Ever since Chuck Close, the top practitioner of Photo Realism, made the adjustment to being more of an independent painter than being part of a movement, Richard Estes has stood alone as the top Photo Realist. The question is, does anyone care?
Estes' work isn't for everyone. Many view it as dry, unadventurous and academic. His audience is primarily limited to realist collectors or those who admire his impressive technical skills. However, his work is so visually sophisticated that it should appeal to a wider audience.
Upon viewing an Estes, the work's hyper sense of reality quickly transforms itself into pure abstraction. The reflections that appear in the windows of his buildings become mini-compositions in their own right. The success of the work is a result of careful planning -- nothing appears left to chance or accident. Estes has a sense of control that forces you to view the picture in exactly the way he intends for you to.
Estes's market is far less ambiguous. In fact, it's coolly efficient. Due to the exacting style of his work, the supply is extremely limited -- he probably couldn't paint more than three or four major pictures a year, no matter how great the market pressure is to produce. As a result, when a work does appear at auction, it is usually hotly pursued.
At auction, full-scale mature works have recently been selling for $300,000-$500,000. Over the last few seasons, the most important painting to come up was Gourmet Treats, a medium-size canvas that measures three by four feet. Estimated at $180,000-$220,000, it sold for $468,000 (Christie's Post-War, November 2000). During the same sale, an earlier painting on masonite, Number Five, depicting a revolving door at a savings and loan, brought $314,000, against a $100,000-$150,000 estimate.
So far this year, there haven't been any Estes paintings to appear at auction. However, this is typical of the Estes market. Even the boom-market years were characterized by a scarcity of major paintings. Between November 1987 and May 1990, only three large important paintings appeared. That's only one picture per season, not per auction. The average selling price for these three works was an impressive $524,000.
Interestingly, Estes is not only in a league of his own esthetically, he also stands alone financially. His closest competitor, Charles Bell, is a terrific painter but hasn't brought a six-figure price in years. The other leading practitioners, Ralph Goings, Richard McLean and Robert Bechtle, have never broken $100,000 at auction.
If you're considering acquiring an Estes, whether at auction or through a dealer, keep in mind that there are no bargains for a mature painting. Expect to either develop a relationship with Marlborough or hope for the best at auction. While his prices may never climb to the million-dollar level, there will always be an audience for representational painting, and there will always be a lucrative market for the best of its genre.
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 at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.