Despite the recent triumph of The Gates, Central Park, New York, Christo and his collaborator Jeanne-Claude have never really been a vital part of the art market. Although Christo has a devoted following, he's not exactly someone that art aficionados talk about -- except when a project is about to come into reality.
As most people know, Christo long ago found a way to circumvent the gallery system as a financial support structure. He sells directly to his audience, avoiding the typical 50/50 split with an art dealer, while pocketing all of the profits. His modus operandi is to create collages and drawings of proposed projects that serve as both studies and "product." When his collages make it to the resale market, they find buyers, but not at large premiums.
The reason Christo has always had a steady but unimpressive market is because serious collectors are aware that the work exists primarily to finance his ambitious outdoor projects. It's an approach that has worked brilliantly. However, you can't fault collectors who shy away from works of art that are the equivalent of a municipality floating a bond to raise funds for improving its infrastructure.
In the world of stamp collecting, there's a category called "First Day Covers." A "First Day Cover" is an envelope, issued by the U.S. Postal Service, featuring a new postage stamp cancelled on the date of release. Not surprisingly, they've proven to be poor investments. The reason is because they're like Christo collages -- they are created mainly to generate capital.
It wasn't always like that for Christo. His earliest important outdoor work was Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado in 1972. Christo and his staff managed to string his trademark saffron-colored fabric across a large valley (anchored on each side by opposing hill peaks). The results were visually stunning, if temporary (within 28 hours the curtain was ripped to shreds by a fierce windstorm). Valley Curtain added a new twist to the emerging Earthworks movement and remains Christo's greatest piece. It was more about art for art's sake and less about social interaction -- which is what his work eventually became.
And maybe that's not bad. While walking through the Gates, it was the first time that I can recall seeing so many people smiling in Central Park. Art that brings joy to the public (and not just the art crowd) certainly has accomplished something rare and worthwhile. Even the number of official vendors, hawking Christo merchandise at the entrance to the park, couldn't put a damper on the event.
As far as the auction market is concerned, I don't recall ever seeing a Christo at an evening sale. For that matter, Christos make infrequent appearances during the day sales. When a work does come up, it usually sells and often exceeds its modest estimate -- most works can be bought for under $50,000 (large works can easily bring $150,000).
Scanning the auction catalogues presents a good overview of Christo's major past projects: Le Pont Neuf, Wrapped (Project for Paris), Packed Coast (Project for Australia), The Umbrellas (Joint Project for Japan and USA), Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay), Wrapped Reichstag (Berlin), and the Wrapped Walk Ways (Kansas City).
What's interesting to note is that the esthetic success of the realized projects seems to have little bearing on their corresponding auction prices. Instead, auction prices are dependent on the scale and quality of the collages. In other words, the actual Surrounded Islands might be visually superior to Le Pont Neuf, Wrapped, but its studies don't necessarily bring higher prices.
A survey of recent auction results include the sale of a handsome mixed media study for the Valley Curtain for $41,825, above its $25,000-$35,000 presale estimate (Christie's, November 2002). More recently, also at Christie's (November 2004), a medium-size double-panel study for Surrounded Islands brought $71,700 and a large double-panel collage for Le Pont Neuf, Wrapped sold for $147,500. During the May 2004 sales at Christie's, two studies for The Umbrellas, one depicting blue umbrellas, the other yellow ones, each brought the same price -- $28,680. There's also always a consistent market for the early work, especially wrapped objects. For example, Project for Packed Tree (1968), sold for $42,000 at Sotheby's in November 2003.
Overall, Christo has established a valid place for himself in art history. One might argue that his completed outdoor projects are the most democratic of all outdoor sculpture -- which is saying something. Yet, the market is concerned only with what can actually be hung and displayed. Since that's the case, the investment potential of Christo's studies appears steady, if a bit static. He's worth buying mainly if you select a collage where you've actually viewed the completed work. That way it means something to you and is less of an investment -- which is how Christo's market should be viewed.