko, Kline or de Kooning. Most Cornell boxes fall into the $95,000 to $150,000 range. Better quality boxes, such as the aviaries (bird boxes) or Medicis, would bring $250,000-$500,000 or more. However, it's considered an event when one of these boxes comes on the market.
In terms of art history, Cornell is credited with inventing his own art form -- the box. These shoebox-sized works contain poetic environments, heavily tinged with nostalgia, that celebrate the found object. Aside from Alexander Calder and his mobiles, it's hard to think of another artist who created a new medium. It's also amazing how Cornell's work, which occasionally included repetitive imagery, anticipated Pop Art in general, and Andy Warhol in particular.
The art market ultimately rewards those artists who are true innovators. If that's the case, then Cornell is due for some serious financial appreciation.
Part of the reason why the Cornell market lags behind is due to a lack of exposure. There hasn't been a major Cornell show at a museum since his MoMA retrospective in 1980-81. Also, the work appears infrequently at auctions, art fairs and in galleries that specialize in the secondary market. Other factors that hold the boxes back are their small scale, sophistication and the fact that they're hard to display. This last factor cannot be easily discounted. Collectors are generally more comfortable with paintings. It's simply easier to hang works on the wall than find the space for three-dimensional objects.
It's for the above reason that Cornell's framed collages just might have strong investment potential. Back in the early 1930s, when Cornell began making his first collages, most of the works were assembled from cutouts of old book engravings. Cornell's compositions succeeded as Surrealist works, but with one small problem -- they were highly derivative of Max Ernst. Despite their lack of originality, the legendary dealer Julian Levy showed a few of them at his gallery.
Eventually, Cornell's confidence grew as he began creating his series of boxes. Toward the end of his career, roughly during 1960-1965, Cornell returned to making collages. However, much had changed. The works were no longer heavily influenced by Ernst -- they were now pure Cornell.
Basically, the collages are small, averaging 11 by 9 inches, plus the added dimension of the dime-store-style frames that Cornell favored. The collages are composed of pictures cut from magazines, often National Geographic, and are disarmingly simple. A typical example would be a reproduction of an old teapot surrounded by flying white doves.
Basic Cornell collages sell at auction from $18,000 to $25,000. Expect to pay a minimum $35,000 for anything of quality. Important collages rarely come up for sale. The last time one appeared, it set a record of $68,500 (Christie's, May 99). The record-setter was from the artist's "Penny Arcade" series. These works contain actual pennies and were named for Cornell's fond memories of the old penny arcades in Times Square.
Last season may have been a harbinger of things to come for the Cornell collage market. A mid-1960s collage, whose elements include images of a railroad train crossing a stone bridge, an angel and a cat's head, more than doubled its $15,000-$20,000 estimate to bring $49,350 (Christie's, May 2000). What was significant about the price was that the work would only rate a B+. Six months later, a stronger image, Circe and Her Lovers, sold for $43,875 (Sotheby's, Nov. 2000).
One of the most frequently asked Cornell questions is how many works he completed during his lifetime. Eventually we may have an answer. Lynda Hartigan, a curator at the National Gallery of Art, has been working since 1980 on a Cornell catalogue rasionné. From what I understand, there are a total of approximately 3,000 works. Of that group, roughly 2,000 are boxes and 1,000 are collages.
An educated guess is that 20 percent of the collages are already in museums -- and permanently off the market. That leaves around 800 works for collectors. Obviously, a good many of these are already tucked away in collections. Since Cornell is really more of an artist who is collected rather than "traded," a majority of these collages are unlikely to surface. If a collector can buy a unique work by one of the great American originals of the 20th century for under $25,000, that sounds like good value.
Another positive factor that eventually should help the Cornell market is the recent cascade of publications on his work. Over the last few years, three major monographs have appeared -- the best of which documents a show that illuminated the relationship of Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp (Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp... in Resonance by Susan Davidson, et al.).
Finally, it's important to take into account the fact that the Cornell estate is represented by C&M Arts. This high-profile New York gallery specializes in putting together museum-quality exhibitions, complete with scholarly catalogues. Its done a first-rate job of handling Cornell's work and have been a great improvement over PaceWildenstein -- who, despite its professionalism, never seemed to fully grasp the significance of Cornell.
Collectors interested in seeing a significant group of Cornells should visit the Art Institute of Chicago, where two entire rooms are devoted to his work, courtesy of the city's Bergman family. Each room recreates an installation from an important gallery exhibition during the artist's lifetime. One room, based on show at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in the 1960s, is painted midnight blue and lit with pinpoint spotlights that illuminate each box like a precious jewel. The neighboring room is designed to resemble a show from 1949 at the Charles Egan Gallery. In this installation, each box rests on a ledge that's part of a larger trellis of two by four boards. One look at these magical installations and it would be hard not to become a convert.
Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon
Dimestore Alchemy by Charles Simic
A Joseph Cornell Album by Dore Ashton.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com.